SportsWednesday Column: Mending the gap

Monday, January 7, 2019 - 11:57pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has lost two assistant coaches to Ohio State.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has lost two assistant coaches to Ohio State. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

Ah, the college football offseason.

A time for those of us in Ann Arbor to turn our collective attention to John Beilein and the undefeated Michigan basketball team. After the way the Wolverines’ football team finished their season, you can’t blame people for being eager to do just that.

And yet, yesterday, nine days after Michigan’s season ended in a 26-point loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl, my attention drifted back to the football team for a bit.

That was probably inevitable, since college football was rather unavoidable yesterday. In case you didn’t hear, Clemson beat the hell out of Alabama in the national championship game after beating the hell out of Notre Dame last week in the semifinals.

The transitive property is tempting to bring up here as someone who follows the Wolverines, but it is a dumb metric, and in this case, it doesn’t really matter. That’s because there are two programs light years ahead of the others in the country, and they played on Monday night.

There are programs, like Georgia, perhaps, or maybe even Oklahoma and Ohio State, that can claim to be within arm’s reach of the Tigers and the Crimson Tide.

And then there are programs like Michigan, which is waiting near the front of the line to join the elite programs club, while the bouncer is letting the important people skip the line.

That is fine, in the grand scheme of things. By that, I mean that things could be much, much worse. Ask about 110 other programs in the country. Hell, ask the Gators, who are playing third-fiddle in their conference these days.

But it brings a question to mind: How do the Wolverines get to the level of Clemson and Alabama?

It certainly isn’t through what was Michigan’s biggest news Monday, which came when defensive line coach Greg Mattison departed to become co-defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes — the Wolverines’ biggest rival.

On Tuesday, it was announced linebackers coach Al Washington would join Mattison in Columbus.

These are just the most recent Michigan losses to the Ohio State in a long string of them. The Buckeyes have beaten the Wolverines seven times in a row and in 14 of the last 15 meetings.

In seven of those 14 losses, Michigan has finished in second place in the Big Ten or its division. That includes this season and 2016 — both years when a win over Ohio State would have likely pushed the Wolverines into the College Football Playoff.

Win even a few of those games and we aren’t talking about the disappointment Michigan continually faces.

And this is where Mattison and Washington’s departures really hurt. Because if there was ever a time that the Buckeyes were vulnerable, it would be now.

Urban Meyer, a deeply flawed man but one of the best coaches in college football history, just retired. His replacement, Ryan Day, is a young, relatively unknown upstart. Yes, he helped orchestrate the offensive dominance Ohio State displayed in its 62-39 win over the Wolverines this season, but it stands to reason Day will need some time to figure everything out.

Or maybe it stood to reason. Since Day took over, he has won a recruiting battle for five-star defensive end Zach Harrison, who was once predicted to go to Michigan. Then, Day secured the transfer of Georgia quarterback Justin Fields, the former No. 1 prospect in the 2018 recruiting class. And now, Day has hired away two of the Wolverines’ best recruiters.

To be fair, staff turnover isn’t uncommon with top programs. Alabama has had an enormous amount of it and has been at the top of the heap in college football for much of the last 10 seasons. Of course, the Crimson Tide’s turnover often comes after a national championship, whereas the Wolverines’ typically comes after a crushing loss to Ohio State and then another defeat in whatever bowl game follows.

This is also different, because Alabama doesn’t lose its coaches to Auburn, and it always has the talent to make up for any coaching losses.

So Michigan has some ground to make up. By some, I mean a lot. The way to do it is through elite recruiting or elite gameplanning. Often the two go hand in hand.

The Wolverines brought in a top-10 recruiting class this season, the third in the last four seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. That is better than most teams. It is tied with Ohio State. It is not better than Alabama or Georgia.

In terms of gameplanning or coaching, Michigan has it better than nearly every team it plays. It does not have it better than the Buckeyes. I give you the aforementioned 62-39 as proof.

That is the kind of loss, a 23-point blowout to your biggest rival, that hampers recruiting and makes it feasible for an assistant coach to think about jumping ship to said rival. 

And it is also the exact, annual loss that is holding Michigan back.

What the Wolverines have right now is good enough to finish second in the Big Ten every year, remain a top 10 program in the nation and then watch the real big boys in college football play for championships.

Ask anybody within the program if that’s good enough, and they will say it isn’t.

What has to change is something systemic. There either has to be a greater buy-in within the program to elevate players to a new level, a change in philosophy to use players’ talents more effectively or an uptick in recruiting that injects Michigan with players too good to fail.

That is what separates the Wolverines from the top. From the Buckeyes, even.

Whether or not Michigan is willing and able to make the necessary improvements remains to be seen.