Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan big winners as Big Ten kicks off season

Check out the top 10 things we learned during the college football weekend:

1. Welcome to 2020, Penn State

Penn State found out what everybody else in college football already knew — during a COVID-19 season, anything can happen. The Nittany Lions outgained Indiana in every category except the scoreboard as the Hoosiers pulled off a furious comeback. Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. leaped toward the end zone pylon and the game-winning two-point conversion in overtime was ruled successful by officials on the field. A replay appeared to show the ball hit out of bounds before it touched the pylon, but replays were deemed inconclusive and Indiana escaped with its first win over a top-10 opponent in 33 years.

2. Ohio State, Justin Fields make early statement

After spending the past eight weeks watching Clemson and Alabama get touted as the best teams in the country, Ohio State finally got the chance to show it deserves to be in the conversation. Quarterback Justin Fields scored three touchdowns as the Buckeyes scored on six of their first seven possession during a season-opening win over Nebraska.

3. Michigan passes early test thanks to a new QB

Joe Milton threw for a touchdown and ran for another as the junior quarterback guided Michigan to an impressive season-opening win over No. 21 Minnesota. The Wolverines rushed for five touchdowns and the defense was physical up front, sacking Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan five times as No. 18 UM snapped a two-game losing streak against ranked teams.

4. Cincinnati makes the case its the best Group of 5 team

No. 9 Cincinnati shook off some early rust after being sidelined for 21 days due to COVID-19 issues and relied on its defense during dominant 42-13 win over No. 16 SMU Saturday. The Bearcats, who have allowed five touchdowns this season, represent the best chance for a Group of 5 teams to finally make the College Football Playoff.

5. Defense could catapult Oklahoma State to a Big 12 title

The Big 12 and defense have never been synonymous, but that could change thanks to Oklahoma State, which ranks in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total defense. The No. 6 Cowboys, who earned a 24-21 win over No. 17 Iowa State Saturday, are allowing 12 points per game through their first four games and have yet to allow a 300-yard passer this season.

6. Clemson’s biggest challenge could be itself

Clemson has been on cruise control so far this season, winning by an average of 36 points per game, but Syracuse reminded the Tigers they can still lose. A pick-six by Trevor Lawrence and some defensive lapses saw the Orange get as close as any team has come to upsetting No. 1 Clemson so far this season before Dabo Swinney’s team pulled away late for a 47-21 win.

7. Alabama losing its top player could hamper its title hopes

For the second consecutive year, No. 2 Alabama must overcome the loss of arguably its

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College football games, Week 8: As Big Ten kicks off 2020 season, rest of league looks up to Ohio State

If Michigan-Minnesota is the game of the week, geez, things really have changed. Suddenly, Minnesota is the hot, young program with a hot, young coach (P.J. Fleck). Michigan is … actually, what is Michigan right now?

It’s certainly not Ohio State’s equal. That’s really the only standard the program is judged by as we head into Year 6 of Jim Harbaugh. The ultimate Michigan Man is coming off a fifth straight loss to the Buckeyes with somewhat of a rebuilding project on his hands.

If you had to choose a trajectory between the two programs, which would you pick? Fleck is coming off an 11-win season during which he had the Golden Gophers in College Football Playoff contention well into November.

“We want to get back to those days of a being a blueblood,” Fleck said of Saturday’s game for the Little Brown Jug. “We’re not ever going to  just arrive on that day, but events like this back up what you’re saying, back up what’s going on.”

“Blueblood” and “Minnesota” in the same sentence. Drink that in with your virtual tailgate.

Fleck returns the Big Ten’s leading passer (Tanner Morgan) and his favorite target (Rashod Bateman). Michigan’s projected starter (Dylan McCaffrey) has opted out. Like Harbaugh, Fleck has won everywhere he’s coached. Like Harbaugh, he recruits well and is a perfect face of the program.

Sure, this is a one-game, opening-week assessment. But with Ohio State being head and shoulder pads ahead of the pack, it’s worth measuring which Big Ten team is second-best. It’s also worth asking when was the last time anyone said Minnesota had more upside than Michigan?

And could it be we’ve already witnessed Harbaugh’s ceiling in Ann Arbor, Michigan? If so, it’s one hell of a ceiling (.723 winning percentage), one that is still lacking that the proper headroom — a win over the Buckeyes.

Much was made this week of Harbaugh’s contract. An expected extension hasn’t yet arrived. Harbaugh’s deal is one of only six among FBS public schools that expire in the next 14 months (January 2022), according to USA Today’s coaching salaries database. Harbaugh is the only such Power Five coach at a public school in that space.

That’s where the Harbaugh dichotomy enters the discussion. Only 10 other FBS coaches have won at a higher rate at their current school. The nation’s fourth-highest paid coach ($7.8 million) says more with less than most coaches. When asked this week how recruits might view what appears to be a lack of job security, Harbaugh replied, “Go Blue.”

“Lack of a contract, I wouldn’t say it’s never important to recruiting,” said 247Sports recruiting analyst Bud Elliott, “but I think it’s only really relevant if a coach is really legitimately on the hot seat. Otherwise, this is the tool agents use to get athletic directors to cave to their demands for extensions.”

To say Harbaugh is in trouble would be overstating things. A Michigan legacy, a Wolverines legend and a direct connection to Bo

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Big Ten mayors ‘humbly’ voice Covid concerns as conference college football kicks off this weekend

The Big Ten says it’s ready to play some football this weekend, but the mayors of the college towns where these teams are based have “humbly” asked the conference to address their Covid-19 concerns before kickoff.

“We know the history of football games within our cities,” the mayors wrote in an open letter this week to the Big Ten Conference, which actually has 14 universities and includes storied college football programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. “They generate a lot of activity, social gatherings and consumption of alcohol. These activities within our communities have also been associated with an increased spread of Covid-19.”

So even though all Big Ten games will be played this season without fans in the stands, the mayors wrote, “we humbly request a few practical measures that the Big Ten Conference can take to ensure we have the tools we need to combat the spread of Covid-19.”

“While we all appreciate our college and university sports programs and the economic and community benefits that they provide, the COVID-19 crisis is far from over and we are expecting some potential new obstacles as a result of the upcoming football season,” Mayor Aaron Stephens of East Lansing, Michigan, the home of Michigan State University, added in a separate statement.

NBC News has reached out to the Big Ten for a response to the mayors. Their letter was delivered more than a month after the league, which had shelved the season because of concerns about the pandemic, suddenly reversed course and announced it would play after all.

President Donald Trump, who had been pressuring the Big Ten to get back out on the gridiron, claimed victory. But the league leadership said the development of rapid Covid-19 testing technology — not the president’s pressure tactics — was behind their decision.

“President Trump had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact the deliberations,” the president of a Big Ten university who asked not to be identified said. “In fact, when his name came up, it was a negative, because no one wanted this to be political.”

In other coronavirus news:

  • Less that two weeks before a presidential election that is shaping up as a referendum on Trump’s much-criticized handling of the pandemic, the U.S. was leading the world with 8.4 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 223,544 deaths, according to the latest tally compiled by NBC News.
  • Ahead of Trump facing off against Democratic challenger Joe Biden in their final debate Thursday, Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said they took a number of measures to keep the candidates safe, including installing Plexiglass between the podiums. “I’m not sure that the Trump campaign wanted it,” he told MSNBC. It was removed after Trump and Biden tested negative.
  • Some 787,000 people filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week, the lowest weekly count since March. But weekly claims have remained stubbornly high since the start of the pandemic and have far surpassed the previous record
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