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Seven-Step Drop: Jim Harbaugh Raised Michigan's Floor, But the Ceiling Remains as Far Away as Ever

Seven-Step Drop: Jim Harbaugh Raised Michigan's Floor, But the Ceiling Remains as Far Away as Ever

Seven-Step Drop: Jim Harbaugh Raised Michigan's Floor, But the Ceiling Remains as Far Away as Ever

Becoming a one-week wonder is easy to do in college football. This is, after all, a sport based on the swings of competence from a wildly inconsistent group of young adults. It's especially true when you throw in trying to play in the middle of a pandemic and all that entails in 2020.

So maybe all those overreactions to Week 1 of the Big Ten season were... just overreactions. Perhaps not when it came to the case of Ohio State but certainly so regarding most of the rest of the league. Particularly so when it came to a certain program in maize and blue. Michigan went from having whispers of being able to compete for something at the end of the year to, well, chumps among their large and passionate fan base after a 27-24 loss to Michigan State on Saturday.

You knew the team was in for a long day despite being 25-point favorites when there was third down late in the first half and QB Joe Milton was taken off the field in the red zone. The Wolverines went Wildcat and attempted a jump pass that was nearly intercepted by a leaping Michigan State linebacker. That near-disaster was indicative of the team's struggles and underscored why Michigan has yet to truly break through to the level the fan base thinks they should be at. After all, if you take the first quarterback you've recruited and developed from start to finish off the field in a key situation, just how do you expect to contend with that same player against the likes of Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson? Heck, even Georgia's well-documented passing game struggles think that's a questionable decision.

And maybe more to the point, it's indicative of the failings yet again during what might be Jim Harbaugh's worst loss at his alma mater. They didn't just lose to a Michigan State program coming off a turnover-filled L to Rutgers, they were soundly beaten. They were out-coached. They were out-played. The Wolverines had better players but somehow made the gap nonexistent between them and their brothers from East Lansing.

That is an indictment all itself as much as making your young quarterback throw 51 times against the Spartans.

Harbaugh simply hasn't done what was widely expected of him after his stint at Stanford and the NFL: develop a signal-caller into a game-changing passer and elevate the program into the nation's elite. He's gone through as many offensive coordinators as he's had wins against the in-state rival and chief nemesis (three combined). The defense he's assembled with Don Brown has come up short against both the ranked teams they need to beat and the unranked ones they should beat after getting off the bus.

And while fans of Nebraska may find themselves asking these same questions about their own program, things are slightly different in Ann Arbor. The expectations of a return to glory may be as lofty in both places but the bar is higher for the one that has won in rarified fashion over the decades. The recruiting tends to be better because Michigan is a supposed national power, both with a better local base to build on and a better brand name elsewhere around the country. The academics are excellent, the city is great and the facilities are all in place.

Yet it has never coalesced into the kind of program many expected once they triumphantly lured the famous alum back home from the NFL ranks. Maybe expectations were out of whack to begin with but it's more accurate to say that Harbaugh simply hasn't delivered and call it a day.

Lincoln Riley was handed Oklahoma and become a College Football Playoff regular. Ryan Day seamlessly took over at the school to the south and has kept Ohio State among the nation's elite. Kirby Smart was in the national title game in Year 2. Even Chris Petersen managed more success in a similar six-year period at Washington before calling it quits (and he was never close to the kind of recruiter that the Michigan head coach is). Brian Kelly, at a program with a similar profile, is on his third run of 12 straight wins and looks to be in line for a second final four appearance depending on what happens next week. None had the resume Harbaugh did coming.

Tellingly, Kelly may reach a conference title game at Notre Dame before Harbaugh has at UM. And that right there just says it all. The Wolverines floor has been raised, surely, under their head coach to become a consistent top-20 program with the occasional trip to a major warm-weather bowl. They'll send about half a dozen or more players to the NFL each spring and be lauded for a lack of troubles away from the field.

But this is college football, and no matter how good you have done there is always more to do. And if you're not even at that level, then things like what happened against the Spartans expose those issues even more.

Ask any coach and they'll tell you that the leap from 9-10 wins to 11-12 and a title is the hardest to make — harder than going from 2-10 to a bowl game in today's day and age of cupcakes and also-rans. Harbaugh frankly doesn't appear capable of wringing out that extra bit of juice from a place he clearly loves dearly but has been unable to get right. Outside of Saturday's loss, he generally won the games you expected them to and rarely lost the ones they should have. With just one more year left on his contract after this one though, decision time has arrived for the UM brass to figure out where to go from here with a coach who has gone 48-19 but has consistently proven that next leap isn't coming under his watch.

Who would Michigan even target if a separation — either by Harbaugh leaving to the NFL or the school pulling the rip cord — occurs? The top target for most schools would likely be Cincinnati's Luke Fickell, who has the Bearcats in prime contention to make the New Year's Six at the moment. But Fickell is an Ohio native through and through and played for the rival Buckeyes. If he turned down Michigan State's riches, there's very little to suggest that he'll give into the school he has quite literally hated most of his football playing and coaching life.

Would Matt Campbell be worth it? Will the "Michigan Men" who discuss such things with athletic director Warde Manuel be comfortable hiring a coach from Iowa State or does it not carry the cachet needed? Will those same decision makers be comfortable with Boston College's Jeff Hafley, given his short resume but long experience at a rival who knows what to do in order to beat them? Or does somebody beckon out of the NFL to take a chance on?

It will all be worth monitoring as this strange year continues in Ann Arbor and beyond. After Saturday though, it's hard to see anything other than the fact that everybody's favorite khaki-wearer has raised Michigan's floor, but the ceiling remains as far away as ever.

Here are six other thoughts from the weekend in college football:

2. Clemson's CFP future with or without Trevor Lawrence

The college football world experienced yet another seismic COVID-induced shock in the middle of last week when Clemson confirmed that Heisman front-runner Trevor Lawrence returned a positive test and had entered isolation. While much of the post-diagnosis talk centered on his status for the upcoming showdown against Notre Dame (which was later rendered moot by Dabo Swinney saying he was out), there was still the case of his backup, freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, filling in and getting a win over a pesky Boston College team.

Well, the young signal-caller delivered against the Eagles by overcoming a slow start and throwing for 342 yards, two touchdowns and running for another to help seal the win (and not at all looking like a 250-pounder while scampering 30 yards to the end zone). It was yet another case of why the Tigers are operating on a different level compared to all but three (or four) others in the sport right now as they simply trotted out a ready-made five-star as the fill-in for a generational quarterback who all but assuredly will be the No. 1 pick next spring.

For as good as Uiagalelei was vs. Boston College though, Clemson's present (and future) when it comes to winning another national title remains interesting to look at. On one hand, the absence of Lawrence in a loss to the Irish would seemingly absolve the CFP Selection Committee and allow them to keep the Tigers in the top four when they release their first set of rankings. It could even help the ACC secure half of the playoff field if things broke the right way too.

Yet what makes Lawrence one of those rarified players is that he covers up so many of a team's flaws. We saw some of those pop up early in the game when Boston College threatened to take control for good. A veteran like Lawrence would have found the right mesh point amid a lazy handoff from Travis Etienne or known when to back down the tempo slightly to give his banged-up defense an extra rest. Uiagalelei looks the part of a future star but when it comes to key third-down conversions under pressure, there's only one QB on the roster that rises above — whether that's against the Irish or in a semifinal against Ohio State, Alabama or others.

The absence of Lawrence seems unlikely to do a ton in terms of keeping out a contender like Clemson from the playoff but it does open the door for the Nick Sabans, Ryan Days or Kirby Smarts of the world to evaluate the fringes of the roster that they might not otherwise get a chance to with the signal-caller under center like normal. Getting healthy remains paramount for Dabo's crew before late December rolls around but it is apparent that for as good as the program is right now, they still have a few flaws worth exploiting.

So for everybody not in various shades of red or green in the next few weeks, there sure are a lot of folks in purple and orange hoping for a quick recovery from the sport's biggest name.

3. Gap between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten looks like the Grand Canyon

More ink was spilled about the return of Big Ten football this spring, summer and fall but in the end, isn't the conclusion simply inevitable?

It sure seems that way at least after Ohio State's routine dispatching of Penn State in a soullessly empty Beaver Stadium on Saturday night. Even the final score of 38-25 didn't seem to indicate the disparity between the two programs, with the latter making some nice plays in the second half to threaten a backdoor cover at the same time the former was flexing some undiscovered strengths in areas like the defensive line or in the run game. Justin Fields was fantastic to nobody's surprise with 318 yards and four scores passing, throwing some eye-watering darts with the same ease he escaped the light pressure the Nittany Lions put on him.

Now, after confirming they're still among the nation's elite by eye test and knocking off two of the biggest name brands on their shortened schedule, what exactly is there left for this team to do now? Who is left in OSU's way?

Up next is Rutgers, which remains Rutgers despite looking quite competent under former Buckeyes DC Greg Schiano this season. Maryland notched a win behind the impressive play of Taulia Tagovailoa but neither the Terrapins nor Illinois reflects the profile of a team that can pull one of those late surprises in conference play we've saw in Urban Meyer's final few seasons.

Indiana would seemingly fit the bill and have given the Buckeyes games in the past but that's both in Columbus and Ryan Day will be able to point to that upset of Penn State a week ago as reason to take the Hoosiers seriously. Still, the only ones left until a College Football Playoff semifinal game that even comes close in terms of talent would be Michigan and, as stated above, The Game remains more like "a game" to collect golden trinkets later on for the Buckeyes with few exceptions the past 15 years.

So we're back to where we began when the B1G announced its return: wondering if anybody can truly make a run at Ohio State. At full strength though and without any COVID-19 issues, that gap remains as large as ever. While we used to chide teams like Clemson for how weak their weekly competition is in-league, the fact remains that the Buckeyes aren't really getting much of a boost from their Midwestern peers as much as it looks like an anchor amid a gulf of expectations.

4. Texas knocks off Oklahoma State

In terms of shifting the narrative from the hot seat to the field, few did better last weekend than Tom Herman did. Following Texas' lackluster win over Baylor, the fan base was sent over the edge by a slew of recruiting decommitments, including from No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2022, QB Quinn Ewers.

What's the best cure for the 'crootin blues? Well, a 41-34 upset of Oklahoma State for one to get right back into the thick of the muddled Big 12 race. The Longhorns flipped the script from what they normally are used to, with the Sam Ehlinger-led offense sputtering for the most part while their defense came up with timely stop after timely stop. OSU QB Spencer Sanders nearly kept the Cowboys undefeated but turnovers led to double-digit points the other way and he was sacked in overtime to end the game.

It was UT's first road win over a top-10 opponent since, remarkably, 2010. It also underscores that for all the doom and gloom surrounding the 'Horns the past month, they are a bit closer to being the Big 12 favorites than where most in burnt orange regard them to be. They inexplicably lost the ball to drop one to TCU and had their chances against rival OU before falling in four OTs. If they got some of the breaks they received on Saturday night in those games, the narrative would be less about Herman's hot seat and more about their status as a contender for the final playoff spot.

But you still are what your record says you are, as the old Bill Parcells adage goes. And while 4-2 isn't the standard most judge Texas on (much less the school being "back") but it's better than the alternative. And thankfully for Herman and those on the coaching staff, that's not something that's being talked about as they return to Austin to face West Virginia.

5. Cincinnati firmly enters playoff discussion

Pandemic or not, Cincinnati was always widely viewed as one of the favorites in the AAC based on the roster they returned and therefore were a front-runner to get the Group of 5 bid in 2020 as a conference champion. Though the league has been dominated by the flashiest offenses this side of Oklahoma, Luke Fickell's program had quietly (and steadily) been building toward a season like this on the backs of their stellar defense — complemented by an efficient, yet irregular, offense that often did just enough.

It seemed early on in 2020 that things would proceed according to just such blueprint in a romp over FCS Austin Peay and closer than expected wins over Army and a dreadful USF squad. Their game against Tulsa was moved due to a coronavirus outbreak (and now looms larger the first week of December) but it was pretty clear that the meat of the team's schedule, where they would truly be tested, would come with a stretch of at SMU, against reigning champs Memphis and an additional effort against Houston in Nippert.

Well, so far so good after knocking off the first two of those contenders in convincing fashion in back-to-back eye-openers. Last week the Bearcats went down to the Hilltop and held the Mustangs to just 13 points. The stout unit led by DC Marcus Freeman didn't take a breather either, one-upping that effort on Saturday by keeping Memphis off balance all day long in a 49-10 rout. While the level of defensive play (both talent and scheme) is what separates this program from past Group of 5 contenders, it is an increasing offensive output against some of the better AAC teams that is what's really starting to turn heads.

Yes, in this day and age, you're really only as good as your latest test results but it continues to look more and more like a special season at UC if they can keep taking care of business like this. While a major New Year's Six bowl is nothing to scoff at, the fact that guys like QB Desmond Ridder keep getting better with each passing game is raising expectations thusly.

Typically this budding playoff talk is nothing more than that, just talk — especially given the lack of non-conference games for the Selection Committee to weigh each conference on. But the tape doesn't lie and Cincy is starting to put together enough of it to get the attention of people voting on such things. That play, between the lines, will always be the driver as to whether the Bearcats' ceiling does indeed include the No. 4 ranking come the end of December.

Yet one can't help but look around at the flames engulfing other conferences and think that Fickell and company are getting a little outside help too. The Pac-12 remains a long shot given their shortened season could result in playing half as many games. The Big 12 has no undefeated teams and didn't distinguish itself in the rare non-conference tests either. Alabama winning out means there could be at most one SEC team with just one loss and the ACC's elite will also find themselves beating each other up. Plus, if the Irish lose to Clemson twice or Miami sits there at one-loss, are we convinced they are truly better than a veteran roster that has done the work on the field? Oh, and it's not like the Big Ten is throwing in a slew of challengers outside Ohio State.

So is the door opened? Yes, it's cracked just enough for Cincinnati to at least join the discussion if they keep winning like they have the past two weeks. The uphill battle remains but the path is still there — something many other Group of 5 programs haven't been able to say as the calendar hits November.

6. SEC keeps figuring out Mike Leach, Bama keeps getting more terrifying

With each passing week in the SEC, the aberration that was Mississippi State 44, LSU 34 looks that much more glaring. That game, which seemed to write a lot of narratives about both coaches in the wake of turbulent journeys toward the season, will likely be brought up online and in broadcasts until the end of the year but its importance as a tone-setter for each program seems to fade with each lackluster outing the teams turn in.

It's particularly galling for the Bulldogs after they were blanked by Alabama 41-0 on Saturday night. Nick Saban vs. Mike Leach was fun to banter about in the summer but wasn't even close to being called a fight between two of the more notable minds on either side of the ball in college football the past two decades. The Tide were relentless from the start and never seemed to let up even once the backups were in running the show. Leach has been a head coach for 19 years and went 231 games scoring at least one touchdown but his trademark Air Raid has now been kept out of the end zone twice in the past three games at MSU. He also was shutout for the first time ever against Alabama.

It's not hard to see why the notoriously stubborn coach would be a tough fit in the SEC as the league around him has adjusted to the state of things while he has not (in addition to the roster being thinned out in various ways).

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So yeah. The Bulldogs did see QB K.J. Costello knocked out in the first half Saturday and have had little run threat since Kylin Hill left with an injury against the Razorbacks (and has reportedly since opted out of the rest of the season) but the book is out on Leach and he's learning the hard way what life is like against teams that have top-25 talent every single week. Such a demise was probably expected by some but few could have seen this kind of collapse coming so quickly. More discouraging to State fans: there's seemingly little way out either at the moment.

The flip side is that Alabama does this to pretty much everybody though, especially this Alabama. We've seen weekly progress on the defensive side of the ball leading up to the shutout and the offense continues to shine even despite the loss of top playmaker Jaylen Waddle. It's downright scary how effective DeVonta Smith (203 yards, 4 TDs) was despite seemingly increased attention and tailback Najee Harris has to be having the quietest year ever for somebody averaging 119 rushing yards with 14 scores.

Indeed, the death star seems so fully operational at this point that ESPN notably brought up this graphic comparing the Tide to last year's darlings LSU. While the Tigers very much have a claim on being one of the best teams ever based on their run to the title, the similarities have been pretty apparent in the numbers — to say nothing of Bama doing it against SEC-only competition.

It sometimes becomes hard to fathom at just what kind of juggernaut Saban keeps assembling in Tuscaloosa but games like that one against the Bulldogs sure does reinforce how they're simply operating on a different scale than the rest of their conference peers.

7. Pac-12, MAC supercharge next week

While we are going to stick to sports, we would be remiss if a bunch of people wouldn't mind taking their minds off events elsewhere next week. Luckily college football will happily oblige with perhaps the best weekend on the calendar so far.

From start to finish, that is a fun weekend of football.

Tweet(s) of the Week

Play of the Week

Stat of the Week

The last time Maryland had a 300-yard passer prior to Taulia Tagovailoa on Friday night, the school was in the ACC (10/12/2013). The last time San Jose State was 2-0 in conference play, they were in the WAC (in 2011).

Superlatives of the Week

Best player: Joseph Ossai, Texas

Team of the Week: Michigan State

Goat of the Week: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Heisman Five: 1. Zach Wilson (BYU), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 4. Kyle Pitts (Florida), 5. Mac Jones (Alabama)

Projected Playoff: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Ohio State, 4. Texas A&M

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Clemson, Sugar Bowl — Alabama vs. Texas A&M, Fiesta Bowl — Notre Dame vs. USC, Orange Bowl — Miami vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — BYU vs. Oklahoma State, Peach Bowl — Cincinnati vs. Georgia

The 25

Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall:

1. Alabama

2. Ohio State

3. Clemson

4. Georgia

5. Cincinnati 

6. BYU

7. Notre Dame

8. Texas A&M 

9. Florida

10. Miami

11. USC

12. Wisconsin

13. Indiana

14. Boise State

15. Oregon

16. Coastal Carolina 

17. Oklahoma State

18. SMU

19. Marshall

20. Iowa State

21. Northwestern

22. Oklahoma

23. Texas

24. Army

25. Cal

Pre-Snap Reads

Arizona State at USC

Pac-12 Before Brunch! Going to be fascinating to see which team gets off to a slow start as Pac-12 play kicks off at 9 a.m. PT. Arizona State is a real dark horse in the league with Jayden Daniels back and a host of speedy skill position talent but the Trojans are still the front-runners for both the Pac-12 South and conference overall. Something bizarre is bound to happen (tipped pick-six? Hail Mary?) but the home team winds up on the right side of the win column in a close one in the end. The Pick: ASU +11

Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)

The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party might be brewing something else depending on how full the stands are in Duval but the intriguing matchup remains the Gators' prolific offense vs. the Bulldogs' stout D. The latter will likely fare a tad better than they did against Alabama in their first SEC heavyweight meeting but Richard LeCounte's injury might change their overall outlook in the secondary. No outcome would really surprise in this rivalry game but I'll trust UF just a tad more in a back-and-forth game. The Pick: Gators +5

Clemson at Notre Dame

Brian Kelly has not so subtly been suggesting that his team has been gearing up to face the Tigers and extract a small measure of revenge for that CFP beatdown a few years ago. While the gap between the two programs overall still seems noticeable, the injuries Dabo Swinney is dealing with combined with Trevor Lawrence's absence evens the playing field. A few weeks ago that may not have affected this pick but the Irish have built up enough steam that they can nab a very close win at home in the ACC showdown of the year. The Pick: Notre Dame +6

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

(Top photo courtesy of @ADreyPhotos)