Skip to main content

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