Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten for so long and with such brute force that it’s hard to picture another team stepping into the Buckeyes’ place as the league’s leading candidate for the College Football Playoff.
Three weeks of the 2021 season has made it easier to imagine. The door has opened for another team to win the conference: OSU scuffled again on Saturday, following up last weekend’s disappointing loss against Oregon by struggling to put away Tulsa, while two East division rivals — Penn State and Michigan — look ready to supplant the Buckeyes as the team to beat.
Just as Clemson’s early loss and questionable offense has brought randomness to the ACC, the Buckeyes’ inability to rediscover last year’s form could bring chaos to what has been a boringly predictable playoff chase.
In a young season when even Alabama has looked vulnerable — though the Crimson Tide are still the team to beat — this year’s national semifinals could be filled out by a power program such as Penn State and Michigan.
Even before getting into the postseason, the idea that a team other than OSU could win the Big Ten goes against almost every preseason prediction and the past decade of results. Since hiring Urban Meyer in 2012 and promoting Ryan Day in 2019, the Buckeyes have lost just four regular-season conference games and claimed the past four conference championships.
Over in the East, the Wolverines and Nittany Lions have earned the benefit of the doubt.
Michigan moved to 3-0 with a 63-10 win against Northern Illinois and begins league play at home next Saturday against Rutgers. Penn State is also unbeaten after topping Auburn 28-20 in prime time, the Nittany Lions’ second win in three weeks against an opponent ranked in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll.
Michigan has run for 1,056 yards and 15 scores in beating Western Michigan, Washington and NIU by a combined 107 points. With a new starter in Cade McNamara at quarterback, coach Jim Harbaugh has leaned on the ground game to produce the program’s most productive three-game stretch in a decade. In the Tigers and Wisconsin, PSU now holds what may be the most impressive two wins of any team in the country.
Now the Nittany Lions and Wolverines are poised to take advantage of an OSU team that has failed to look the part of a playoff contender in games against the Ducks, Golden Hurricane and Minnesota.
That both teams are playing at a high level after struggling through the 2020 season speaks to the unpredictability of 2021 and the difficulties of relying on any takeaways from the pandemic year to predict how this regular season will unfold.
In 2020, Penn State opened 0-5 for the first time in modern history before winning four straight. Michigan went 2-4 and looked directionless enough in the process to place Harbaugh firmly on the hot seat heading into September.
One year later, it’s evident that 2020 was the aberration for two programs that represent the biggest threats to the Buckeyes’ dominance of the Big Ten. For the first time in years, the conference looks open for the taking.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg