Harbinger for Harbaugh
By RJ Young
Special to FOX Sports
No one needs a win more than Michigan on Saturday. You know it. Michigan fans know it. The Wolverines’ opponent, No. 13 Wisconsin, knows it, too.
Michigan is 1-2, and those two losses are a couple of the worst of the Jim Harbaugh era, given the circumstances. After thumping then-No. 21 Minnesota in prime time to open this truncated Big Ten season, Michigan suffered a debilitating loss to in-state rival Michigan State at the Big House. The Wolverines followed that up by getting trounced on the road at Indiana 38-21, setting off alarm bells all across Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh is likely to continue to hear all that noise as fans’ expectations for winning the conference crown — if not now, then soon — continue to reduce the patience among the Maize and Blue faithful
"Our expectations are to win this game," said Harbaugh of the contest against Wisconsin on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, ABC). "My enthusiasm and attacking this with our team, that’s where we see the opportunity. Win this game. Get prepared for it. The expectations are having a great day today."
It’s not just that Harbaugh has just one win in seven games at Michigan Stadium against MSU and Ohio State. It’s that Harbaugh’s loss to the Spartans came during Mel Tucker’s first trip to the Big House. With Sparty’s 27-24 victory, Tucker became the first MSU coach to win in his first trip to Ann Arbor since Nick Saban performed the same feat — in 1995.
Saban has since won at least one national title at two programs, and MSU has played in more College Football Playoffs than Michigan — at a grand total of one.
Then the Wolverines followed up with an even bigger embarrassment the next week with a lopsided loss to a school widely acknowledged not for its pigskin but for its round-ball. No. 13 Indiana is one of the most pleasant surprises of 2020, and the Hoosiers proved that with their decisive victory against Harbaugh’s men in Bloomington, Ind.
The win was the first for Indiana against Michigan since 1987. That decisive result generated a perfectly reasonable question that would’ve sounded perfectly unreasonable one month ago.
Is Michigan that bad, or is Indiana just that good?
FOX Sports analyst Brock Huard called the game and answered the question. Yes, that’s a good Hoosier team. A team that knows who it is and, more importantly, who they are not.
"As far as Michigan goes, is that a bad Michigan team?" Huard asked in a phone conversation with me this week. "That is the most inexperienced Michigan team I’ve seen since I’ve covered them for the last 10 years."
It’s one thing to lose to a proud MSU program. It’s quite another to lose to a team that has not only been a perennial cellar-dweller (one winning season since 2008), but one that reflects the kind of program Michigan is supposed to be in Harbaugh’s Year 6 — undefeated and charging at Ohio State.
So what in the name of Glenn E. Schembechler is going in Ann Arbor?
"I think that this is a confluence of a ton of really negative events," Huard said.
And what a run of events it has been.
The Wolverines are young. They lost 10 players to last April’s NFL Draft. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is breaking in a new starting quarterback, Joe Milton, and dealing with the loss of wide receivers Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. Michigan is also replacing three starters on its offensive line.
Don Brown’s defense is in worse shape with five starters lost to the draft, including two linebackers and two in the defensive backfield. The loss of leadership and experience shows, but that’s exactly what Harbaugh and his staff get paid to coach. Not to rebuild, but to reload.
"Next man up" is as much their ethos as "Let’s Go Blue."
Another event: Harbaugh’s $8 million annual salary has become an albatross rather than a mark of his value to the program. Only three college football coaches make more than him: Saban, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and LSU Ed Orgeron. All three have won a national title in the last three years.
When Harbaugh signed his contract in 2015, the money came with the expectation that he’d join Saban, Swinney and Orgeron on that list. After all, just three years prior to his donning that enormous duckbill Michigan hat, he coached the San Francisco 49ers to an appearance in the Super Bowl.
Instead, he has watched the Buckeyes continue to lord over their division and their conference, leaving little doubt who the Big Ten belongs to. Harbaugh hasn’t won a conference championship at any level since 2012, and his last college football conference title came in 2006 — at FCS San Diego in the Pioneer League, which doesn’t even award athletic scholarships.
Even with a good-to-great, but not outstanding, record at Michigan as head coach, Harbaugh's lack of wins against his rivals and in big games has grated fans even more than his eccentricities.
Then there is the recruiting trail. After finishing as high as No. 5 in the composite recruiting rankings in 2017, Michigan slipped back to No. 14 in 2020. Still, the Wolverines were looking to close the gap between themselves and the Buckeyes last season.
Expectations in Ann Arbor are for the program to become equal with the measuring stick that is Buckeyes football. But while Michigan can claim it keeps pace with OSU’s player development, the Wolverines have been outclassed on the field. When The Game comes ‘round, Michigan gets played like Dollar Bill did Blue at the Players Club.
Only Georgia has more (16) former five-star recruits on its roster than Ohio State (14) this year. Michigan counts just two five-star players on their 2020 roster.
"It’s just not comparable," Huard said in our call. "I mean the number of four and five-star (players) in particular, between Columbus and Ann Arbor is startling and striking. If you want to win like Ohio State, win 12 games and win a national title and get to the Playoff numerous times, you need the elite of elite talent. And while Jim had good recruiting classes, borderline great, they’re not elite."
With Michigan’s start to 2020 — even in one as unprecedented as this one — the discussion has already begun to churn about whether Harbaugh should be allowed to return.
To which the answer is yes.
The answer is yes, because he has won 10 games in his first four seasons and never finished worse than 8-5 in any season before this one.
The answer is yes, because he has proven he can develop talent the NFL wants. Indeed, Harbaugh’s ultimate feather at UM has been the 31 Wolverines drafted during his first five years, and that is the biggest recruiting edge any college coach can claim.
The answer is yes, because as weird and awkward as Harbaugh has proven to be, he has not lost his team.
Win against a top 15 Wisconsin and pull off what would feel like a miracle — beat Ohio State for the first time — and that yes gets to be not only emphatic but exclaimed.
However, if Michigan falls to 1-3 — and gets blasted in its Dec. 12 trip to Columbus — that noise is only going to get more and more difficult to ignore.
RJ Young is a Fox Sports contributor. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Grantland and OUInsider. You can find more of his work on The RJ Young Show podcast on YouTube. He doesn't like it when his socks get wet.