Big Ten winners, losers: Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh good, MSU's Mel Tucker not

The debut of Big Ten football in 2020 had it all: Impressive victories, shocking defeats, outstanding performances and serious blunders.

We take a look at the conference’s winners and losers from the weekend:

Winners: Jim Harbaugh

Since Harbaugh had arrived at Michigan, the Wolverines have rarely risen to the occasion against quality opponents on the road. Entering the season opener Saturday against Minnesota, they were 1-7 against top-25 teams away from Ann Arbor under Harbaugh. But during one night of brilliant football, U-M doubled that victory total. The Wolverines resembled a well-oiled machine, a testament to a coaching staff that had to integrate a new starting quarterback, overhaul the offensive line and reconfigure the secondary.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Minnesota coach P. J. Fleck shake hands after the 49-24 win by the Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Minnesota coach P. J. Fleck shake hands after the 49-24 win by the Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020.

The most telling stat was that Michigan nearly doubled Minnesota in average yards per play, which offered a glimpse at the efficiency the Wolverines displayed on offense as well as the resistance they showed on defense. The Gophers only mustered six gains of 15 yards or more and didn’t score in the final 24 minutes of the game. It was about as sound of a performance as Harbaugh could have hoped for in the team’s 2020 debut. Credit goes to him for delivering such a positive result.

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Tom Allen continues to defy expectations. After leading the Hoosiers to their highest win total in 26 years last season, he scored a major victory in the program’s first game of 2020. The 36-35 upset of Penn State changed the complexion of the Big Ten at the outset of the conference’s truncated schedule. It also gave Indiana its first win over a top-10 team since 1987.

How the Hoosiers pulled off this shocker is hard to explain, considering the Nittany Lions outgained Indiana by 277 yards. James Franklin’s coaching gaffe near the end of regulation helped sow the seeds as his team surrendered the ball by producing a late touchdown that expanded Penn State advantage to eight points. But the Hoosiers still had to drive 75 yards in the last 90 seconds to send the game into overtime. Indiana found a way and is back in the polls for the second consecutive year, a feat itself.

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass during the third quarter.
Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass during the third quarter.

Graham Mertz

The foot injury to starter Jack Coan paved the way for the ballyhooed Mertz to take the reins of Wisconsin’s offense. And Mertz dissected Illinois during a boffo performance in a 38-point victory Friday. Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. He opened a new dimension in Wisconsin’s offense, which is used to grinding out wins with its vaunted running game.

With Mertz behind center, the Badgers may soon crack into the sport’s upper tier after spending years a cut below it. But he must stay healthy if Wisconsin is to reach those heights. And now that is uncertain after he reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus.


The Scarlet Knights have been the Big Ten’s doormat since their second season in the league. Before Saturday, they had lost 21 consecutive conference games and appeared out of their depth in a division that included Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. But Greg Schiano is back for his second run as Rutgers’ coach and against Michigan State it was clear he has already made a difference. In their 38-27 victory, the Scarlet Knights seized the lead less than four minutes into the game and never relinquished it, building an advantage that climbed to 18 points at two different junctures.

How did this happen? Well, the Scarlet Knights revamped their roster with 10 transfers and have a new offensive coordinator willing to press the pedal. Then there is defensive-minded Schiano, who sent a clear signal to the Big Ten that his team is no longer a pushover.

Losers: Michigan State

It’s not been a great year for anybody, but MSU has had it rougher than most. The sudden retirement of Mark Dantonio in February followed by a frenetic coaching search and the onset of a global pandemic left the program in a compromised position as it transitioned into the Mel Tucker era. On Saturday, the Spartans looked like a team beset by the events of the last eight months.

They turned the ball over seven — seven! — times and never led against Rutgers. Tucker promised he’d run a disciplined, efficient organization, but the Spartans have along way to go to achieve that end. Tucker just has to hope a win can be found somewhere on the schedule after it fell to a team it was favored to beat by more than two touchdowns.

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James Franklin

Franklin has distinguished himself as one of the best coaches in college football. He made Vanderbilt competitive and has revitalized Penn State as it rebounded from scandal. But the Nittany Lions can’t seem to break into the sport’s upper tier. Flirtations with the College Football Playoff have been just that. But some wondered if Franklin would finally have his breakthrough this season. Guess not.

A stunning loss to Indiana that had Franklin’s fingerprints all over it is a major setback for a program that is already underperforming on the recruiting trail in this cycle. A late touchdown by Penn State allowed Indiana to stage a comeback when Franklin instead could have instructed his team to melt the clock with a one-point lead. The Monday morning quarterbacks came out in full force on Saturday night, questioning how Franklin had set his team up to lose and effectively eliminate any chance at the CFP in the first game of the season.

FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2019, file photo, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost looks on during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Maryland in College Park, Md.  The Big Ten will start playing football at what normally would be midseason. The coronavirus pandemic limited or eliminated most spring practices. Positive COVID-19 tests and precautions, along with uncertainty about whether there would even be a season, caused disruptions in summer workouts and preseason practices. (AP Photo/Will Newton, File)


Is there a team that evokes more schadenfreude? Not this year. Nebraska whined and moaned when the Big Ten canceled its season, threatening to go rogue. Then it complained some more after it was hit with a tough schedule, drawing Penn State and Ohio State as its two crossover opponents.

Then, the Cornhuskers finally played and were whipped by the Buckeyes on Saturday. After the game was tied at 14 with 8:24 left in the second quarter, Ohio State outscored Nebraska, 38-3, the rest of the game before claiming a 52-17 victory. Following the loss, Huskers coach Scott Frost’s record fell to 9-16 at his alma mater. So it goes.


Jeff Brohm wasn’t available to coach Purdue after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

Boilermakers star receiver Rondale Moore didn’t play for reasons unknown.

Yet undermanned Purdue still beat Iowa, 24-20, on Saturday.

It was the continuation of a tough year for the Hawkeyes, who have had to deal with allegations of racial discrimination during head coach Kirk Ferentz’s tenure.

The bad mojo of the offseason carried into the first game. The Hawkeyes fumbled the ball away twice, including during one fluky instance when their own lineman inadvertently jarred the ball loose from Tyler Goodson’s hands. They were also torched by Purdue’s other outstanding wideout, David Bell.

Now, they face a resurgent Northwestern team that pummeled Maryland by 40 points on Saturday.

Contact Rainer Sabin at Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten winners, losers: Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh shines