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Forde-Yard Dash: Big Ten, Michigan Preparing for High-Stakes Showdown


Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (river party accessories sold separately in San Marcos, Texas):

First Quarter: Culture of Excess | Second Quarter: Heisman Watch | Third Quarter: Hot Seats Everywhere

Fourth Quarter: Release the Hornets

The Big Ten (31) and Michigan are heading toward a High Noon showdown this week in a power struggle that could shape the direction of this season’s critical final month. The stakes are enormous. The blowback will be nuclear, regardless of outcome. The slope toward dangerous precedent is slippery.

Commissioner Tony Petitti (32) is entering a hornet’s nest. And Michigan is releasing the hornets.

A suspension of coach Jim Harbaugh is a likely element of Big Ten sanctions against the undefeated, No. 2-ranked Wolverines football program. Desperate to keep a potential national championship season on track, the school is poised to fight it in court, and in the court of public opinion. Lawyers, grandstanding, acrimony—this will end up being one of the great, full-tilt melodramas in the sport’s history. Which is saying something.

A suspension for Harbaugh is on the table when it comes to Big Ten sanctions against the No. 2 Wolverines.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Michigan is on the hook for the over-the-top antics of analyst/espionage expert Connor Stalions, who is alleged to have made a mockery out of the rules prohibiting in-person scouting and recording of play signals. There has been no known refutation of allegations that Stalions had a widespread network of associates recording the signals of future opponents in stadiums across the Big Ten—and, indeed, in other conferences as well.

The scheme was audacious, brazen, spectacularly stupid and a clear flouting of NCAA rules. The capper was the alleged presence of Stalions as an undercover spy on the Central Michigan (33) sideline when the Chippewas played Michigan State in the season opener. (That’s been folded into the NCAA inquiry, and it says here that CMU’s cameo in this drama will have bad repercussions for the Chips.)

So that’s the baseline here. Michigan’s winged victory helmets are on the chopping block, and the NCAA’s oft-errant hammer could come down hard … in 2024. Which would satisfy none of the Big Ten members who are outraged at being spied upon for the last couple of years by a program that has gone 33–3 since ‘21. Thus the Big Ten is moving in, and thus Michigan is pushing back in a way that could throw mud on much of the rest of the league.

The Michigan pushback also could create an element of doubt about whether the Big Ten has the authority—legally or morally—to apply rapid, borderline frontier justice. While Stalions’ violations appear to be clear-cut, Michigan is kicking up a dust cloud that obscures one set of facts while diverting attention to another set.

Namely, whether other members of the conference were colluding against the Wolverines during their undefeated run to the 2022 Big Ten title. Sports Illustrated reported early Tuesday that two other Big Ten schools sent information on Michigan’s play calls to a third Big Ten school before it played the Wolverines.

SI has subsequently confirmed that the receiving school was Purdue (34) and the information arrived the week the Boilermakers played (and lost to) the Wolverines in the conference championship game. The schools that sent the information have not been confirmed by SI, but other media reports have identified them as Ohio State and Rutgers. And yes, the injection of the vicious rival Buckeyes raises the temperature a few hundred degrees.

Purdue declined comment Tuesday through a spokesman. The sharing of information with future opponents is not against the rules, and is considered commonplace in the sport. Which has ginned up even more anger at Michigan for what some see as a false equivalence.

“It’s pathetic,” one Big Ten administrator said.

“Yeah, everyone was trying to beat them,” said a second administrator. “Because everyone knew they were cheating.”

However, playing Hail To The Victims (35) has at least led to discussions about where the line is between what Stalions did and what coaching staffs routinely do, and whether there really is a significant difference. Was the Big Ten’s vague sportsmanship policy violated by two or more teams working behind the scenes to assist in Michigan’s demise? If everyone is sharing signals, maybe no one should be penalized? Especially not in a hasty fashion? The hornets are circling, waiting to sting.

Where you stand largely depends on your rooting interest at this point. If you cheer for Michigan, the Big Ten is verging on an egregious overreach at the behest of a jealous group of competitors who can no longer beat the Wolverines. If you cheer for a different Big Ten school, Michigan is engaged in a vigorous deflection of responsibility in order to delay sanctions and let this championship quest play out without sanctions. If you have no dog in the fight, you’re probably thinking this is better than the weirdest TV drama ever written.

And now we’re likely in the home stretch toward High Noon. Will Harbaugh be able to coach in a very big game at Penn State (36) Saturday? Will Michigan use legal remedies to roadblock a suspension? The next 72 hours promise to contain unprecedented drama. If you thought the Cam Newton (37) controversy of 2010 at Auburn was wild, this has sailed well past that and could get wilder still.

There is a nuclear option here of mutually assured destruction for many Big Ten programs. And it doesn’t feel too far-fetched at this point.

Doeren delivered a second-straight win for the Wolfpack, making his program bowl-eligible for the fourth season in a row.

AP Photo/Ben McKeown

Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week

Dave Doeren (38), North Carolina State. At 4–3, the Wolfpack’s season was wobbling and some fans were out of love with their 11th-year coach. Now N.C. State is 6–3, with victories over Clemson and Miami. Say this much for Doeren: he’s won more than he’s lost for a long time without any of the foolishness that has enveloped the Big Ten this season.

Coach Who Should Take the Bus to Work

Matt Rhule (39), Nebraska. He dragged the Cornhuskers to the brink of bowl eligibility, something they have not attained since 2016, and then laid a Brontosaurus egg at Michigan State Saturday. The Spartans, who had not won a game since Sept. 9, took advantage of Nebraska’s regression to turnover-prone status in a 20–17 victory. The Huskers were minus-3 in the turnover game for the third time this season and have lost all three. Nebraska now must win one of its final three games—Maryland, at Wisconsin and Iowa—to guarantee a bowl slot.

Point After

The Dash hasn’t gone anywhere in the past wild week, but sure could use a drink at this stage. So let’s throw it back to the Cascade Fog IPA that was on tap at the No-Li Brewhouse (40) in Seattle. Find yourself one and thank The Dash later.

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