Saturday presents a pivot point in this Michigan football season.
It’s not a season-defining one. The Wolverines can lose on Saturday and still accomplish all their intended goals. On the converse, they can win on Saturday and still fail to reach those same goals.
It is the archetype of game Jim Harbaugh has yet to win and needs to start winning, plain and simple. Which begs the question that, on the surface, might seem hyperbolic: Would a win against Wisconsin on Saturday be the best victory of the Harbaugh era?
Substitute any words in that sentence — “most impressive,” “most meaningful”, “most impactful” — and you can have an entirely different conversation. But would it be the best?
That is highly determinant on, you know, how the game actually plays out. Would a 30-point drubbing over the Badgers be far more impressive than a squeaker? Maybe, maybe not. Does is matter how the rest of Wisconsin’s season plays out? Sure.
But, in the interest of candor, this is a question that speaks far more to Harbaugh’s teams’ shortcomings rather than this one specific game. Michigan will go to Madison having been an underdog in six games in the Harbaugh era; it has lost all six. The Wolverines have yet to beat a ranked opponent on the road in his tenure. Their only win over a top-10 team in that span came against Wisconsin at home in a game they were favored by nearly a touchdown.
The most impressive wins of the Harbaugh era are, in some order, as follows:
— A 32-23 win at Michigan State in 2016 against a group that would eventually flounder to 3-9 on the season.
— A 21-7 win over the 24th-ranked Spartans last year, which teetered in the balance until the Shea Patterson/Donovan Peoples-Jones 79-yard touchdown.
— A 49-10 romp of Penn State in 2016.
— A 41-7 blowout over the 14th-ranked Nittany Lions in what eventually amounted to a down year for Penn State.
— A 14-7 win over No. 8 Wisconsin in 2016, otherwise known as The Jourdan Lewis Interception Game.
— A 38-13 win over the 15th-ranked Badgers last year.
— A 41-7 win over Florida in the 2015 Citrus Bowl that set the table for the 2016 team to hit the ground running.
And that’s really it.
The success of this year, as with any year now, will be largely determinant on whether or not there’s a Big Ten Title. That’s the only bar worth discussing right now. And Michigan cannot win those until they start winning these types of games.
The Wolverines haven’t won in Madison since 2001, which is a stat that has been repeated all week, but ignores they’ve only played four such contests in that span. One that holds more weight? The last time Michigan went on the road and beat a top-15 team was… September 16, 2006 at No. 2 Notre Dame under head coach Lloyd Carr. They’re 0-14 in such games since.
That context helps bring us back to the Harbaugh era writ large, toiling still in this really-good-but-not-great stasis that regularly seems on the verge of a next step. That was supposed to come against Ohio State in 2016, but fell literal inches short. It was supposed to happen in 2017 before that washed away in the pouring rain against Michigan State — sending the rest of the season flooding away with it. It was supposed to happen in Columbus again last year, where the Wolverines entered roughly a 4-point favorite over an uncharacteristically vulnerable Buckeyes side.
We all know how that ended.
A win Saturday wouldn’t quite be a program-altering moment like those would have been. It’s hard to say just how good this Wisconsin team is right now. Two wins by a combined 110-0 certainly hint it’s a strong group. Sample size and quality of opponent make it such that we just don’t know.
There are also, as has been well-documented, questions about whether this Michigan team is ready. The shine is off the new offense, and there’s little shot at emerging victorious without taking a step forward on that side of the ball. The defense has looked up to snuff early on, but those two performances came against a Conference USA team and a triple-option side the Wolverines had all summer to prepare for.
Going to Madison, stymying perhaps the best rushing attack in the nation, overcoming offensive speed bumps and leaving with a win would be a whole different animal.
To make a long story short: Harbaugh has yet to win a game at Michigan he wasn’t supposed to win. It is the central, most-pressing criticism of the era. As a result, he’s never won a Big Ten Title and he’s never brought his team to the College Football Playoff.
His team can’t do anything to alter the latter point on Saturday. But in order to get there, they have to remedy the former point.
Here’s another chance.