Harbaugh has work cut out for him in first year with Wolverines

Jim Harbaugh's biggest problem is that he can't do anything about the twin juggernauts residing in East Lansing and Columbus.

Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh got a huge contract from Michigan for one simple reason: Jim Hackett, the interim athletic director, believes he’s the best coach to bring the Wolverines back to the top of college football.

That’s going to take a lot of work.

Michigan has tradition and instant name recognition on its side, and Harbaugh is as well known as any first-year coach in the Big Ten since Urban Meyer. But he’s still trying to rebuild a program that missed a bowl game this season, saw its recruiting class fall apart during Brady Hoke’s last season and is stuck in a division with two of the top-5 teams in the country in Ohio State and Michigan State.

Harbaugh is already putting in the time, using Twitter and old-fashioned legwork to try to rebuild the Wolverines’ incoming class. Numerous prospects, including some committed to other schools, have tweeted about how Harbaugh’s hire has gotten them excited about talking to Michigan, and the perceived upgrade is also working to lure back some of the players who dropped their plans to attend UM as Hoke’s final season unraveled.

However, mid-January is late in the game to try to salvage a recruiting class, so the Wolverines aren’t likely to end up with many four- and five-star recruits on Signing Day. That’s not going to help Harbaugh, but getting highly touted recruits wasn’t enough to salvage Hoke’s career because he was rarely able to coach them up to their perceived potential. That has never been a problem for Harbaugh, who won at Stanford despite having to pick players from the limited pool that qualified to attend one of the country’s toughest academic schools.

Harbaugh has gotten one of his biggest tasks out of the way quickly, building an outstanding staff of assistant coaches. He went back to his successful time at Stanford to grab his coordinators. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno served as Harbaugh’s offensive-line coach with the Cardinal and held the same job with the 49ers, and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin coached defensive ends and special teams at Stanford before becoming Florida’s defensive coordinator.

Former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, one of the few people who came out of the Hoke era with his reputation intact, is staying on as the defensive-line coach. And another former Wolverine star, Tyrone Wheatley, will be in charge of the running backs. Harbaugh also hired Jedd Fisch, who served as the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars this season, to coach wide receivers and the passing game.

The bigger problem for Harbaugh is that he can’t do anything about the twin juggernauts residing in East Lansing and Columbus. The Buckeyes, of course, rolled through the first college-football playoff to win the national title. The Spartans ended up fifth in the polls, having only lost to the two title-game particpants.

Unfortunately for Wolverines fans, neither school is going to be hurting next year, either. The Spartans will lose Jeremy Langford, Tony Lippett and Taiwan Jones, and perhaps even more important, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

But most of Narduzzi’s staff is intact, including new co-coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, and they will still have Shilique Calhoun on the defensive line. Connor Cook will be back at quarterback, as will head coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in four of the last five years and are projected as a top-5 team again this fall.

Ohio State is probably going to lose one member of their three-headed quarterback rotation, even after Cardale Jones decided to stay in school. Braxton Miller, who needs guaranteed playing time to rebuild his NFL stock after missing this season with an injury, is expected to transfer to a school that needs a starter.

But that still leaves Jones, top-5 Heisman finisher J.T. Barnett, Ezekiel Elliott and most of the offensive line that destroyed Oregon in the national-championship game. Add in a defense that will continute to be led by Joey Bosa and Vonn Bell, and — oh, by the way — the best coach in college football in Urban Meyer, and you have the consensus choice to be the NCAA’s second playoff champion, too.

Harbaugh has a lot of work to do, but there’s no questioning his talent and his willingess to put in the hours.

The only a question is if he can do everything expected of him in just one year.