Heading into this season, Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan had been a roller coaster.
In his fourth year as head coach of U-M, the pressure was on for Harbaugh to win — especially against rivals and ranked opponents. A statistic that he went o-fer in 2017.
Things didn’t get better to kick off the 2018 season.
Following the Week 1 loss to Notre Dame, media and fans alike hit an all-time high of disbelief in Harbaugh and the future of Michigan football with him at the helm.
Fast forward to Week 11, Michigan is playing its 10th game of the season, and the Wolverines are 8-1, undefeated in the Big Ten and three wins away from a trip to Indy for the program’s 43rd Big Ten Championship.
Harbaugh has his team on a Revenge Tour, including three consecutive wins over ranked opponents. The defense is clearly the best in the country through 10 weeks, and the offense learned how to score touchdowns more than once a game.
This team’s good — real good — and while there’s a lot of people to thank for it, if you’re a Michigan fan, no one should be getting higher praise than Harbaugh.
If Michigan can power through Rutgers and Indiana, it’s a win in Columbus away from that trip to Indy and a potential Coach of the Year award for Harbaugh.
All of that begs the question, how has Harbaugh gone from overrated-chicken-hater to COTY candidate?
Let’s look at the timeline.
Early success and a third-year drop-off
Michigan’s combined 20-3 record in Harbaugh’s first two seasons in Ann Arbor was promising — but not satisfying. Despite the 20 wins, Harbaugh had an 0-2 record against Ohio State and a 1-1 record against Michigan State.
In Harbaugh’s debut season in 2015, Michigan ended the season with a blowout victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Despite getting blown out by the Buckeyes and losing in dramatic (fumbled punt) fashion to the Spartans, the 2015 season was encouraging, given Harbaugh turned a 5-7 team the year before to 10-3 in a year’s time.
In 2016, before getting upset by Iowa as the No. 2 ranked team in the country, Michigan, like this season, controlled its destiny to head to Indy and a potential College Football Playoff berth. But a questionable spot and a Curtis Samuel overtime leap into the end zone sent the Wolverines home packing and its fans wanting more than just another bowl game. U-M went to the Orange Bowl with quarterback Wilton Speight, and despite a late comeback, lost to Florida State.
And it was downhill from there.
U-M finished an abysmal — by Michigan standards — 8-5 in 2017, including a horrid bowl loss to South Carolina and losses to every ranked opponent and rival on the schedule. Its quarterbacks had no time to throw due to one of the worst offensive line performances in program history. Not to mention, the perceived savior of the season, Brandon Peters, is a third-string quarterback on this year’s team (though, with Dylan McCaffrey’s injury, he could become the backup to Shea Patterson).
To put it plain: things were bad a year ago.
Which led to …
Harbaugh, uncharacteristically, makes changes
After losing Jedd Fisch — U-M’s associate head coach — to an offensive coordinator job at UCLA in 2016, Harbaugh replaced him with Pep Hamilton (Browns’ OC) and added Greg Frey (Indiana OL coach) to team up with longtime Harbaugh assistant, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno. Harbaugh elected to have a grad assistant as his de facto wide receivers coach.
Following 2017’s awful performance on the offensive line and the receivers going nine (!!) games without a receiving touchdown, Harbaugh and Co. made changes.
No coaches were fired — Harbaugh’s never fired an assistant — but you can guess why coaches that didn’t intend on leaving Ann Arbor for a new job did exactly that.
Hamilton remains on staff under the same role as Pass Game Coordinator.
Drevno resigned and landed at USC as its Run Game Coordinator.
Frey was hired at his alma mater, Florida State, in a similar role, not even a year later.
The graduate assistant left for a job with Indiana State.
What happened next changed the landscape of Michigan’s future under Harbaugh.
Numbers don’t lie
Harbaugh replaced Drevno and Frey with Ed Warinner — a former Ohio State offensive coordinator and Minnesota offensive line coach. Widely regarded as one of the best position coaches in college football, Warinner’s hire, though never expected given his ties, was pure genius for the program.
Under Drevno in 2017, Michigan’s offensive line ranked 111th in the country in sacks allowed, allowing 2.77 per game. In tackles for loss allowed, the unit ranked 90th in the country, allowing 6.39 per game.
Under Warinner in 2018, through nine games, Michigan’s offensive line ranks 37th in the country, allowing 1.56 sacks per game and ranks 28th in the country in tackles for loss, allowing 5.0 per game.
Against AP Top 25 opponents in 2017, the Wolverines ranked 103rd nationally in sacks allowed, at an average of 4.5 sacks per game.
Against ranked opponents in 2018, it ranks 62nd nationally, which isn’t alarmingly high, but the unit’s allowing just 2.0 sacks per game, over 50-percent less than last season.
Finally, in 2017, against ranked opponents, Michigan allowed 7.0 tackles for loss a game, ranking 64th in the country.
Through nine games in 2018, it’s allowing just 5.3 per game, good for 30th in the country.
(It’s worth noting that the “vs. ranked opponents stat” has its flaws. Some teams don’t play any ranked teams by year’s end and some are only playing one or two. Thus, a team like Middle Tennessee State currently ranks No. 1 in sacks allowed against ranked opponents, thanks to playing zero ranked opponents. For example, Michigan’s tied with Clemson at 62nd in sacks allowed against AP Top 25 teams.)
Given the receivers failures to produce in 2017, Harbaugh found another unlikely name for a job in ex-Florida head coach Jim McElwain, who Harbaugh hired to be U-M’s wide receivers coach.
Say what you will about his success as a head coach at UF, but he and assistant Roy Roundtree have done Warinner-like things to this position group.
In 2017, through 13 games, Michigan’s top-three leading receivers included two tight ends and one receiver. Senior wide receiver Grant Perry led the team in receiving yards with 307, followed by tight ends Zach Gentry (303) and Sean McKeon (301).
Through nine games in 2018, Michigan’s top-three leading receivers include two receivers and one tight end. Sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins (373 yards) leads the way, followed by Donovan Peoples-Jones (364) and Gentry (350).
Through nine games, Michigan’s top-three receives already combine for 176 yards more than its top trio did through 13 games last season.
And they still haven’t faced Rutgers or Indiana, two of the Big Ten’s three-worst defenses.
What’s most staggering is the touchdown numbers for the wide receivers this season compared to last.
Peoples-Jones, alone, has four more touchdowns (7) than Michigan’s receivers combined for last season (3). U-M receivers have already combined for 12 receiving touchdowns compared to just three last season.
Additionally, in 2017, U-M scored nine receiving touchdowns while allowing 11. In 2018, it’s already scored 16 receiving touchdowns to its opponents’ six.
The smartest thing Harbaugh’s ever done at Michigan is something he was known for almost never doing: coaching changes.
The Revenge Tour
All of that leads us to the present.
Michigan’s the hottest team in the country not named Alabama. It’s won three consecutive games against ranked opponents at a combined score of 101-27. Only 13 of those 27 points allowed didn’t come in garbage time. And of those 13 points scored, seven of them stem from a 7-yard touchdown drive for Michigan State as a result of a Chris Evans fumble at U-M’s own 7-yard line.
The offense put up 42 points on Penn State (13 in 2017), 38 on Wisconsin (10 in 2017) and 21 on Michigan State (10 in 2017).
The defense allowed 563 yards in that three-game span, while the offense gained 1,242 yards.
That’s a 679-yard difference against three Top 25 teams.
U-M’s drastic one-year improvement has turned Harbaugh into a far less talked about subject. Maybe that’s because his antics are down — or maybe it’s because he’s winning.
A lot of this team’s success can be credited to Don Brown, as he’s coordinated Michigan’s defense to being no. 1 in the country in two-of-three seasons. The only year it wasn’t no. 1, it was no. 3.
You can credit new hires Warinner and McElwain for this season’s success offensively.
Nonetheless, if Harbaugh was solely to blame for Michigan’s losses, then he deserves the same energy for his team’s incredible one-year turnaround.
Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s been a roller coaster. Now, Harbaugh and his Wolverines have found balance as it’s inches away from a Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff berth.
And Harbaugh might just walk out of it as college football’s Coach of the Year.
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