Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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David Briggs

OSU the favorite, but 2018 Big Ten East will be all-time gantlet

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    Southern California coach Clay Helton, left, greets Ohio State coach Urban Meyer after the Cotton Bowl.

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I don’t mean to toot Michigan’s horn, but I think the Wolverines will be one of the best teams in the country next season.

If they really play their cards right, they could even be one of the best four teams in their own division again.

We’ll see. Rutgers is coming on.

In any case, the just-released 2018 college football odds confirmed the blue crew picked a bad year for a code-red season.

Peek ahead at your own discretion, because the dog-eat-wolf world of the Big Ten East has the chance of making Hannibal look like a herbivore.

In the playoff era, no conference has had more than three teams in the top 10 of the preseason AP poll.

The Big Ten could have four ... in the same division.

Las Vegas bookmakers list three of them — Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State — among the top half-dozen national title favorites. And the fourth? All Michigan State does is bring back 21 of 22 starters from another Spartans team that turned water into 10 wins.

Sure, these early odds often favor brand over substance. But the flow of cash is a good barometer of expectations nonetheless. My way-too-early 2018 rankings go like this: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Ohio State, 4. Georgia, 5. Wisconsin, 6. Auburn, 7. Penn State, 8. Oklahoma, 9. Michigan State, 10. Miami.

Michigan is right there too, a top-10-caliber team that returns nine starters from a top-five defense and adds quarterback Shea Patterson to defibrillate the offense. Let’s just first make sure it has a top-10-caliber coaching staff.

This is not to trumpet — or Trumpet — the Big Ten East as the BEST DIVISION EVER in the conference championship game era. The 2011 SEC West might beg to differ, with its top three teams — Louisiana State, Alabama, and Arkansas — ranked first through third the last week of the regular season. So would the 2008 Big 12 South. Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State all spent much of the year in the top 10.

But this concentration of power is near as good as it gets, and the careful-what-you-wish-for vision of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Remember the fuss when he called for the Big Ten to step up its recruiting game? Something about gentlemen’s agreements and not going into town to steal each other’s three-star plow horses?

Well, the Big Ten has gotten with the times. In 2012 — Meyer’s first season at Ohio State — the league was coming off its sixth losing bowl season in seven years and had two of the top 30 recruiting classes. This year, the deepest conference in the nation is coming off a 7-1 postseason and has five of the top 25 classes in 2018.

And all of those classes are from the East, which is fitting. No conference is more imbalanced, an anti-manifest destiny that is either wildly unfair — and self-destructive — or wildly entertaining.

We say entertaining. Ohio State remains the league’s Lamborghini, not the most economical — Alabama gets a little more mileage from the same five-star fuel — but teeming with unmatched horsepower. The Buckeyes are the favorites.

But any one of three division rivals should challenge them.

That starts with the old-hat Spartans and newly restored Penn State. It is tempting to dismiss James Franklin’s success as the product of a once-in-a-generation talent and the play-calling wizardry of deputy Joe Moorhead, both of whom are now gone. But here’s the rest of the story: Penn State is swapping out one Heisman contender (running back Saquon Barkley) for another (quarterback Trace McSorley), continues to recruit to reload, and gets its three toughest league opponents — Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State — in Happy Valley.

The wild card is Jim Harbaugh and Michigan.

A championship-level defense and an offense reimagined around an imaginative quarterback should return the Wolverines to the thick of national contention. As long as Patterson is eligible, he is the kind of playmaker who can mask deficiencies elsewhere. One NFL draft guru lists the Toledo native as the No. 1 overall pick in 2019.

But this now-or-never-type season for Michigan’s $7-million-per-year coach won’t come easy. The Wolverines’ schedule counts six teams likely to begin the season in the polls, a divisional crossover game against Wisconsin (Ohio State and Michigan State avoid the Badgers), and rivalry road trips to Michigan State and Ohio State.

For the would-be champions of the East, an all-time gantlet awaits.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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