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Roundtable: Varying opinions on where the Jim Harbaugh era is and what comes next

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Where does Michigan rank in college football’s pecking order? Is there a ceiling?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Alright gentlemen,

Here we are, Notre Dame week, but it follows another Michigan loss on the big stage on the road. Jim Harbaugh’s bunch fell to Penn State 28-21 last weekend. The fanbase’s mood has been in a lot of ways very positive in the wake of last Saturday. It’s almost like we’re celebrating the moral victory of not getting throttled by the Nittany Lions, the same team that Michigan humiliated in Ann Arbor nearly a year ago.

Paul Finebaum, the bane of the Wolverines’ fanbase’s existence went off after the game saying that fans are treating Michigan like Kansas. “Kansas can celebrate moral victories” is what he said, but Michigan shouldn’t. Particularly in Year 5.

After the game, I’ll honestly admit that I fell in the “moral victory” camp, but a couple days later I’m fairly disgusted by that thought. It’s Week 8 and the Michigan Wolverines are out of the B1G and Playoff pictures with games against Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State all remaining.

Let’s start there. How are we feeling about the state of the program and the fanbase’s perception of it.

Jay S: I should have realized as a youth, when the first Michigan Football game I remember attending was the 1998 Rose Bowl win over Washington State, that there would be a price to pay over the next 20-plus years of fandom.

When Jim Harbaugh first arrived on campus, I sipped as much of the Maize and Blue kool aid as humanly possible, and through almost two full seasons, aside from a pair of shock defeats (Michigan State 2015, Iowa 2016) the train was rolling at full steam for the Wolverines.

Flash forward three years later and I am out. There’s been a sentiment held by several prominent members of the national college football media that almost anyone should be able to sleep walk to a 7-5 or 8-4 record year in and year out in Ann Arbor. Instead, Jim Harbaugh, in year five, a season in which the Wolverines were a preseason favorite to win the conference and finally make it to Indy, is on course for his second 8-4 season in three years.

While choruses of fans online will say that Michigan being 5-2 is acceptable, it’s not the record, it’s how poorly the team has played in every game besides the win over Rutgers. Calling a timeout on Saturday before the ball could be snapped on the opening drive was 2014 Brady Hoke-level incompetence from the Wolverines. Falling in a 21-0 hole is further proof that Don Brown’s defense really isn’t that difficult to figure out if a team runs an open passing attack.

Perhaps the biggest issue, aside from any chances at winning the Big Ten being at slim to none with the fire breathing dragon Ryan Day has at his disposal in Columbus, is that even if Michigan wins some of its upcoming games, it all feels for naught. A win over Notre Dame at home? Cool, Hoke pulled it off twice and balanced it with embarrassments in South Bend. A win over a Michigan State team that clearly is trending downward as Mark Dantonio perhaps comes towards the end of his legendary Spartan career? Good job keeping Paul home, but unless it’s a dominant win, Michigan played down to the competition. The golden goose is if Michigan somehow finally beats Ohio State at home. It does not save the season, but it certainly repairs Jim Harbaugh’s resume and possibly provides some fresh hope entering the offseason.

While I am not entrenched in the camp of “Fire Harbaugh,” his tenure has been hype over results, sizzle over substance. While some fans will defend him tooth and nail until the day he leaves, I am indifferent. I don’t see Warde Manuel ever firing him, I have a hard time imagining him walking away from coaching. Perhaps the right NFL team comes calling (Browns? Cowboys? Falcons? Lions?) and he departs. This is all not to say that Harbaugh can’t right the ship, but at this point, he seems to be set in his ways, and Michigan’s Big Ten title drought is set to continue into the 2020’s.

Daniel A: Jay, I think you capture a lot of my feelings well, particularly the apathy. Can Michigan do better? Recent (being generous, let’s go back 40 years) history indicates that besides one Lloyd Carr year, not really?

“But Daniel, Bo won many B1G titles and blah blah blah,” someone comments below. Ohio State was not the fire breathing dragon it is now. It hadn’t been Urbanized yet. Where as he left Gainesville two Mullen-less years late, he left Columbus in the rightful hands of his new protege. Ryan Day appears to have all of Mullen’s strengths with none of the inability to recruit. It is a depressing thing to look at as a Wolverine.

Harbaugh’s recruiting has been such a roller coaster of very good and very meh. The fire that carried him through years one and two appears to be gone. The energy that gave us Signing with the Stars, wacky stories about sleepovers, “invasive” camps in the Southeast, and sideline explosions with DJ Durkin appears to be gone. Where is the light at the end of this tunnel - where is the spark?

Does Michigan feel any closer to the top than it did in 2016? It is still true that Jim rarely, if ever, loses games he should win at home, sure. The pair of losses to Sparty would be contenders but one of those years included a playoff bound Michigan State and the other John O’Korn. In hindsight, those weren’t really upsets.

The problem is that the ceiling has never appeared to be more concrete. It’s year five. Michigan is out of the B1G and Playoff race with five regular season games to go. I’d suggest it’s more likely the team finishes 8-5 than it does 10-2. As Jay said, if they beat Notre Dame, who cares? If they beat Michigan State, who cares? You return a majority of starters on offense, “revamp” things, and are playing spoiler and for pride before Halloween. Is that really good enough?

I’ve long been a somewhat tongue-in-cheek critic of the way certain Michigan coaches and/or staff members celebrate the team signing unheralded prospects early in the cycle as if they’ve just beaten out Alabama for the next five-star stud offensive tackle. Now I’m wondering if there was something to that bit. three-stars celebrate moral victories against five-stars, and maybe that’s just where Michigan is.

Anthony: As is usually the case on this topic, I sit somewhere in the middle between the apologists of the program and the people who are another big loss away from marching down to Schembechler Hall with their torches and pitchforks. I cannot say that Jim Harbaugh and his time at Michigan is a failure overall. It’s more disappointment, which is a feeling I believe he himself feels as well. This is going to be the fifth year under Harbaugh where you walk out of the season without achieving the two biggest goals that Michigan sets for itself, which is going to Indy and giving yourself a shot at the College Football Playoff. If this is year three and they aren’t there yet, cool, I get it. It takes time. The most frustrating thing through five years is not that they have not won the Big Ten East, but that in the two times they legitimately just needed one victory to do it, they blew it themselves.

I think there is this narrative out there that Michigan cannot compete because of Ohio State. You had them beat in Columbus in 2016 and then couldn’t ice the game away. You had them on the ropes in 2017 and then couldn’t make the plays you needed to to seal the deal. Last season, you never even got off the bus and you had your pants pulled down. Michigan’s inability to get over the hump has nothing to do with “doing it the right way” or teams being more talented than them. Michigan has failed to get there because it cannot stay out of its own way. They’re talented enough. They have the same, if not better resources than their rival to the south and a lot of teams who have been in playoff contention. When people suggest anything other than the fact that Harbaugh and his teams have had their own major gaffes that have held them back, it’s quite honestly insulting and incredibly defeatist. Not the refs. Not recruiting. Not the Buckeyes.

Get. Out. Of. Your. Own. Way.

I disagree that there is nothing left to play for this season. You have to start chipping away at least at some of these narratives. Does a win against Notre Dame mean anything in the grand scheme of things in terms of solving what ails them? Not long-term, but you can’t fix that right now. Winning breeds winning, so to pile wins in any circumstance is always important to do. To potentially go out and grab a victory over a top ten team, which is another one of those glaring statistics that Michigan is on the wrong side of, is important, especially given that this is the last scheduled time they will play them for now. The last time it happened, it was one of the final nails in the coffin for the Hoke era when they got blanked in South Bend. As far as Michigan State goes, if we’re being honest, that might now be the biggest must-win on the rest of the schedule. They are an absolute tire fire right now and there’s just about nothing left for Mark Dantonio to do there and it might be time for a change. If their season continues to go sideways, he’s done, but sending him out with a win against Michigan would be an all-too-appropriate sendoff. Drive the nail in his coffin and make it clear that while you may have some problems of your own, at least you still run and own your own state. That’s an important message to send. And heck, maybe if you win these next four, you give yourself a shot to beat Ohio State like you did in 2017, except this time it feels like you have the ingredients for an upset if they continue to play like they did the last few quarters in Happy Valley

I’m not going to sit here and tell the fanbase how it should feel or approach the end of the year. This, as it always has been, is a choose your own adventure exercise. If you want to be mad, there’s nothing they can do to change that. If you’re going to fight and root til the end, any losses outside of total embarrassment will not change that. As for me, I’m always interested in what’s next. I want to see if this offense can start truly putting together some consistent and impressive performances. I want to see improvement over the next four games. All I think we can ask for right now is that they improve enough to make that last Saturday in November interesting because at this point, I think it would take an upset of the Buckeyes to make this a season where you can claim any sort of progress was made.

If this team finishes 8-4, I think we can and should start having that conversation about what we’re actually doing here. Again, I do not see the Harbaugh era as a failure, but it is a disappointment to this point of unrealized potential. To use a hockey comparison, this feels like a Bryan Murray scenario when he was with the Detroit Red Wings where he was able to get them on the doorstep of realizing their full potential, but faltered when it mattered the most. We thought that Harbaugh would be their Scotty Bowman, but it looks like he’s their Murray. I don’t know how you fix that unless a switch flips, but that’s currently where this program finds itself.

David: You’re likely a huge Michigan fan and want to see this program get off this “close but no cigar” theme they’ve had since 2015 with those high expectations set since Jim Harbaugh arrived. You may have to hear from those Michigan State and Ohio State fans chirping you all year when they lose and can’t beat their rivals or make it to Indianapolis. Yes, some may put their money where their mouth is now with sports gambling more accessible now than ever. For everyone else, a win or loss doesn’t really impact their lives.

I remember the day Jim Harbaugh walked out, almost tripped in doing so, and was introduced as the next head coach of Michigan. Fans knew what he was capable of doing as a coach by turning around struggling programs in college and the NFL and were well aware of his ties to Michigan. They wanted him retire at Michigan and win multiple National Championships with plenty of wins over their biggest rivals.

I’m going to break down where I think this fanbase is right now because it’s definitely separated in a few groups.

Group 1: They need to fire Jim Harbaugh and find someone who can get them over that hurdle to play for the Big Ten Championship, which means beating their rivals. His approach to the non-coach decisions of satellite camps, trips abroad, podcasts, only fuels the fire to the fans on the side that want him gone. They are the group that gives the fanbase a negative identity and use social media as an outlet to voice their opinions about a player who makes a mistake or how bad they want Jim Harbaugh fired.

Group 2: They’re still patient and know change sometimes takes time and are still positive about the direction of the program. The problem is, each loss takes more fans to group one. If Michigan loses to their big rivals, and are embarrassing losses, they likely are shifting to group one.

Group 3: They know that Jim Harbaugh is likely the man for the job and want to give him at least through 2020 before they want a coaching change. Close losses are better than blowouts in their opinion and see this team is on the verge of breaking through. Each loss is disappointing but don’t want to make a coaching change giving Josh Gattis and Jim Harbaugh time to create success still. The hype was built during the year about this new offense and they haven’t seen it yet with more mistakes and turnovers than a complete offense like people thought they’d have this year. They know there’s likely no other coach out there who could do better and definitely want to avoid the seasons they had under Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez.

We’re talking about kids playing a sport they love and are talented enough to play for Michigan. There are many fans of programs who would love to win 8-10 games a year and be content with that. Fans old enough to remember the Bo and Carr days know what it’s like to win and beat Ohio State to play in big bowl games. It’s not like that anymore and everything has changed from recruiting, the transfer portal, the Big Ten Championship game, the College Football Playoff. It’s so difficult to win a National Championship and that is the final goal Michigan fans want to see happen in their lifetime, whether is with Jim Harbaugh or another coach.

Whichever group you put yourself in right now, it’s unfortunately going to likely add more to group one depending on how they do in the three big rival games this year. The Penn State loss proved they have fight and grit, but can’t get themselves in a hole down 21-0 to a team like that on the road.

Dan P: Since the beginning of his tenure, I have said that I would give Jim Harbaugh five years to turn around this football program. There was not much hope or talent on the team that he adopted from Brady Hoke, and I knew that Harbaugh would be able to recruit with his passion and love for the University of Michigan.

That is exactly what he has done. Harbaugh has made Michigan cool again with the ‘Who’s got it better than us?’ video, by utilizing the Jordan brand, by taking the team on trips across the world, and by doing quirky stuff that makes him the cool coach that the media loves to cover. Whether it be good or bad press, Harbaugh has gotten the Michigan Wolverines name back into the mouths of the national media on a routine basis.

I commend Harbaugh for re-establishing the Michigan brand and for doing an overall excellent job in the recruiting department so far in his tenure.

But, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, recruits are going to cut through the bull crap and see the success on the field. This is year five, and Harbaugh has all of his guys on the field, most of them very decorated out of high school. This is the most complete team that he has had, and the most gifted offensively by a long shot. Harbaugh has a returning starter at QB, one of the deepest wide receiver rooms in the country, a fantastic offensive line with veteran leadership, and a couple of inexperienced, but talented running backs. This should be the most prolific offense that Harbaugh has had, but they still aren’t producing the numbers needed to win a championship. After five years, it is unacceptable to see the minimal development of the offensive even with an offensive coordinator change. Right now, it isn’t enough.

On defense, Harbaugh has put all of his eggs in one basket. He thoroughly and completely trusts Don Brown who has slowly begun to fail him over his time at Michigan. Opposing offensive coordinators know how predictable this defense is. Almost every play is some sort of man-to-man defense with a ridiculous amount of blitz packages thrown in. While it is effective against the mediocre to terrible teams that Michigan plays in their schedule, it has proven costly when Michigan meets opponents of similar caliber. It’s cocky, it’s stubborn, and it’s predictable. I think Don Brown has to go if Harbaugh really wants to take the Wolverines to where they should be.

Harbaugh makes comments that really make me question his mindset and his judgement of his own performance. He went into halftime down 21-7 on Saturday against Penn State and said something along the lines of “This will be our finest hour” as they proceed to lose the game 28-21. Sometimes, it feels as if he speaks to the point of delusion with the performance of his team on the field.

I think brand is going to trump performance when it comes to the end of the season. This team might lose four or five games by year’s end. However, the brand and recruiting that he brings is going to keep his seat cool until further notice.

Honestly, the play on the field is unacceptable at this point, and I hope the backlash for this horrifically disastrous season will be a punch in the mouth for him so he realizes that this isn’t the program that he thinks it is. Harbaugh has to stay on as head coach because there is no good done in cleaning house every 4-5 years. Until Harbaugh has a bad season, and I’m talking Rich Rod/Hoke levels of a bad season, I think he is going to have the job in Ann Arbor. I think it’s just the reality of it.

Daniel A: Anthony, I think I’m in agreement with most of everything you laid out, and I do think keeping that perspective is important. Beating Notre Dame and Michigan State allows you to stay in what I’ll call “Tier 3”. Tier 1 is Alabama and Clemson with Oklahoma on the doorstep. Tier 2 is Oklahoma, Ohio State, probably LSU now, and Georgia. I think we sit in tier 3 with Notre Dame, Penn State, Florida, Oregon, Texas, and Wisconsin. There’s value in that, and that value skyrockets if you upset the Buckeyes to end the year. I think there’s even an argument to be made that knocking that door down lifts a gigantic monkey off of the program’s backs.

David, I think you’re mostly on the money, but I’d break the groups down a bit differently.

Group 1: There are old guard fans who like that Jim is a Michigan man, but they hate the Jordan Brand, they hate the night games, they hate the media attention he brings, and they REALLY REALLY hate the Josh Gattis experiment. I think this is the largest group of defeatists, and the recent struggles have emboldened them more than any other group

Group 2: I think there’s the realists. I’d argue a majority of the staff here falls in the group. They recognize that Michigan may not have the recruiting wiggle room of Alabama or Georgia while also being quick to point out that our football and recruiting budgets are insane, and the program drives a ton of revenue. They appreciate that we mixed up the offense, but that there was probably too much, too fast - particularly as it ties to the offensive line. Anthony’s comments about disappointing vs. failure capture the essence of where this group sits.

Group 3: These are the clowns. They’re inconsistent, they whine, they just want to be angry. Nothing short of being Alabama or Clemson would make them happy. I’d also say that this group has been particularly loud of late.

Group 4: This is the new guard fandom. They’re the ones who saw Shining of the Stars and the Rashan Gary recruiting class and the trips to Europe and the sleepovers and the wild Harbaugh stories and satellite camps and LOVED IT ALL. They saw the team running up the score on their opponents and slaughtering Rutgers by almost 80. They wanted more. This group loved the Gattis hire and move away from fullbacks and tight ends. This group loves that Juwan Howard has made Michigan basketball hip again. This group isn’t sure what to say right now.

What I think a lot of this comes down to with the football program is a lack of identity. Is Michigan the Fab-5’s school or Bo Schembechler’s? Is there a middle ground to take there, and how does one navigate that? What’s the ceiling on a program that’s essentially a better-funded Wisconsin? I’d argue we saw it in 2016 and 2018. The growing pains this year have been really tough, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t as easy as flipping the script from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick, but it is what it is.

I think we’re all going to continue supporting this team, and a sweep of the three big home games certainly improves morale going into the off-season. However, again I want to return to Anthony’s question, “what are we doing here?” Michigan only has one top-100 recruit and only three in the top-150. Ohio State has seven ranked ahead of Michigan’s best. Notre Dame has approximately three. South Carolina has multiple and even the dumpster fire in Knoxville even has one.

The Wolverines sit ninth in 247’s composite at the moment, but three teams behind them have higher score averages. None in front of them do. They’ve signed 13 three-stars, more than Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia combined. Their blue-chip ratio is under 50%.

The problems with Michigan’s program are starting to become self-fulfilling and that’s where the disappointment and concern mostly lies for me. We’re a program that celebrates three-stars and moral victories. Are we okay with that?

Kevin: Nope.

Michigan has been cursed since Lloyd Carr left, and whatever devil’s bargain was struck to get them a national title 22 years ago is still being enforced. Michigan fans excel at projecting blame onto external variables, completely blind to the evidence right in front of them. It’s still a program that refuses to join the 21st Century, or at least, with any haste. Anthony asks what are we doing here, I say the expectations go back to something John Bacon explained in his book. Harbaugh apparently lives and dies by Jerry Hanlon’s motto: in 20 years, what kind of men they become will determine how good a team was.

Nice sentiment, but unfortunately that’s a naive way to view the landscape of modern college football. Those things play a role in program success, but Michigan takes it to an exhausting extreme. A brand doesn’t win games anymore. Players and coaches win games now. The sooner this program looks itself in the mirror and demands better of itself is the day that they finally win a top-ten road game or don’t get crushed in a bowl game. I don’t imagine the coaches have a lot fun getting blasted from all sides each time Michigan loses an important game, so do something different that shuts them up. Charles Woodson had to sit next to Urban freakin’ Meyer on national TV and convey his embarrassment for Michigan after the Wisconsin game. Desmond Howard has to look across the table at Kirk Herbstreit and come up with a defense week after week as to why Michigan isn’t better.

Want to win 9-10 games a year and be happy with an Orlando bowl game? Just admit that and we’ll forgive the facade that it’s something else.

A timeout on the first play from scrimmage on Saturday indicates that some may be content with or at least ambivalent about, how successful the program has to be.