A rough 1-3 start has everyone talking about Harbaugh's future at his alma mater
College football mirrors everyday life in many ways, especially when it comes to expectations on and off the field. In the mantra of "keeping up with the Joneses," Michigan Wolverines fans see their neighbors with flashy rings and new banners hanging around the house every year, so where is their bling? In the "I want it now" era of life in the U.S., from drive-thru food to on-demand streaming, Michigan loyalist want their Big Ten Championships and College Football Playoff berth(s) now, but are those demands of head coach Jim Harbaugh and staff realistic?
Off to a 1-3 start, local sports talk radio and national college football pundits have Harbaugh and Co. in their sights. Suffering through consecutive losses to Michigan State, Indiana, and Wisconsin — two of those at home including the blowout loss to the Badgers (49-11) over the weekend — it is understandable to start asking questions about Harbaugh's ability to lead this team back to the Promised Land, especially with another scheduled meeting against No. 3 Ohio State looming on Dec. 12.
Demands vs. achievements
If one goes by salary alone, per the everyday American's standards, Jim Harbaugh's yearly $7.5 million earnings do call for more accomplishments on the field. In five full seasons in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have gone 10-3 three times, with his worst year so far being 8-5 in 2017.
Even if Harbaugh has never had a "losing" season, beyond beating up on lesser than Big Ten foes for an inflated record, there is nothing else to show for the monetary efforts. Michigan has not won a Big Ten title outright since Lloyd Carr was on the sidelines in 2004 (with a 9-4, 7-1 conference record). Harbaugh enthusiasts will be quick to point out a shared division title in 2018, but the right to play in the Big Ten Championship Game went to... you guessed it, Ohio State. Why? Because the Wolverines were pounded by the Buckeyes 62-39 in the regular-season finale. And besides no conference titles (or even playing for one), Michigan also hasn't come close to earning a playoff berth under Harbaugh.
Compare that to Ohio State, the Wolverines' dreaded archrival. Since Harbaugh has been in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes have won at least a share of the Big Ten East each of the past five years – and that's with Urban Meyer and Ryan Day at the helm. And while tiebreakers cost them a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2015 (Michigan State) and '16 (Penn State), Ohio State has claimed the past three conference titles and, more importantly, has been a part of the playoff twice (and won the inaugural one the season before Harbaugh took over at Michigan).
But while Harbaugh's Wolverines have not measured up against the Buckeyes during his tenure, how has he fared against the other top teams? Perhaps Harbaugh can point to some success in that respect. When looking at Michigan's record against fellow division rivals Penn State and Michigan State and Wisconsin, the West's top team during Harbaugh's tenure, the record is not that impressive.
Harbaugh's 0-5 record against the Buckeyes is well documented, but his teams also are 3-2 against the Nittany Lions, 3-3 against the in-state Spartans, and 2-3 against the Badgers. So against those four teams, Harbaugh is 8-13 or a winning percentage of .381. Against all other Big Ten teams, Harbaugh is 25-2 or a winning percentage of .926. So again, beating teams in the conference hasn't been the issue, it's just beating the right ones.
Another measuring stick all college coaches must live up to is bowl game performances, an area in which Harbaugh has failed miserably. In 2015, Michigan beat Citrus Bowl beating then-No. 19 Florida 41-17 in the Citrus Bowl to cap off a 10-win season. The Wolverines haven't won a bowl game since then, losing in the Orange Bowl (2016), Outback Bowl (2017), Peach Bowl (2018), and Citrus Bowl (2019).
In three of those losses, Michigan was ranked higher, losing to No. 10 Florida State in 2016, unranked South Carolina in 2017, and No. 10 Florida in 2018. Last season, the No. 14 Wolverines fell to No. 13 Alabama 35-16 in a highly anticipated Citrus Bowl matchup that failed to live up to the hype. This is just another indicator of how Harbaugh's Michigan teams have won their share of games, just not the ones that truly matter.
So what's the problem? Is it a lack of talent?
Harbaugh's first recruiting class at Michigan (2015) ranked 37th in the country with six 4-star recruits. After that, the new head Wolverine turned up the heat on the trail, jumping all the way up to No. 8 in 2016 with one 5-start and 13 4-star prospects. His 2017 class finished even higher, landing fifth overall with two 5-stars and 19 4-stars, the most of any team. The next year saw a dip, but Michigan still ended up 22nd in the nation with seven 4-star recruits. The 2019 class put the Wolverines back in the top 10 (eighth) with two 5-stars and 14 four-stars, and his most recent class was ranked 14th earlier this year on the strength of 14 4-star recruits.
According to Athlon Sports' annual roster rankings, Michigan is second only to Ohio State in the Big Ten and eighth overall when it comes to talent based on recruiting rankings. So you can't say Harbaugh hasn't been able to lure highly sought-after players to Ann Arbor.
So if it's not recruiting, is it player development?
Since 2016, when linebacker/defensive back Jabrill Peppers won the Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Paul Hornung Award with a fifth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting, Michigan has not had a national award winner at any position. Perhaps adding to the idea of a lack of development at Michigan, only five players have earned All-American honors in Harbaugh's five seasons: tight end Jake Butt (2015-16), cornerback Jourdan Lewis (2015-16), Peppers (2016), defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (2017), and linebacker Devin Bush (2018). It's worth noting that Butt (2013), Lewis (2013), Hurst (2013), and Peppers (2014) were not Harbaugh's recruits. Only Bush (2016) was one of the players he signed coming out of high school.
Is Michigan still a "blue blood" in college football?
Stats are what one makes of them, and the Wolverines' optimists will tell you Michigan is one of the all-time great football programs, and for good reason. Michigan has the most wins all-time at 963, outpacing Ohio State (924) at No. 2, and Alabama and Texas (916) at No. 3. But it is worth noting that Michigan has played 1,345 games to get to that mark compared to Ohio State (1,303), Alabama (1,290), and Texas (1,324).
A Michigan fan also will point out 11 claimed national championships and five unclaimed. Of the 11 claimed, only one banner-raising season has come in the modern era. Ten of the championship seasons ranged from 1901 to 1948 with the lone standout year coming in 1997. And the Wolverines shared the 1997 national title with Nebraska.
So while Michigan fans may see their program among the elite, it can't be ignored that it's been 23 years since the Wolverines won a national title and 16 years since an outright Big Ten championship. There simply haven't been many memorable or immensely successful seasons in a span that's now approaching two decades. To be fair, Michigan isn't alone in this perceived identity crisis either, as Tennessee, Nebraska, Penn State, even Notre Dame and Georgia to some degree, are among other marquee programs that remain sold on imagery from 20- 30 years ago compared to their more recent body of work.
What does the future hold?
So can Michigan, or any of the aforementioned once-was teams, reclaim their glory? Yes, anything can happen in college football with coaching and talent. Is Harbaugh the coach to lead the Wolverines back to their glory days? History shows otherwise, but perhaps the growing pains experienced by the 2020 team will pay off in 2021? It's not like "wait until next year," is something Michigan fans haven't heard before.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.