No, the odds haven’t been stacked against the Michigan football team all year — even if you want to think they were.
The Wolverines themselves may have acted like the odds were stacked against them all year. But now they actually are. Their quarterback isn’t at his best, they’re getting banged up with injuries, they’ve fired a coach over the sign-stealing scandal, they’re coming off their worst defensive performance of the year and The Game now looms large.
Sure, the Wolverines might have made you think the adversity they’ve faced has pitted them against the world this whole time. Their head coach was suspended for the first three weeks of the season, and although Michigan donned ‘Free Harbaugh’ shirts and made it look like they were wronged by the universe for it, they weren’t. The University suspended Harbaugh itself, and he wasn’t a martyr for it. The Wolverines did just fine without him, and things were still going in their favor.
When Harbaugh returned, Michigan started doing even better. The Wolverines dominated opponents so badly that starters weren’t playing in fourth quarters, and questions after games surrounded who was the poor soul who didn’t make it into the ‘73 out of 74 players who traveled played in this game’ tweets. Outcomes weren’t in question, and things were still going in Michigan’s favor.
All the while, junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy was playing his best, taking the Wolverines out of their usual run-first style and turning them into a more modern, dynamic unit. As McCarthy filled up stat sheets, his counterpart in Columbus, Kyle McCord, had been mediocre, and AP polling and sportsbooks had Michigan ahead of Ohio State. You guessed it, things were going in the Wolverines’ favor.
Even ahead of a massive clash against Penn State, in which Harbaugh was suspended yet again, the odds weren’t stacked against Michigan, even if it looked like that in the public eye. On the field, it used the situation as more fuel and left State College as confident as ever. The Wolverines proved they can win a “real” game, even without their head coach, meaning the latest suspension doesn’t stack the odds against them either.
All year, the roadblocks and issues the Wolverines have faced haven’t done enough to actually threaten outcomes. A suspension here, a suspension there, none of it was enough to outweigh Michigan’s talent, none of it enough to affect anything more than headlines and narratives. But now, as The Game looms large and Michigan needs everything to be at its best, enough dominoes have fallen.
The tide has actually turned against the Wolverines.
Let’s start with the sign-stealing investigation. Issues have made it to the sidelines already with Harbaugh suspended, but he’s still been with his team in those stretches, leading practice every day but just being removed from game days. Now, an actual position coach in Chris Partridge — not just an analyst who steals signs and writes manifestos on Google Docs — has been fired.
Partridge isn’t just gone for game days, he’s gone for good. Is that the sole reason Michigan was gashed for a season-high 24 points on Saturday? Probably not, but losing a key position group leader the week ahead of The Game is bad news for a team that wants to be peaking ahead of the biggest matchup of the year.
But let’s face it, it can’t be that bad right? Lacking their head coach on game days doesn’t stack the odds against them, so losing its linebackers coach — albeit it for ever — shouldn’t do so either, and by itself it doesn’t.
But that loss isn’t by itself. Not only does Partridge’s firing represent the most extreme response to the sign-stealing scandal yet, it’s also paired with a new on-field issue: J.J. McCarthy.
Yes, he had only one bad game against Maryland, and simply wasn’t called upon to do much against Penn State to begin with, but he’s certainly far from his best right now. He has walked around gingerly after hits, suggesting he may not be at full strength — even if he and coaches maintain that he is. He hasn’t been able to establish an in-game rhythm in weeks. He’s out of sync, missing receivers and currently unable to command a game.
Whether it’s injuries or a mixed-up game flow, he’s playing like an average quarterback right now — and one without a Heisman-level receiver like McCord has in Marvin Harrison Jr.
Michigan’s own star receiver, Roman Wilson, isn’t a Heisman candidate to begin with, and exited the game against the Terrapins with injury, leaving his status currently unknown. To add insult to injury, the o-line is as banged up as ever, while tackle Karsen Barnhart has yet to prove he can handle an elite pass-rush like that of the Buckeyes. Hell, the o-line could probably fill an entire column on its own.
None of this is to make excuses for the Wolverines. They have all the talent in the world to beat Ohio State and punch their ticket to the Big Ten Championship and inevitably the College Football Playoff since Iowa is, well, Iowa. But all season, nothing has been stacked against them so they haven’t had to overcome actual challenge on the field, even if it looked like they have been all along. To beat the Buckeyes, they’ll have to overcome plenty.
Because for the first time all year, issues piling up for Michigan have created a stack too big and too consequential to stay out of its way.