The Michigan Wolverines are not the Ohio State Buckeyes. This is not a hot take, and it is a sobering reality of the state of what is supposed to be one of the great rivalries in all of sports. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his football program have been close — painfully close — a few times and busting through, but through five seasons, they have nothing to show for it.
Ari Wasserman, who covers OSU for the The Athletic, was on Andy Staples’ podcast this morning and cited the Wolverines’ decreased presence on the recruiting trail in Ohio (which can be debated) as a reason they lag behind.
“They’re not in Ohio,” Wasserman said. “Traditionally speaking, Michigan’s best players in program history have come from Ohio — and they’re not in it. Like, if you go back and you look, there was a huge difference from the 2009 to the 2013 classes. Total, I think there were 88 four or five-star prospects in Ohio, and Michigan signed 17. From 2013 to currently, I think they’ve signed five. But they’re not in the state anymore. They’re not even trying. And they have this national recruiting brand — I think they’re in Texas, California, Florida and New Jersey. And they’re trying to be this national — early on, but they’ve completely forgotten what their bread and butter is.”
This post is not to dunk on a take I do not necessarily agree with, or to stand on a soapbox. But the further we get from the end of last season and a five-year sample size, there is a bit of clarity on this end as to just what has gone on with this program.
Michigan Football is in a fairly stable (and honestly, mostly healthy) place. That’s how the resume reads and that is how people inside that building feel about where things are at. The fanbase, especially on social media, is not exactly in that same place, nor are a lot of the media detractors who have been winding up to throw stones for years. The Wolverines as an institution pretty regularly have a target on their backs because of that. I also want to make clear that I am by no means calling the fanbase crazy. There are bad eggs in every group. It is a shame that some people are so brazen and boisterous that it gives the rest of you a bad name. That honestly stinks.
Michigan is a top 10-15 program in the country as currently constructed. They are going to win at least 9-10 games almost every year. They very rarely lose games they are not supposed to lose. But the performance in big games and big moments is too large a sample size to ignore. They have struggled majorly to go out and win those coin flip games.
When reflecting on what ails this program, most of what happens is self-inflicted. They have lacked the type of focus and execution that championship-level teams have. The 2016 team was quite literally inches away from this and we thought the 2018 team was ready for it, but it all came crashing down in the final week of the season. Even this year, for as embarrassing as the Ohio State game was yet again, they were a Hassan Haskins-cut into a running lane away from making it an eight-point game in the fourth quarter.
They jumped offsides on a punt in that game. They fumbled in the redzone. They got blitzed early in losses at Penn State and Wisconsin. When they tell you they believe they have as much talent, or talent that can keep up in these big games, and that they feel that they were only a few plays here and there away from victories, there is merit to that.
Elite talent or improved results on the recruiting trail can certainly overshadow some of those flaws, but the Wolverines do not recruit scrubs. There have been a pretty good amount of four-star misses or transfers over the years (go look at who is left from the 2017 class), and that is something that has to be addressed. Outside of a few position groups, player development is something that can certainly be improved.
At the end of the day, what hurts Michigan is, well, Michigan. Say what you will about Harbaugh, but there is a self-awareness about certain aspects that need to improve, like changing offenses, replacing/upgrading assistants, etc. I don’t believe their shortcomings have to due with a lack of effort. It simply looks and feels like a litany of missed opportunities, a lack of adequate preparedness in key moments and a little bad luck mixed in.
So how does it change? That much is anybody’s guess. It is so much harder to take a good program and make it elite than it is to take it from middling and mediocre to respectable. Harbaugh has done the latter, and Michigan football is better for it. But it also feels like his version of this program has hit its ceiling, at least through five years.
For Michigan to turn the tides at the top of the conference under this regime, it might just take a special player or special group of guys to get the job done and maybe some of the bad luck they have had making its way south of the state line. That said, fortune favors the well-prepared, and the perceived gap in fortunes between the Wolverines and Buckeyes kind of tells you where the difference is.
Blowing everyone out the door and hoping you can fire the money cannon to fix your problems guarantees nothing. There is a path forward for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, but things inside that building will have to be looked at. But at some point, another year passing by without any notable hardware warrants a conversation about what exactly we are doing here.