The Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks did Michigan fans a favor over the weekend.
With both teams winning, it has mathematically eliminated the San Francisco 49ers from playoff contention. And, for Michigan fans, avoids the fear of stretching the coaching search waiting for Harbaugh into January. The Niners' season will end December 28.
If the Wolverines are to get their clear number one target in Harbaugh, there are some obvious obstacles it will need to clear. Most importantly, whether or not the NFL is where Harbaugh wants to be.
However, now that the NFL season has a sure ending date, interim athletic director Jim Hackett has the opportunity to apply the pressure on the Harbaugh camp knowing the playoffs, and job security in San Francisco, have bottomed out.
There are two scenarios that could play itself over time, one more likely than other and neither guarantees a Harbaugh in Ann Arbor.
Scenario One - The Buyout
If Harbaugh is 100% sure Ann Arbor is where he wants to be, he could waste no time in letting his intentions known that he wants to be the head coach at Michigan and leave immediately. Michigan can either buyout the final year of his contract or perhaps Harbaugh can work out a deal where he "resigns" with the Niners and walks away into the sunset.
This situation is highly unlikely due to many factors. The Niners management would be silly to fire him with games left in the season. If the plan is to shop him around this season, losing value in him by firing him does not make sense. Unless Harbaugh has made it abundantly clear that he will not cooperate with a trade under any circumstance, cutting him loose would be a horrid mistake by Niners management.
Another factor is the supposed "big-time competitor" that is often described of Harbaugh. There's no denying he's a win-at-all-costs type of person, so packing up his things and quitting on his current team doesn't seem to be a likely outcome, no matter how badly Michigan fans want it to happen.
The chances that management move on from Harbaugh with two games left in the season appear to be incredibly slim. Crazier things have happened in the NFL, but Michigan fans should not get their hopes up with scenario one.
Personally, this should be considered a fairy tale ending that's not going to happen.
Scenario Two - The Waiting Game
Michigan fans have waited almost two weeks, what's another two weeks going to do?
The more this search drags on and Michigan remains quiet, the odds of Michigan feeling good about Harbaugh increase. This is contingent on very baseless speculation, but Harbaugh would not string along his alma mater.
In this scenario, gauging where Harbaugh's head will be should be done through backchannel communications. Regardless whether Harbaugh is playoff bound or not, he still has a job to do and would like to finish the season on a high note. Albeit it won't stop Hackett from pressing the extra inch to get an answer.
During this time is when Michigan should be knowing which direction it is headed. Continuing with Harbaugh or moving on to "Plan B" options they have on the list. Harbaugh isn't going to publicly say "no" to Michigan, it just doesn't work that way. Either way, Michigan fans will have to wait another two weeks until the season is over.
The closer this scenario drags towards Christmas, the better the odds are of a positive announcement of Harbaugh being named head coach. This does not guarantee that he is coming, but this is the more likely scenario of the two to happen.
The long and winding road of the NFL season is finally reaching its apex and the path to Harbaugh has become a lot more clear for Michigan.
These next two weeks will drag on, especially if all is quiet on both fronts, and perhaps the wait will be worth it. However, rest assured that the search won't fall apart if Harbaugh isn't part of the equation moving forward.