College football bathes in speculation, spawning exhaustive lists of the best long-snappers, best right-handed left guards and best coaches who might or might not be on the hottest seats. It’s silly and scintillating, and it’s never been as speculative around here as it is this season.
As Big Ten programs gather in Chicago for the annual media days, I tried to clear things up, and instead muddied them up. See, Michigan might be really, really good, or actually might be — bad word coming — rebuilding. For different reasons, Michigan State is equally confusing — either really, really bad, or just regrouping.
Why all the uncertainty? Because each program returns precisely five total starters, tied for fewest in the nation, putting all sorts of young guys in key positions.
Jim Harbaugh’s group isn’t as hyped as last season after losing 17 starters. The defense won’t be as consistently smothering and all the top pass-catchers are gone. It’s goofy to expect they’ll be better than a 10-3 team that lost three of its last four by five total points, but it’s not goofy to say they could be more talented, which means they could end up better. Heck, if they stop losing one-point games, they could contend for anything.
Scaling the charts
This is the unique curiosity of the season, which is why publications have the Wolverines ranked as low as 16th in the country and as high as fourth. A general survey of national title odds places Michigan sixth at 14-1, behind usual suspects Alabama, Ohio State, Southern Cal, Florida State and Oklahoma.
That’s a profound endorsement of Harbaugh and his staff, who technically are rebuilding, by the numbers, but still bear weighty expectations. It’s the opposite for Mark Dantonio, whose Spartans were devastated by attrition and scandal, and 6-6 is about the fairest expectation.
In the annual preseason media poll conducted by Cleveland.com, the Big Ten East lines up orderly — Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State. But it’s confounding here, as you can see by these extreme, yet plausible, viewpoints:
■ Viewpoint One of the Wolverines: They’re replacing their entire secondary and must plug young guys into holes once occupied by high draft picks Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Jourdan Lewis and Delano Hill. They open with Florida in Dallas, and play Penn State and Wisconsin on the road. Wilton Speight is still developing at quarterback, and with the schedule and youthfulness, any notion of matching or topping 10-3 is ridiculous, right?
■ Viewpoint Two of the Wolverines: Five returning starters is an artificially low number because premier defensive linemen Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary weren’t starters. Harbaugh is a terrific coach with excellent assistants and has recruited back-to-back top-five classes. Yes, Speight is developing but has valuable experience, and could have a showcase running back in Chris Evans. Defensive coordinator Don Brown will throw all those speedy athletes onto the field, point them toward the opposing quarterback and Michigan will sack its way to 11 wins.
Favored odds: Viewpoint Two, 62-38 percent.
■ Viewpoint One of the Spartans: They followed up a 3-9 season with an offseason that felt like 0-12, a disaster that shook the core of Dantonio’s program. Through graduation, attrition and legal issues, the Spartans are so depleted in every area, they’ll be grateful to top 4-8.
■ Viewpoint Two of the Spartans: Dantonio is a great coach at his best when downgraded and disrespected. He has a bruising back in LJ Scott, the possibility of a decent running game behind center Brian Allen and a promising quarterback in Brian Lewerke. A glance at the schedule spots six winnable games, and 7-5 would constitute a solid rebound.
Favored odds: Viewpoint One, 55-45 percent.
Time to shape up
There’s more pressure on the Spartans right now to stay clean off the field than get mean again on the field. Dantonio has earned enormous equity with five 11-win seasons, and as long as the nonsense ends, he has a decent chance to rebuild.
Dialed-down expectations won’t happen at Michigan, fair or not, with Harbaugh there. Yet the experts are perplexed by the Wolverines. No one is more knowledgeable than writer Phil Steele, who admits they’re especially difficult to evaluate.
In his magazine, Steele ranks the Wolverines 16th and calls them one of the nation’s most-overrated teams, based on their lack of experience. Yet he lauds them for being in the conversation with staggering personnel losses, an ode to the volume of young talent.
If you give Harbaugh and his staff more skilled players — including potentially dynamic freshman receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black — I like their chances to mold a better team. That’s why 10 victories remain the acceptable bar (Vegas over-under is nine), with everything hinging on the finale against the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor.
No way has Michigan reached Ohio State’s stockpile level, but similarities are forming. The Buckeyes generally lose hordes to the NFL but return 14 starters, including quarterback J.T. Barrett. Urban Meyer has the most-experienced roster of his tenure there, and for Michigan to legitimately challenge, it has to answer one major question: How good is Speight?
I ask because I’m not sure. Harbaugh lauded him after the season but couldn’t have been pleased with his shaky effort in the spring. Speight has great size (6-foot-6) and is bright, motivated and largely fearless. Harbaugh reiterated he’s No. 1 heading into camp, but Brandon Peters is waiting if Speight falters, and Harbaugh has no problem switching quarterbacks.
Last season’s three crushing losses turned on just a few plays, and Speight’s difficulties grew after injuring his left shoulder in a 14-13 loss at Iowa. He returned against Ohio State and was getting the job done, although he threw an early interception for a touchdown. Late in the third quarter, his back-footed toss was picked off by Jerome Baker, changing a game that Michigan led 17-7.
You can’t pin the 33-32 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State on Speight, but he completed only 21 of 38 with one interception. Safe to say, when Michigan faces another superior defense in Florida, Speight can’t make the big mistake, and won’t have veteran pass-catchers to bail him out.
A lot of playmakers on both sides of the ball have departed. The Wolverines also graduated three starting offensive linemen, although notably, none were drafted. That’s an indication experience was lost, but talent was gained.
It’s the riddle soon to be unraveled, these starkly contrasting viewpoints. The Spartans will operate out of the spotlight, at least initially. The Wolverines will be in the glare, and against a rugged schedule, clarity won’t come until the end. By then, raw talent should be seasoned by time, and the late-November games will remain the biggest.
Sept. 2, vs. Florida, at Arlington, Texas, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sept. 9, Cincinnati, noon (ABC or ESPN)
Sept. 16, Air Force, noon (TBA)
Sept. 23, at Purdue, 3:30 or 4 p.m. (TBA)
Oct. 7, Michigan State (time and TV TBA)
Oct. 14, at Indiana, noon (TBA)
Oct. 21, at Penn State (time and TV TBA)
Oct. 28, Rutgers, noon (TBA)
Nov. 4, Minnesota (time and TV TBA)
Nov. 11, at Maryland (time and TV TBA)
Nov. 18, at Wisconsin (time and TV TBA)
Nov. 25, Ohio State, noon (Fox)
Michigan State schedule
Sept. 2, Bowling Green, noon, (ESPNU)
Sept. 9, Western Michigan, 3:30 p.m. (BTN)
Sept. 23, Notre Dame, 8 p.m. (Fox)
Sept. 30, Iowa, (time and TV TBA)
Oct. 7, at Michigan (time and TV TBA)
Oct. 14, at Minnesota (time and TV TBA)
Oct. 21, Indiana, 3:30 or 4 p.m. (TBA)
Oct. 28, at Northwestern, time TBA (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2)
Nov. 4, Penn State (time and TV TBA)
Nov. 11, at Ohio State (time and TV TBA)
Nov. 18, Maryland (time and TV TBA)
Nov. 25, at Rutgers (time and TV TBA)