A year ago, Jim Harbaugh sat at a podium on the turf inside Lucas Oil Stadium and waxed about climbing a mountain — the mountain, of course, being a metaphor for defeating Ohio State.
Harbaugh’s comparison, along with the confidence that he exuded, evoked both smirks and sideways glances. At the time, Harbaugh had yet to beat the Buckeyes in five tries.
No one took Harbaugh seriously, and who could blame them?
Fast forward 12 months and things are, well, different. The calculus has changed. Michigan, as is well-documented by now, climbed the mountain. Ohio State may still be the odds-on favorites to win the Big Ten, but the championship trophy remains in the Wolverines’ possession until further notice.
And as if anyone ever thought otherwise, they want to keep it that way.
“Even though we saw success last season, we don’t want to take any steps back,” senior quarterback Cade McNamara told reporters in Indianapolis at Big Ten media days on Tuesday.
This annual gathering in Indianapolis comprises an unofficial benchmark. In many ways, it can be seen as the page-turner from the old season to the new one.
But the Wolverines, in line with their disdain for complacency, turned that page long ago.
“Our guys, from literally days after our final game last year, have been at work, attacking everything they do,” Harbaugh said. “There’s been zero entitlement the entire offseason, and now, and none really in the foreseeable future. So life is good.”
Life is good — Harbaugh has made that clear since spring ball, when he touted the “scary good” nature of his team. But there remain noticeable holes.
When Harbaugh evoked his mountain analogy last July, he noted a shared gene among a number of players — Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Ross and Hassan Haskins. The trio accompanied Harbaugh to Indianapolis as the program’s token spokesmen.
Now, they are all gone. But that doesn’t mean their impact is gone, too.
Last year, players like Hutchinson had to visualize success. Hutchinson spoke profusely of his “manifestations.” That isn’t necessary this go-around. These players experienced those dreams in December; they’ve lived it and breathed it.
“They saw other players on the team — guys like Aidan Hutchinson, Hassan Haskins, David Ojabo — who put in that work, got that work in, and how much it paid off for them,” Harbaugh said. “Using your head, using your noodle, pretty easy to think, ‘Yeah, I want to do it just like they did. I want to be where they are now.’
“It’s been a continuation of that this entire offseason. … They know what it was like, that good feeling of taking care of your business and having that success and being rewarded for it.”
That’s a strange feeling for this program, at least in recent history. Last year, Michigan captured hearts and stirred imaginations as an underdog. This year? The Wolverines will have no such benefit of being a feel-good story, especially since they return such a strong nucleus of talent.
With last year’s success comes an opportunity. Success in college football, perhaps even more so than in other sports, is fleeting. Only a select few programs — Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, perhaps Clemson — have managed to buy a home in the sport’s upper-echelon. Michigan has at last rented one. But can it stay there?
“We’re just going to continue to attack,” Harbaugh said when asked for the key to building off last year. “That’s what I really love about this team. They really, literally attack everything that’s put in front of them.”
Harbaugh, of course, nearly wasn’t back to lead them. Tuesday, he justified his month-long dalliance with NFL head coaching vacancies by his failure to win a Super Bowl. It gnawed at him. Ultimately, he returned, reasoning that not being able to coach this Michigan team would be like “losing a body part.”
Harbaugh laid out his four goals for the upcoming season rather succinctly: beat Michigan State, beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten Championship, win the National Championship.
After last season, there is finally a plausible template to work toward.
“We’ll chase the national championship,” Harbaugh said. “See if we can win that.”