Max Marcovitch: This is the year... or else, what?

Monday, August 27, 2018 - 3:22pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has set himself up for success in his fourth season, but what if it doesn't go right?

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has set himself up for success in his fourth season, but what if it doesn't go right? Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

You’ve likely heard some variation of it from a friend, a colleague, a peer, maybe even yourself. If not, walk into any Ann Arbor barber shop or bar; it won’t take long.

This is the year…

Said person then pauses long enough to consider what that entails — double-digit wins, a Big Ten Championship, College Football Playoff — but not long enough to contemplate the means to get there.

Or else.

Historically speaking, this is the year. Or, at least, it should be.

Dabo Swinney went 19-15 in his first three years at Clemson before winning 10 games and an ACC Title in his fourth season. He hasn’t won fewer than 10 games in a season since, and has lifted Clemson to the perch of college football’s elite programs.

Jimbo Fisher went 31-10 in his first three years at Florida State before going 14-0 and winning the national title in his fourth season.

Lloyd Carr did it his third year, leading Michigan to a 12-0 season and the shared 1997 national championship after going 17-8 his first two seasons. Unless you’re Urban Meyer at Ohio State or Kirby Smart at Georgia, turning a program around is gradual. But all elite programs take flight at one point or another, reaching their cruising altitude. This would be Michigan’s time to do so.

Jim Harbaugh is 28-11 in his first three seasons at Michigan. The bulk of the 2018 team comes from his first two full recruiting classes, both of which are brimming with talent. For years there have been whispers of what 2018 could bring.

This is the year. This was always supposed to be the year. This should be the year. But there’s a foreboding discomfort, a mysterious undergirding — and frankly, far more intrigue — in the latter part of that sentence. Or else.

This team has talent. It has one of the best defenses in the country, on par with the 2016 unit. It has at least a dozen future NFL draft picks. It has offensive weapons. It finally has a quarterback.

But it also has questions; perhaps deep, troubling questions. For one, what good is a quarterback without the means to protect him? The Wolverines’ offensive line ranked 117th nationally in adjusted sack rate in 2017, and promptly lost its best offensive linemen, Mason Cole, to the draft. For another, how can you expect to navigate a Big Ten Title when your signature road win of the Harbaugh era is… at Michigan State during its 3-9 debacle? At Minnesota in 2015?

So what if this isn’t actually the year? What are the true consequences of the or else portion? What does that even mean?

Let’s say, for the sake of preseason hypotheticals, Michigan loses three of the five games they will either be a betting underdog or close to it: at Notre Dame, at Michigan State, home for Wisconsin, home for Penn State, at Ohio State. Michigan hasn’t beaten a top-20 team on the road in 12 years, and all five are currently ranked inside the top-15.

That bears out a 9-3 season. Let’s say one of those losses is Ohio State. Let’s say this leads to an appearance in the Capital One Bowl. Far from a disastrous year, the Wolverines merely succumbed to the gauntlet of arguably the nation’s toughest schedule.

What would be the consequences?

If your mind wanders to Jim Harbaugh’s job security, wander elsewhere. He’s won 28 games in three seasons at the helm; Michigan won just 20 in the three years before he took over. He came inches from beating Ohio State in 2016 and a probable College Football Playoff spot, and a once-in-a-generation punter gaffe from winning 11 games in his first season. He’s turned around the program in terms of on-field play and off-field perception. He’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.

But in this scenario, the program would have reached a tedious plateau. It would be four years under Harbaugh without any titles to show — and likely another mass departure to the NFL from some of the best players (namely, Rashan Gary, Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson, Chase Winovich, Shea Patterson, and potentially others), followed by another 2017-esque challenge.

The 2018 recruiting class — ranked 21st nationally according to 247sports composite rankings — can be chalked up to necessitating a smaller group, a one year blip. It would seem the most immediate consequence would be in the 2019 and 2020 classes. Perception in recruiting is always fluid. Narrative matters.

Beyond the recruiting circuit — which is, to be fair, the lifeblood of any program — the consequences would be minimal internally. 

But when Jim Harbaugh came to Michigan, he came with the unspoken promises of a return to the glory days of Michigan football. He came with the legend of Bo Schembechler and the picturesque pairing of winged helmets and Rose Bowl parades. If this year fails to bear those fruits it might be time to consider whether they’ll ever be borne.

This exercise could, of course, become a frivolous waste of your time. If new offensive line coach Ed Warriner is the missing piece to consistently competent pass protection, this team has the talent to achieve all of those goals the fanbase has been salivating over. It can beat its rivals. It can win a Big Ten Title. It can dream of College Football Playoff glory.

It’s August now and you think this is the year. It might well be.

But it’s worth considering: Or else, what?