The last time Jim Harbaugh coached against Lovie Smith, it was 2012. Harbaugh was in his second year as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and Smith was in his ninth with the Chicago Bears — two years removed from an NFC Championship Game appearance and six years after losing Super Bowl XLI.
Led by first-time starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Harbaugh’s 49ers rolled the Bears, 32-7, and marched all the way to that year’s Super Bowl, while Smith was fired at the end of the season.
Four years later, the circumstances have changed dramatically for both coaches. Harbaugh wore out his welcome in San Francisco despite reaching three straight NFC Championship games, and he has moved back to his alma mater and resurrected Michigan’s football program. And Smith, who most recently spent two years coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being abruptly fired again, has returned to the state of Illinois in an attempt to turn around the struggling Fighting Illini.
The two coaches’ paths will cross again this Saturday at Michigan Stadium, when they become the first former Super Bowl coaches to face off at the college level.
Though Harbaugh claimed not to have any memories of coaching against Smith in the NFL, it’s a matchup he’s looking forward to.
“Great coach,” he said. “Outstanding person. Don’t know him real well, but I know a lot of people that do, and everybody speaks very highly of him. Our interactions have been pleasant, good. Our task is to prepare to play their team and it’ll be a challenge — big-game, championship-type football game for our team, and it’s our duty to get prepared for it.”
The Wolverines (3-0 Big Ten, 6-0 overall) have said all season that they’re treating every game like a championship game, but this certainly doesn’t look like one on paper. Michigan is already riding a high in just Harbaugh’s second year, as the Wolverines boast an undefeated record, the nation’s best defense and a top-10 win over Wisconsin at the season’s halfway point.
The Illini (1-2, 2-4), though, look like they’re in for a slower turnaround. They dropped home games to Purdue and Western Michigan before finally snapping their losing skid with a 17-point win against Rutgers — the same team Michigan beat 78-0 two weeks ago.
As a result, the Wolverines are favored by 37 points Saturday — a line that grew wider and wider as the week went on.
Still, Illinois presents a few threats, especially on defense. The Illini are tied for fifth in the country with a plus-eight turnover margin, buoyed by five takeaways against the Scarlet Knights last week. Michigan will need to avoid making big mistakes, but that hasn’t happened very often so far this season, as the Wolverines sit at a plus-six margin heading into Saturday.
“I think it’s a point of emphasis,” said offensive coordinator Tim Drevno. “The coaching staff does a good job — Jedd (Fisch) and Tyrone (Wheatley) and Jay (Harbaugh) and Jim — just making sure you’re preaching about it, you coach it, and you show examples of not allowing that to happen.”
Drevno was on Harbaugh’s staff in San Francisco in 2012, so he knows a little about what to expect from the opposing sideline. He pointed out that Smith’s teams always seemed to be in the top 10 in forcing turnovers, and that they have always had solid, well-coached defensive fronts with the ability to take away the run.
Certain teams have been able to take away parts of Michigan’s game — Central Florida neutralized the run by stacking the box, while Wisconsin’s talented secondary held off redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight until he finally came through with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass — but no team has figured out how to completely stop the Wolverines’ offense.
If Illinois wants to defy the odds and be that team, it will have to hope that its experienced coaches have a few tricks up their sleeves.
“Lovie’s an outstanding coach and (defensive coordinator) Hardy Nickerson’s an outstanding coach,” Drevno said. “They know how to stack the box, they know how to take people out of the box. They’re experts at what they do. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a fun game, and we love games like this.”