The Michigan Wolverines and head coach Jim Harbaugh are in about as tough a spot as one can be when building and running a major college football program. Gone are the days of struggling against the likes of the middling and bottom-feeder teams in the Big Ten conference, but a familiar road block continues to swat the Wolverines away at the end of the season like a Dikembe Mutombo blocked shot.
With Saturday’s 56-27 loss, another embarrassing blowout, to a national-title contender Ohio State Buckeyes, we are once again left to sit here and wonder what’s next for Harbaugh, who is the only Michigan coach ever to start the OSU series 0-for-5, and his program.
Michigan is no closer to beating Ohio State than it was when he took over in December 2014. They almost had them in 2016 and were a spot short in overtime of winning in Columbus and likely winning the Big Ten and heading to the College Football Playoff. Since then, the gap has only widened, both with results on the field and the clip at which both teams perform on the recruiting trail.
The Game in 2016 will always be the one that got away. That was a chance to shift the balance of power in the Big Ten and would have capped off an incredible two-year turnaround for Harbaugh at Michigan. We are probably sitting here and having a much different discussion today if they close the deal there, but when you try and pinpoint what started where we are at now, that’s the most logical turning point.
The Wolverines were given a glimmer of hope when Urban Meyer retired and gave way to Ryan Day after last season. There’s no way they can stay this good for this long, right? One of the game’s historically elite coaches steps away, and of course there’s going to be a national drop off, correct?
Day is now 15-0 as the head coach of the Buckeyes and his team looks every bit as lethal — and perhaps even better — than Meyer’s OSU team that won the national title in 2014. Questions about what he brings to the table as a motivator and as a tactician should be put to rest.
Ohio State is not going anywhere. They are improving and getting better. They are in a class of the elite with the likes of Alabama and Clemson and, for more recent examples, Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma.
Michigan is a good program. Perhaps even very good. But right now, very good is not enough to topple the juggernaut to the south. As far as finding their way out of it goes, there are no easy answers.
Harbaugh’s status right now is tricky. At the very least, you are a competently coached team that wins the games its supposed to, but rarely (emphasis on rarely) the ones you’re not supposed to. There are no more embarrassing losses to Rutgers, Illinois or Maryland, but OSU has blown them out at the end of the year three times, won semi-handily in 2017 and in 2016, well, we covered that already.
Since the start of the 2017 season, Michigan has played the division champions from both the Big Ten West and East (Ohio State) in the last three seasons and has a record of 1-5 in those games.
OSU beat them 31-20 in 2017, 62-39 in 2018 and now 56-27 in 2019. The two non-Ohio State losses came on the road at Wisconsin in both 2017 (28-10) and 2019 (35-14). The win came on the road at Northwestern in 2018, a game where Michigan fell into a deep hole early and then had to scratch and claw its way out to win 20-17.
Michigan was outscored by a total of 225-130 in those games.
Harbaugh was expected to have the Wolverines in contention for Big Ten titles and he did that far quicker than expected, having his team in position to do it in his second season at the helm just two years after Brady Hoke’s Wolverines went 5-7. He had them in position again to do it last year and then Meyer and company took them behind the woodshed.
Five seasons is enough of a sample size to know what this program is and what it’s going to be. They’re good. They can be fun. They can often times be entertaining. But 10-2/9-3 is what they are. And given how the decade that preceded Harbaugh went, perhaps that’s fine, at least in the eyes of the administration and decision makers in Ann Arbor.
That said, getting blasted Buckeyes on Thanksgiving weekend is a trend at this point that we are all too familiar with. And Michigan must look itself in the mirror and ask if that’s ok. If it isn’t, they have to find a way to keep their heads down and fix it somehow.
A reporter asked a loaded question to Harbaugh after the game on Saturday that wondered where the biggest gap between the Wolverines and Ohio State is right now. Is it coaching? Is it scheme? It is talent? Harbaugh took this as an insult, but the truth of the matter is that it’s a little bit of all of the above.
The thing that remains eye-opening in not only the Ohio State game, but in some of the bigger games in general, is the lack of discipline, along with self-inflicted mistakes. In order to beat the Buckeyes, Michigan was going to have to play a near-perfect game and pounce on any miscues OSU may have made. It went the opposite way, and in a lot of ways showed where the biggest gap between these two program is.
Perhaps the simplest way to fix this problem is to have better players. Michigan has plenty of talent and sends a good amount of players to the NFL, but Ohio State recruits at a higher rate and it shows up on Saturdays and Sundays, as well.
That’s a gap that can only be closed by finding a way to win this game, or wading into murky recruiting waters that Michigan may or may not be interested in.
Are you starting to see what the dilemma here is?
When discussing what the future is, moving on from Harbaugh is not something that is even remotely a possibility and not something that the Wolverines should do after this season. Nobody, including the man himself, can admit that these last five years have been a tremendous success, but it has not been a bottoming-out failure and embarrassment that the last two regimes had before him. There’s been a fair amount of good.
By requesting his departure, you are assuming that Michigan is going to fire the money cannon and bring in whomever it wants to lead the program. Getting rid of one of your program’s most famous alums because he could not beat Ohio State might not be the easiest sell to prospective coaches. You have to be sure that whoever you bring in can elevate the program to an Ohio State/Alabama/Clemson level of production.
Harbaugh was the surest thing you could have gotten the last time around and was seen as someone who could do that. Now, we see why that line of thought may have been misguided. There is no white whale candidate out there.
Harbaugh’s decision to modernize the offense and hand the keys over to Josh Gattis was the correct one, even with the bumps it took early on. The Wolverines took a step back this year to set up what looks like could be a more prosperous future offensively that mirrors where the game is going.
On the other side, giving up 118 points over two years to Ohio State is a disturbing trend that may require changes. Defensive coordinator Don Brown, known for being aggressive and somewhat stubborn to a degree, did a nice job throughout this season adjusting and mixing in more zone coverages. They even found a way to stop those darn crossing routes we complained about so much! That said, Ohio State cracked the code again for the second season in a row and this time, everything worked.
Asking any defensive coordinator to find a way to slow down Ohio State is a behemoth task, but in situations where your team has to get off the field on third down or stay disciplined, Brown’s unit has not gotten the job done nearly enough even in games against other teams and the best offenses on the schedule. His future can and should be in question and it just might be time for someone else to give it a try after four seasons.
Harbaugh, to his credit, has done a good job of changing the variables on his coaching staff the last few offseasons when it was needed. Tim Drevno needed to go after 2017 and Michigan lucked themselves into one of the best offensive line coaches in the country in Ed Warriner, who was on staff as an analyst. Pep Hamilton needed to go after 2018 and Harbaugh and company brought in Gattis and elected to let Hamilton pursue other opportunities (hello, XFL).
It feels like time to change some of the variables on the other side of the football.
It is a lot easer to take a bad program and make it competent and competitive than it is to go from competent to championship-caliber. Harbaugh took a poorly-coached mess that was Michigan and turned them into a team that is talented and wins the ones that it is supposed to win. He has not found that next gear yet.
Michigan is not a totally embarrassing product nor is it the Big Ten or national title contender that it was nearly two decades ago now. And to sit here and have that be the expectation with Ohio State at an all-time high makes all of this a difficult pill to swallow.
It feels like a safe bet that Harbaugh can keep Michigan at a 9-to-10 win pace a year, but until Ohio State begins to trend downward or you are able to beat them on the recruiting trail and/or on the field, this feels like the fate of the Wolverines no matter who is at the helm.