Penn State or Michigan: Which Big Ten power has been the bigger flop in 2020?
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Penn State and Michigan entered the 2020 college football season as the preseason favorites to challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten championship.

Now, 2020 can’t end soon enough for either school. On Saturday, Penn State dropped to 0-4 after a 30-23 loss at Nebraska; Michigan dropped to 1-3 after a 49-11 loss to No. 13 Wisconsin.

That combined 1-7 record might be even more surprising than Indiana’s 4-0 start.

SN answers the big questions surrounding the Nittany Lions and Wolverines after yet another disappointing weekend:

Who’s having a worse season?

It’s a toss-up. By record, it’s Penn State. Its season unraveled in Week 1 with the 36-35 overtime loss to Indiana, a game the Nittany Lions had wrapped up with two minutes to play. The 38-25 loss to No. 3 Ohio State the following week was expected, but the back-to-back losses to Maryland and Nebraska are not acceptable.

The Nittany Lions’ defense is an issue: It has allowed 30-plus points in every game this season. The offense had 501 total yards and 30 first downs against Nebraska and still lost by a touchdown.

By perception, however, Michigan is having it worse — and it’s not close. The Wolverines scored an impressive 49-24 victory over Minnesota on Oct. 24, but losses to Michigan State and Indiana the following two weeks derailed any hopes of a Big Ten championship.

Wisconsin put Michigan on the brink of a losing season. The Badgers jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first half with the help of two interceptions by quarterback Joe Milton. They outclassed the Wolverines in the latest pile-on that raised even more questions about the Jim Harbaugh era. Michigan once more struggled to run the ball in a big game, so the end result was not all that surprising.

Penn State has Iowa, Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State remaining on its schedule. Michigan has Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland (which is on pause) and Ohio State. A .500 record might be in doubt for both teams at this point. The final answer to this question will hinge on who wins the head-to-head matchup.

Who has a better excuse?

Penn State. Neither program wants to make excuses, but the Nittany Lions’ biggest losses came before the season started. All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opted out and running back Journey Brown was diagnosed with a career-ending disease.

That said, starting quarterback Sean Clifford returned to a team that won 11 games last year and lost just five players to the 2020 NFL Draft.

Michigan lost 10 players to the same draft, and receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas opted out of the 2020 season. The Wolverines did have to replace two-year starting quarterback Shea Patterson, but Milton was seen by some as an upgrade coming into the season.

Which coach’s seat is hotter?

Harbaugh’s. This isn’t even a question. The Wolverines haven’t fixed the issues that have led to numerous big-game failures over the past six seasons, and the bottom has dropped out the last three weeks.

Harbaugh has elevated the program from where it was at the end of Brady Hoke’s tenure in 2014, but the 2-12 record against top-10 teams and 0-5 record against Ohio State have dogged this program, which hasn’t been quite the same since “The Spot” against the Buckeyes in 2016.

The last three weeks have been the worst stretch of the Harbaugh era. Wisconsin flexed on the Wolverines for the second straight year, and there appears to be a gap between those two programs. This is reminiscent in some ways of the end of the Hoke era. Harbaugh’s contract runs through the 2021 season, but this might be the most interesting offseason yet in terms of whether he pursues an NFL coaching job.

Penn State’s James Franklin signed a six-year extension last December worth more than $35.4 million, so it’s unlikely there will be a change based on a season in which everything that could go wrong, has.

That said, if Penn State goes 2-6 or 1-7, then the pressure on Franklin heading into 2021 will be just as high as it was before the program’s breakthrough Big Ten championship season in 2016.

What’s the key to catching Ohio State?

Quarterback play. Ohio State has Justin Fields, a one-time Penn State commit who transferred from Georgia. Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year and is the front runner for the award this season. The Buckeyes are that much better at the most important position.

Clifford (5 of 8, 37 yards, one interception) and Will Levis (14 of 31, 219 yards) combined to complete 48.7 percent of their passes in Penn State’s loss to the Huskers. Fields has completed 86.7 percent of his passes this season. Clifford and Levis have combined for 231 rushing yards this season, but have also totaled nine touchdowns and six interceptions through the air.

Milton flopped in the first half against Wisconsin. He finished 9 of 19 for 98 yards and two interceptions and was replaced in the second half by Cade McNamara, who provided a small spark but has yet to start a game.

The Wolverines’ quarterbacks have combined for five touchdowns and four interceptions through four games. Michigan doesn’t have a game-changer at the position, and that has been one of the biggest issues of the Harbaugh era.

Who will get back on track first?

To be determined. The answer will hinge on recruiting. The Nittany Lions had a top-10 class in 2018, but their rankings have slipped in the last three classes. Michigan has a top-10 class for now according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings, but that could change before National Signing Day.

When you compare the two schools, the players on campus favor Penn State. But the incoming class favors Michigan. Neither one is close to Ohio State at this point.

What’s next?

That will depend on what happens to Harbaugh and Franklin. Both coaches have produced top-10 teams in prior years. The issue is no longer just that these two programs are unable to keep up with Ohio State; it’s also whether the rest of the Big Ten has caught up to them.

That might be the most disconcerting realization of all in 2020.

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