LINCOLN — In a sense it’s not fair, what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh experiences every year.
He righted the ship on a program Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke — for different reasons, and not maliciously — piloted toward disaster. He’s won 74 percent of his games at Michigan, finished three of four seasons ranked in the top 15 and kept his program free of off-the-field scandal. Rivals Ohio State and Michigan State can’t say that in the past five years, can they?
Yet the Wolverines go into every season tied to an expectation of winning the Big Ten title. When you’ve won or shared 42 of those — tops in the league — it’s just sort of the bar. It’s been 15 years, too, since Michigan claimed one. So Harbaugh is asked constantly about it.
That didn’t change Wednesday, three days before the league opener against Wisconsin (11 a.m., Fox).
“Talk about how much chasing a Big Ten title means to this program at this point,” a reporter requested.
Harbaugh responded: “Yeah, well, uh, the challenge of this game is big. Always played Wisconsin now three times now. Going for the fourth. They’re just good every year. Seems to be every time you face them.”
Setting aside Harbaugh’s inartful dodge of a poorly worded question, Wisconsin is, indeed, one of those crossover swing games that could decide the Big Ten East Division. Ohio State visits Nebraska next week. Do you think the Buckeyes will be an underdog? I don’t.
But Michigan is a 3½-point underdog heading to Camp Randall Stadium, where the Wolverines haven’t won since 2001.
Harbaugh said of the point spread is “irrelevant.” He’s right. It’s basically a pick ’em without Wisconsin’s home-field advantage.
Still — before the year, I wouldn’t have put Michigan and Wisconsin on the same level. I had Michigan winning in Madison by 10 before the season. But the Wolverines’ shift to a spread offense has been riddled with turnovers while Wisconsin’s defense has to yet to give up a point this season.
Bad opponents? Sure. South Florida and Central Michigan don’t jump off the page. But shutouts are shutouts.
The last time the Badgers had two in a season was 2015, when the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense carried an awful, Joel Stave-led offense to 10 wins.
Just when you think the Badgers are about to take a step back, they’re right back in the center of the ring, fighting off all comers.
And just when you think Michigan has a clear runway to a league title — plus the right quarterback in Shea Patterson — the offense and the signal-caller take a step back in terms of turnovers and completion rate. Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan suddenly looks like the second coming of Scott Tolzien instead of Stave in disguise.
Given that, you look at the ground games of the two teams. You look at the backs. How long has it been since Michigan had a back the caliber of Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor? Mike Hart in the mid-2000s? Chris Perry before that?
Wisconsin has become the new Michigan. Harbaugh, charged with bringing back old Michigan, is an underdog to a team bigger and stronger than his.
The Wolverines are faster at the skill spots. And I’ll take defensive coordinator Don Brown against a stationary quarterback. Coan is that.
Yet Wisconsin is favored for a reason. Michigan has been mistake-prone early in the season.
I’m going with the upset here. Sort of.
Wisconsin 28, Michigan 24
Other Big Ten predictions:
Nebraska (2-1) at Illinois (2-1)
The Huskers’ offense is back enough on track to expect more points in Champaign, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the defense gets in on the fun with another score of its own.
My pick: Nebraska 38, Illinois 20
Michigan State (2-1) at Northwestern (1-1)
The Wildcats have swiped three straight from the Spartans and all three have included at least 48 points. The over/under here is 38. Pick the over.
My pick: Michigan State 28, Northwestern 19
Boston College (2-1) at Rutgers (1-1)
BC rolls into Piscataway having suffered a stunning upset home loss to Kansas. I don’t expect two laid eggs in a row.
Line: Boston College by 8½
My pick: Boston College 28, Rutgers 14
Miami (Ohio) (1-2) at No. 6 Ohio State (3-0)
Will the Buckeyes take their foot off the gas one week before the big trip to Lincoln? No. No, I don’t think so.
My pick: Ohio State 42, Miami (Ohio) 10
Connecticut (1-1) at Indiana (2-1)
My pick: Indiana 23, Connecticut 13
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The Nebraska cheerleaders, band, and mascot welcome the team back to Memorial Stadium.
A visual overview of the University of Nebraska’s mascots over the years, originally published in 2003 by the Omaha World-Herald to celebrate a new and improved version of Herbie Husker.
Photos and information provided by World-Herald photographers and staff writers, NU Sports Information, and the Robert Ihrig Cornhusker Collection.
From 1900 to the 1940s, various corn images appeared on athletic publications, cheerleader outfits and fan material. By the late '30s and early '40s, the corn images started to take on a human appearance. A character with a head of corn dates back to the Corn Cobs men's spirit group mascot around 1942. This figure appeared throughout the next couple of decades, but apparently had no official name. Unofficial names for the cornhead figure included Corn Cob Man, Johnnie Husker and Old Man Cornhusker.
"Johnnie Husker" mascot on display at Bob's Gridiron Grille in Lincoln, Neb.
This character resembled the first cornhead guy, but this time looked more like a full ear of corn. Mr. Cornhead also sometimes sported a Bob Devaney-influenced cowboy hat. It was not uncommon to see multiple Mr. Cornheads roaming the sidelines during the games.
2011: Cornhead-wearing fans from Canadian, Texas continue tradition as they take in the scene at Memorial Stadium, before a football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes.
In 1962, the Corn Cobs introduced a new figure to replace the cornhead guy. The nine-foot straw-hatted giant was called Husky the Husker. The mascot's tenure, however, was short-lived, due in large part to the arrival of new coach Bob Devaney in 1962.
Coach Devaney is said to have been unimpressed with the Husky Husker character. A new image was needed. By 1963, as a nod to Devaney's previous job with the Wyoming Cowboys, red cowboy hats with the letter 'N' were made available for fans through free hat promotions. Likewise, a new generation of mascots would emerge also wearing cowboy hats.
Created by Bill Goggins, this character first appeared in the November 7, 1964 issue of Nebraska Farmer magazine. Initially called Mr. Big Red, the character later became known as Harry Husker. The character eventually became a sideline mascot in the early '70s, but after 1973, Harry vanished and Herbie Husker appeared.
"Harry Husker" mascot on display at Bob's Gridiron Grille in Lincoln, Neb.
1971: The Kansas Jayhawk and Baby Jay meet Mr. Cornhusker. Though Cornhusker was outnumbered two to one in mascots, Nebraska ran away with the game, 55-0.
2010: A Harry Husker mascot head from the 1950s and '60s continues to watch over fans at Barry's Bar & Grill in Lincoln.
A lady counterpart to Harry Husker appeared on a mug in 1965 that was given to parents by the Athletic Department. A Harry Husker mug was given to the fathers, and a Harriet Husker was given to the mothers.
"Harriet Husker" mascot on display at Bob's Gridiron Grille in Lincoln, Neb.
The most enduring of all Husker mascots first appeared in 1974. New coach Tom Osborne had taken over the year before, and it seemed time for another image change. Sports Information Director Don Bryant commissioned for the creation of a new mascot after seeing a cartoon by artist Dirk West of Lubbock, Texas, depicting a Nebraska farmer in overalls. Shortly thereafter, Herbie Husker was adopted as the official team symbol.
"Herbie Husker" mascot on display at Bob's Gridiron Grille in Lincoln, Neb.
1989: Herbie Husker underwent numerous manifestations over thirty years as mascot.
1996: Herbie Husker Keith Cunnings, a sophomore from Grand Island, gets suited up as Missouri's mascot zips up his tiger suit in the background.
2011: A Herbie Husker yard sign is garnished with a flotation device near the toll bridge connecting Decatur, Nebraska to Iowa - an area that had been heavily flooded earlier that year.
This character first appeared in the fall of 1993. Born of the vision of Associate Athletic Director Barbara Hibner, Lil' Red is known for his many antics. He dances, he stands on his head, and he can even make his head disappear. The mascot is an eight-foot tall figure inflated by a small battery-powered fan, worn by the human operator inside. Originally intended to appeal to children, Lil' Red has won national awards and rave reviews from across the country.
In early 2003, Athletic Director Steve Pederson announced that a new and improved Herbie Husker would be unveiled for the upcoming season. The new look trades in the overalls for jeans as well as leaner and more athletic body.
2009: A sharply-dressed Herbie Husker high-fives a fan as Nebraska took on Louisiana-Lafayette at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.
2016: Herbie Husker takes off his hat during the Big Red Bash at the Devaney Center in Lincoln.
2019: Herbie Husker also makes appearances at Nebraska basketball games. Here, he celebrates during halftime as Nebraska broke its seven-game losing streak with a 62-61 win over Minnesota.