There’s been a refrain in Ann Arbor for the past five-plus years.
It’s persisted even as Jim Harbaugh’s lost thrice as a home favorite to Michigan State. It’s persisted with just one bowl win in his tenure. And yes, it’s persisted through five straight losses to Ohio State by a combined 95 points.
Michigan hasn’t been able to penetrate college football’s elite, but “Look at where it was in 2014,” the logic goes. In Brady Hoke’s last season, the Wolverines went 3-5 in the Big Ten and 5-7 overall. That won’t happen under Harbaugh, we were told.
Well, step right up and greet the 2020 Wolverines.
Through three weeks, the sixth iteration of Harbaugh’s Michigan is 1-2. If you’re looking through the record books for the last time that happened, you won’t find it in the Hoke era. You’ll have to go back to Rich Rodriguez’s first season, when the Wolverines finished 3-9.
In Rodriguez’s defense, that 1-2 start came at the hands of Notre Dame and an undefeated Utah team.
Last week, Michigan lost to Michigan State. After the Spartans lost 49-7 to previously-winless Iowa on Saturday, it’s fair to say they might not win another game all year. This week, the Wolverines were toppled by Indiana. The Hoosiers are a dangerous, well-coached outfit. But that damning fact still holds: They hadn’t beaten Michigan since 1987.
So where does this leave the Wolverines?
The answer will be familiar to anyone here back in the dark ages, from 2008 until Harbaugh was hired in December 2014. With two losses, Big Ten title hopes are vanquished. Beating No. 3 Ohio State? Forget about it. Even a .500 record would be surprising ahead of matchups with Wisconsin, Penn State and the Buckeyes. At this point, Maryland and its 2-1 record could pose a threat.
“Personal feeling is that we’re close to doing it,” Harbaugh said when asked if he plans on making any changes. “You see it done. You see it happening and then it’s going to take the next step of happening in the games.”
Right now, it’s hard to see that happening. On Saturday, Michigan gained all of 13 yards on 18 carries. Its quarterback, junior Joe Milton, alternated otherworldly plays with mystifying mistakes. And then there’s the matter of Don Brown’s much-maligned defense, which, the less said, the better.
“Yeah, I do (have confidence in Brown), very much so,” Harbaugh said. “I love all of our coaches. … Their schemes are really good. And they coach them good.”
After the Wolverines’ defensive showing against Indiana, it’s hard to agree with any of that when it comes to Brown. Through three weeks, his defense ranks 65th in total yards allowed, 104th in pass yards allowed and 85th in sacks. Mainly due to defensive mishaps, Michigan as a whole ranks 105th in penalties.
None of that screams “really good” schemes or “coaching them good.” There’s a reason that it would be mildly surprising at this point to see Brown on the sidelines in 2021.
But Michigan’s issues are far more macro. In year six of the Harbaugh era, it’s near impossible to see the Wolverines competing for a Big Ten title or College Football Playoff berth anytime soon.
Far easier is imagining a team that spends the next half a decade toiling in mediocrity. Five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy serves to muddle Michigan’s despair. But in six years, Harbaugh — praised as the quarterback whisperer when he arrived — has yet to develop a single NFL-quality signal caller.
And sure, four-star in-state running back Donovan Edwards might be joining him. But last week, Andrel Anthony — a three-star receiver commit from East Lansing — told the Detroit Free Press that Michigan’s loss to Michigan State “did open a lot of eyes. I can tell you that.”
If you’re Edwards, choosing between Michigan and a slew of programs on the doorstep of a national championship, staying home becomes a difficult sell.
“Donovan has goals,” Ron Bellamy, Edwards’ high school coach, told The Daily in September. “He’s a winner, he wants to win. He wants to go to a football program that embodies that family culture, a football program that has the opportunity to win.”
Right now, Michigan isn’t that program.
All of which begs the question: What makes 2020 Michigan any different than 2014 Michigan?
Over the next five weeks, Harbaugh needs to come up with the answer. Because if he can’t, athletic director Warde Manuel will be staring down one remaining year of a contract that just paid $8 million for mediocrity.
And if that’s the case when he’s deciding whether or not to extend Harbaugh, letting him walk would be a lot easier to justify than paying another $52 million for seven more years of this.
Mackie can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @theo_mackie.
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