This was not the piece I expected to be writing after the second week of the truncated 2020 Big Ten football season, but here we are.
As 21.5-point favorites against a Michigan State team that lost to Rutgers in the first week of the season, the Michigan Wolverines came out and delivered a stunning and embarrassing loss to the rival Spartans by a score of 27-24.
A week after being the darlings of the Big Ten, Michigan finds itself as the butt of a lot of jokes once again. And it is 100 percent justified and something everyone — players, coaches, fans — has to take on the chin and own.
Unfortunately, fan excitement about the team’s trajectory and its chances of winning the Big Ten are about as low as they can be before the calendar hits November for the second year in a row. The problem with that is that in this season, there has only been two games played.
Last year, I wrote a column following the 35-14 loss at Wisconsin titled “The Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan has become indefensible.” To be frank with you, it was written quickly after the loss and was emotionally charged and I was a bit embarrassed with it. At the time, it may have been overstating things and crossing a line, but I now realize that the crux of the message rings true yet again.
Harbaugh’s time at Michigan has seen him stabilize a program that had lost its way and that fell out of the Big Ten conversation in the seven years that preceded him. Losses to rivals and elite opponents has haunted his regime, but the crutch that people have still been able to lean onto is that his Michigan takes care of business against teams it is supposed to beat, especially as large favorites.
So when you start to lose a game like that, then what?
Crazy things can happen in a rivalry game. We have seen that numerous times before between the two teams that clashed in Ann Arbor on Saturday. But Michigan added to another damning statistic under Harbaugh this week in that the loss drops them to 1-6 at home against the likes of MSU and Ohio State.
In three out of four home games between the Wolverines and Spartans with Harbaugh on the sideline, his team has failed to grab a victory when MSU has all but gift-wrapped it for them. There was the fumbled snap in 2015, the monsoon game in 2017, and now this.
And it came in a year where there is certainly a scenario in play where this is the only game Michigan State wins this season. I’d argue this is a more damning indictment of where this program is at than what the Buckeyes have done to them.
Harbaugh is not going to get fired after this season, regardless of how it goes. He is under contract through 2021 and it seems unlikely that a department set to lose $80 million this season is going to pay someone to not coach here anymore. With that said, the longer they go without an extension adds more questions.
I like Jim Harbaugh. He’s a good man and an above-average coach. He’s a positive for the community and his players off the field and a force for change in college athletics. But at some point at this school, with these resources, the results are not good enough.
The further and further we get away from it, the clearer it is that the Ohio State game in 2016 was the universe’s opportunity for Michigan to be more than it has been. Since then, the gap has only widened between those two schools and Michigan is getting further and further away from competing for Big Ten championships. Any time it appears the program is ready to take that next step, the challenge that follows winds up knocking them down two more pegs.
That is not what anyone signed up for in December of 2014.
At some point through six seasons on the job, it has to be time to stop rebuilding and asking for patience. All elite programs lose talented players and assistant coaches and find ways to keep winning. Assuming he gets a seventh season, it sure would be difficult to justify more after that with presumably no Big Ten Championships or wins over Ohio State.
Heck, apparently beating Michigan State is going to be a challenge again.
Harbaugh has never been one to sit on his hands and refuse to change up some variables. Right now, all eyes are rightfully on the defensive side of the ball. Don Brown’s defense can be suffocating when it works and can bully teams around, but when the opposition isn’t scared and Michigan refuses to make adjustments or does so to no avail, the end result is the same as it was on Saturday.
Brown always says that the day he stops being aggressive and sticking to the plan is the day somebody else will be doing his job and he’ll be be back in Cape Cod. The longer that Harbaugh prevents that from happening, the closer he might be to having it cost both of them their jobs.
As long as Michigan wins the games it is supposed to win, we know what the ceiling of this program has been. They will rip off 8-9, maybe 10 wins in a normal year. But if we are going to start seeing a couple of those guaranteed victories slip in the other direction, things could be trending in a dangerous direction for this program.
Saturday was supposed to be a game that saw Michigan put its rival up the road in its place at home for the second year in a row and show them who is still king in the state. Instead, it may have just lit the spark of Tucker’s rebuild in East Lansing. He now has a result to sell.
What’s Michigan’s pitch to recruits these days?
We knew taking care of business against Ohio State looked slim this year, but we have a major problem if Michigan’s grasp on its own state is not as strong as it appeared to be. And it might only be the beginning of what’s to come next.
There is absolutely zero excuse for what happened on Saturday. It was embarrassing. It was disheartening. But above all else, it was frightening.
A major talking point between the Minnesota and Michigan State games was how this has transformed into a player-led team with guys looking to each other to pull this team out of adversity. The effort on Saturday was never in question and the Wolverines played hard, but their coaching staff failed them. When that happens in the sixth year of a tenure, conversations about the future are more than acceptable.
It’s hard to see what the path out of this is, other than simply winning and staying out of their own way. There’s too much evidence to the contrary at this point to provide optimism that can ever happen to the extent we thought it could under Harbaugh.
A frequent question asked is, “well who do you think can come in and do better?” I’m not sure, but if the bar has been lowered to who might be able to be better than losing as three touchdown favorites in a rivalry game, we might start having a very different conversation.