Some thoughts on Jim Harbaugh and Michigan’s next new era

(I wrote this Thursday morning, but a never-ending stream of news precluded me from getting it posted in a timely fashion. Nevertheless, nothing I saw in Michigan’s loss to Utah changed my long-term opinion. See thoughts on the game at the end.) 

The Jim Harbaugh Michigan Experiment begins tonight on FOX Sports 1.

I think I’m contractually obligated by my employer to point out that last part, but this opinion is solely mine.

Michigan Wolverines football coach Jim Harbaugh at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago
Michigan Wolverines football coach Jim Harbaugh at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago

Call me crazy, but I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach on the Wolverines’ perceived savior. Until I read the fantastic Lars Anderson story at Bleacher Report this week, I thought I might be the only one.

It’s not that I don’t think Harbaugh will win a lot of games at Michigan, but the certainty he will WIN BIG in Ann Arbor seems a little out of step with reality to me.

So are the comparisons straight up to Urban Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State because prior to 2012 Meyer had won more and for a longer period of time. Meyer also took a job where it’s not as difficult to win*.

That said, if it isn’t Harbaugh who can make Michigan national title contenders, it might be no one, so I don’t blame anyone for going all-in with him, either. 

(*One of the interesting things about this discussion is also defining what “being back” means at Michigan. I suspect most people would say that means reaching the current level of Ohio State or Alabama, except that would also be out of step with reality. Not only is Michigan working on its longest Big Ten title drought in five decades, it’s worth noting the Wolverines have one national championship since they stopped running the single-wing offense. They were consistently among the best teams in the Big Ten for long stretches since then but haven’t had that many close shaves as far as the national title goes, either. I suspect most people’s perceptions of the program would expect a little more to show for it in the trophy case.) 

Will he get it back to being a regular 10-win team that competes for major bowls? Probably.

If we learned anything from the way Brady Hoke was recruiting in Ann Arbor, the brand is still pretty strong. There are problems there, though.

Rich Rodriguez explained to Anderson not just anyone can get admitted to Michigan, and the Wolverines have arguably never been in a more competitive environment as far as recruiting. Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame are still going to get a lot of the biggest stars in the Midwest, but Michigan State has built a brand strong enough to be a legitimate contender.

A less-discussed issue for those schools is how many more options their second-choice prospects have thanks to the vastly different availability of information for recruits. You’ve got to have stars to win it all, but depth also inevitably becomes a big issue over the course of a season that is longer than ever. Things are different now than a generation ago when it was easier to stockpile studs at the big schools that got the lion’s share of media exposure. Now everyone is on TV every week. The region’s big three all recruit nationally, too, but that has its own potential pitfalls.

Winning 8-9 games a year is a lot different than winning 11-12. That’s where the widest gorge to jump can be found because when you get down to it, only a handful of teams are really top tier, and beating them is a lot different than beating the other 95 percent of the country. To win eight or nine games, you just have to beat 5-6 bad teams and then a couple of average teams. To win many more, you probably have to beat someone with a much larger percentage of potential future pros on their roster.

(This is why folks writing about Michigan State or Wisconsin outperforming their recruiting rankings aren’t necessarily correct. They still recruit better than most of the teams they play while other teams that end up higher in recruiting rankings play more games against each other. Someone has to lose those games, and winning teams in other leagues then move ahead of them in the rankings.)

What happens this year on the field probably won’t change my long-term opinion about Harbaugh and Michigan much.

He has a veteran team with some flaws, but unlike his predecessor (or his predecessor’s predecessor), Harbaugh is taking over a program that was being built to play his kind of football. That means he won’t have to waste any of his best players because they don’t fit what he wants to do. When you have a talent deficiency, this is no small thing. Rodriguez and Brady Hoke made life much more difficult on themselves for insisting on playing a certain style too soon in their tenures.

Rodriguez hamstrung a talented defense his first season by playing his hurry-up offense despite not having a quarterback to run it.

Hoke made plenty of missteps, but the biggest one on the field was forcing his team to rely on an offensive line that was way too young in his second and third years.

Now those same players are veterans, and Harbaugh can reap the benefits. Unfortunately for the new coach, he might not have a quarterback, and the likelihood he has enough offensive playmakers at receiver or running back is fairly low as well.

Harbaugh’s reputation for developing players and the simple fact of the aging process should be a good combination this year for Michigan. I suspect we’re about to see that Hoke probably did know what he was doing as far as recruiting and questions about his ability to develop talent were probably premature.

Some of the fruits of Hoke’s labor have already showed up on the defensive side the past couple of years, and the pieces are there to be pretty good. There are still questions as far as who is going to rush the passer and whether or not they have a second cornerback, but overall I think they’ll be hard to run the ball against and that’s a good place to start.

I look at Michigan and even with questions at quarterback, receiver, running back and cornerback, I see a team good enough in the trenches that it kind of feels like a nine or so win team. The schedule makes me think that would be overly optimistic, though. They will need some breaks to get to nine I think, beginning with a tough game at Utah. I don’t see them having the horses to beat Ohio State or Michigan State (though we all know anything can happen in rivalry games), and after that there are about five games that could go either way.

Will the Harbaugh effect help in close games? Let’s say it does and assume they’ll win the majority of those swing games to end up around 7-5 or 8-4.



The only big surprise in Michigan’s 24-17 loss to Utah was how poorly the Michigan offensive line played. Everything else was about what one would expect.

The defense was not bad, though it wasn’t good enough. Jabrill Peppers made some highlight plays and gave some up as well. I’m going to go forward with the assumption he’ll be a major force sooner or later. The linebackers were very active, but there wasn’t much pass rush. The Michigan corners must have been doing some good things because the majority of the damage was done over the middle of the field, and a running back was the leading receiver.

I didn’t expect Jake Rudock to throw three interceptions, but I didn’t think he’d win them the game, either. He also missed a couple of potential long TDs but threaded the needle on a touchdown pass to tight end Jake Butt, who looks like a keeper. I still see no deep threat, but Amara Darboh is a useful possession receiver who can run after the catch. Running back looks like a big concern, at least until Drake Johnson is back to full health. His higher-rated teammates don’t seem all that quick or able to run to daylight.

I’m not going to write off the offensive line yet as it showed progress last season and we don’t know yet how good or bad Utah’s front will turn out to be, but I did think it was something of a foregone conclusion with age and an offseason in Harbaugh’s program that group would get tougher and more effective.

It’s only one game, and there were some positives and negatives.

Everyone expected this to be a flawed Michigan team, and that’s what it is. How long it stays that way is an open question.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Jim Harbaugh and Michigan’s next new era

  1. good write-up, you know the team well for a bucknut 🙂

    one thing missed as far as the o-line goes: they didn’t give up any sacks to a great pass rushing team, granted their best pass rusher from last season is in the NFL now. i’ll also concede that the play calls may have been part of that too. either way, it’s a long way back from 109th in the country in sacks allowed.

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