Has Michigan’s ceiling under Jim Harbaugh passed?


Michigan (2-1, 0-1) moved to 0-7 as an underdog in the Jim Harbaugh era on Saturday following a 35-14 defeat against Wisconsin.

The Wolverines plummeted nine spots to No. 20 in the AP Poll following the loss — 13 spots lower than their preseason rank at No. 7. Polls are polls. They don’t matter until the latter half of the season, and only the College Football Playoff rankings have a direct effect on the postseason.

Regardless, September hasn’t ended yet and Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have nosedived 13 spots in both the AP & Coaches’ polls. Nobody is impressed. Not the media. Not the coaches. And certainly not the fan base.

We’re five years into this thing. This “resurrection,” of a program once considered a national contender year in and year out was going to be a process. National media built a narrative that Harbaugh, in 2015, was going to turn things around instantly following resounding success in the NFL.

But anyone with a pulse on this program knew that wasn’t going to happen. It was going to take time. It was going to take recruiting. It was going to take the construction of culture.

Early on, it seemed Harbaugh’s Michigan was indeed bound for greatness. They over-performed in his first season that included the QB guru — something the fifth-year head man was called heading into this gig — transitioning a backup at Iowa, Jake Rudock, into the record books as one of U-M’s all-time passing leaders and inevitably an NFL quarterback.

Then, in 2016, Harbaugh was suddenly on the fast track. Maybe the national success wasn’t immediate, but in 2016 it seemed accelerated. Michigan went into Week 10 perfect. Behind the nation’s best defense in Don Brown’s first year at defensive coordinator, the Wolverines were 10-0, outscoring opponents 432-96.

Heading into Columbus to face Ohio State, it all came down to The Game. And like it’s done four consecutive times under Harbaugh, Michigan lost to the Buckeyes. And like it did in three-out-of-four years under Harbaugh, Michigan lost its bowl game.

Controversial spots and injured quarterbacks aside, 2016 was the closest U-M came to beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten East, and heading to the College Football Playoff.

The offseason in 2016 would see mass changes. Some by choice, some not. Jedd Fisch — the associate head coach who was the brains behind the offensive designs — left for UCLA. Tyrone Wheatley — a beloved former player, and a running backs coach who rebirthed U-M’s recruiting success in Detroit — left for the NFL. Safeties coach Brian Smith left to be the defensive coordinator at Rice. Director of Player Personnel Tony Tuioti left for Cal.

Tim Drevno was promoted to offensive coordinator and called the run game. Pep Hamilton came from the NFL to handle quarterbacks and call the passing game. Harbaugh was, I think, the middle man between the two.

Amidst all of the change in 2017, it seemed the program hit rock-bottom under Harbaugh. Finishing 8-4 in the regular season, and again losing its bowl game, the offense had no substance under a thought-to-be offensive genius. Had the defense not been a national power, then Michigan likely watches bowl season from home.

How much of that offense’s woes were due to staff changes is up for interpretation. It finished ranked No. 100 nationally in total offense. It was the worst offense of any FBS program in the state, finishing behind Western Michigan (89), Central Michigan (85), Michigan State (82), and Eastern Michigan (76).

But through all of that turmoil, it seemed Michigan was retooled and reloaded in 2018.

Drevno was gone and Hamilton had the reigns to the offense along with Harbaugh. Jim’s son Jay Harbaugh now coached running backs while ace recruiter Sherrone Moore was tasked with the tight ends. Al Washington was hired away from Cincinnati as linebackers coach. And, oh yeah, Shea Patterson transferred from Ole Miss following a seven-game stretch in 2018 in which he tossed for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns in the SEC.

More shuffling and various personnel changes led to more belief that things would end differently for U-M.

Most of all, though, this was arguably Harbaugh’s most talented team. His best-recruiting class — including Rashan Gary, Devin Bush, David Long, Lavert Hill, Ben Bredeson, Josh Metellus, and Michael Onwenu — were upperclassmen. For Gary, Bush, and Long this would inevitably be their final season.

Again, Michigan disappointed under Harbaugh, losing its season-opener to Notre Dame on the road. Again, losing as an underdog.

Nonetheless, following an impressive 10-game win streak, the Wolverines went into Columbus, again, with a chance at resurrection. A chance to reach its first Big Ten Championship under Harbaugh its first since 2004. Instead, U-M was bullied by the Buckeyes, 62-39, in Urban Meyer’s final regular-season game as Ohio State’s head coach, finishing his career undefeated against Michigan.

As it did in the two years prior, U-M would lose its bowl game. This time to Florida, 41-15, in the Peach Bowl.

And again, Michigan would reshuffle and retool building another offseason convincing us all things would change.
Hamilton was gone in and in came Josh Gattis, the co-offensive coordinator hired away from Alabama. Out was longtime defensive line coach Greg Mattison and Washington, both departing for Ohio State and its newly hired head coach Ryan Day’s staff. Replacing them with Shaun Nua from Arizona State and Anthony Campanile from Boston College.

Through three games, Ohio State is 3-0 and has outscored opponents 214-36.

Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, the return of a senior quarterback, a roster consisting of only Harbaugh guys, and an offense modernized and re-created to be a scoring machine have outscored opponents just 80-77. It beat the teams it should — holding on to defeat Army in double overtime — and was embarrassed as an underdog at Wisconsin, 35-14.
Michigan is 2-1. Its offense ranks 86th nationally. Its defense ranks 35th, its lowest 3-game rank under Don Brown, and its rush defense ranks 103rd. Its pass defense ranks fifth by the benefit of facing a triple-option against Army and Wisconsin, who kept the ball on the ground 57 times to just 16 passes.

In the past, while U-M’s offense has struggled, its defense kept it in big games. Even if it lost, it came up short due to its offense while the defense held its ground.

In the blowout in Madison, both would crumble and be dominated by a Badgers team it might be more athletic than but was nowhere near the better team.

Outcoached, outplayed, outprepared. Yeah, Harbaugh was right when he said that.

Without a dominant defense, how will Harbaugh compensate for another underwhelming offense?

With a schedule consisting of six ranked teams, five of which it would be underdogs against today, how will Harbaugh break his winless streak?

There’s the go-to answer that they’ll figure out. That it takes time for an offense as complex as Gattis’ to manifest and become a consistent unit that limits mistakes and scores points at will. That Don Brown’s unit will look like his defenses of the past. Most of all, that Saturday was a gut-check, similar to Notre Dame last season. And now it’s primed to play mistake-free, flawless football and defies the odds against the likes of the Irish, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan State, and ultimately Ohio State.

But Saturday was no indication of that coming anytime soon.

The easy answer to all of this is the same ‘ol thing. Michigan will win the games it’s supposed to and lose the games it’s not favored in.

This time around that won’t be so easy and the blemish will spread larger as, at this juncture, that’s looking like an 8-win season at best.

Five years in and Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan hasn’t claimed a championship of any sort. It hasn’t beaten Ohio State. And most of all, it hasn’t won as an underdog a single time.

Unless you’re Clemson or Alabama — that formula typically doesn’t end well.

Michigan’s classes don’t compare to the national powers as it did in 2016 and 2017. The 2017 class will lose juniors to the draft, as it always does. There are no future rosters that project to be as loaded as 2016 or 2018 unless Harbaugh outdoes himself.

This roster had those expectations. But here we are.

U-M hasn’t delivered a win we didn’t expect. It hasn’t shown fight enough to win a single game as an underdog in five years. Harbaugh has been outcoached, outprepared, and outplayed on each big stage.

Now, with their backs against the wall, we’ll see if things change. But every time we expect it to, it’s the same ‘ol thing.

This is far from Michigan’s ceiling under Jim Harbaugh.

That has come & gone.

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