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Why the Harbaugh era, even without a Big Ten championship, is right on track

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Everybody chill out. Harbaugh’s got this.

MLB: World Series-Cleveland Indians at Chicago Cubs Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, just for fun, I like to read box scores from the 2014 Michigan football season.

Remember that one? It featured:

  • a revenge game against Appalachian State, one Michigan’s athletic director thought was a brilliant marketing strategy.
  • the final game (at the time) of the Notre Dame-Michigan series, in which the Wolverines outgained the Irish 289-280 and still managed to lose 31-0.
  • a home loss to Utah in a swirling monsoon that felt like judgment day for the Hoke era.
  • the Shane Morris Fiasco.
  • Gary Nova throwing for 400 yards. Losing to Rutgers.
  • that ugly Penn State win that made us endure two weeks of “maybe Hoke can save his job!” talk radio chatter.
  • that Michigan State game that definitively silenced such talk. The Spartans outgained Michigan 446-186. Doug Nussmeier pumped his fist when Michigan scored a touchdown to get within 25 points in the fourth quarter. Michigan apologized for being hyped before the game. I tweeted “Devin Gardner needs a hug” very sincerely and got blocked by Devin Gardner.
  • MOON.

(It says something about the course of that season that “losing to Ohio State 42-28; feeling vaguely pleased with the performance” doesn’t make the top 10 worst moments.)

It’s hard to appreciate the work Jim Harbaugh has done since his hiring without recalling how far Michigan had fallen by 2014. It was the end of a degenerative process stretching back more than a decade, when annual losses to Ohio State and a retrograde offensive philosophy eroded the foundation of the program. Removing the Denard-driven 11-2 blip in 2011, from 2007-2014 Michigan was exactly .500 (44-44), with three losing seasons under two different coaches.

So when Michigan fans get restless about Harbaugh not beating Ohio State and not winning a Big Ten championship in his first two seasons at Michigan, they’re missing important context.

It’s understandable for fans to be hungry for a Big Ten championship and wins in The Game, but complaining about 10-3 seasons and hand-wringing about departed NFL talent is short-sighted.

Harbaugh is the second coach in Michigan history to start with consecutive 10-win seasons. His 0.769 winning percentage in his first two seasons is the best start since Gary Moeller (0.792), who inherited a program in significantly better standing than Harbaugh did. If he were to retire today, he would have the fourth-best winning percentage in modern Michigan football, behind Fritz Crisler, Fielding Yost, and Bo.

Yes, Michigan had 11 players selected in the 2017 NFL draft, suggesting the Wolverines had a surplus of talent in 2016. But not a single one was an offensive lineman despite the team starting three seniors in that position group. That weakness veritably loomed in Michigan’s three losses in 2016 — 2.4 yards per carry and 8 sacks.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not as if the 2016 team will be Harbaugh’s most talented either. The 2013 recruiting class, the backbone of the 2016 squad, was Brady Hoke’s best, landing a 289.16 on 247Sports’ team composite rankings. Harbaugh’s two full recruiting classes scored 280.38 in 2016 and 293.79 in 2017, and included two of the most highly rated recruits in Michigan history: Rashan Gary in 2016 and Donovan Peoples-Jones in 2017.

Michigan is much better positioned to develop that talent, too. That 2013 class was riddled with holes, with Derrick Green, Shane Morris, Kyle Bosch, David Dawson, Chris Fox making up five of Michigan’s top seven recruits according to 247Sports but never establishing themselves. The six offensive linemen Hoke recruited that year have made a whopping zero career starts (and only Patrick Kugler, who is in the running for the center job in 2017, is still on campus).

Meanwhile, as Hoke’s assistant coaches have struggled to find high-profile jobs, Harbaugh routinely replaces excellent coaches who have departed (Jedd Fisch, Tyrone Wheatley) with net upgrades for the program (Pep Hamilton, Greg Frey) who have track records for developing their position at the college level.

Then, there’s Harbaugh himself. Of all the failings of the Hoke administration, the most glaring was its handling of the quarterback position. They took a late flier on Russell Bellomy in the rushed 2011 class and took no quarterback in 2012 because they had Shane Morris lined up in ’13. Neither panned out. Meanwhile, Denard Robinson regressed from a sophomore finishing sixth in the Heisman voting in 2010 to a senior completing 53% of his passes in 2012. Devin Gardner’s career burned hot and fast, going from a legit Heisman contender after the 2013 ND game to a battered shell of himself in East Lansing 8 weeks later. The net sum of short-sighted QB recruiting and insufficient player development was a pretty horrific offense.

Harbaugh has been completely different, both in approach and results. After definitively establishing his QB cred with Andrew Luck at Stanford and Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick with the San Francisco 49ers, he took Iowa castoff Jake Rudock and after some fits and starts at the beginning of 2015, got a career year out of him.

Speight’s career endpoint is still TBD, but the trajectory is promising: He has gone from one of Hoke’s lowest-rated quarterback recruits and a near transfer to a very solid first year as a starter by any statistical measure (2,538 yards, 61 percent completion rate, 18 TD, 7 INT, 7.7 YPA). Yet it was redshirt freshman Brandon Peters who impressed in the 2017 Spring Game, possibly indicating he’s ready to challenge Speight in fall camp. Harbaugh has taken a quarterback every recruiting cycle and looks primed to take two in 2018. He’s arranged the quarterback position to be a legitimate competition between good options for the foreseeable future.

Basically everything we hoped for when Harbaugh was hired in December 2014 has happened:

He is an ace recruiter, a quarterback guru, a motivator, a competitor, an innovator (who could have imagined satellite camps and spring breaks in Rome then?). That embarrassing 2014 Michigan State game? The one where Michigan looked comically inferior and asked for forgiveness for it? He closed the gap in Year One, as the Spartans needed the miracle of miracles to escape with a win in 2015 before the rivalry was restored to the natural order of things. It took an extra year with Ohio State, but the 2016 game was essentially a coin-flip proposition for a berth in the Playoff. Future games will land the other way.