B1G 5: The Jim Harbaugh-Michigan dominoes, and how the Big Ten can close the gap on the SEC
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G Story
There are two ways to look at this: Either Jim Harbaugh is serious about entertaining NFL offers, or he’s using the buzz in contract negotiations.
After we’ve watched Harbaugh give millions from his contract and bonuses back to Michigan, it’s highly doubtful he’s using the whiff of the NFL as a money grab.
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This is real. The only true variable: Is there an NFL fit?
Is there an NFL franchise that not only challenges Harbaugh professionally, but speaks to him more than the idea of raising “Michigan men” as he has preached so often over the last seven seasons in Ann Arbor?
Make no mistake, he wants to win big at Michigan. He wants to win it all.
But he also wants to do what’s right for his alma mater, and in his mind, a big part of that is developing leaders off the field. That, needless to say, is heavy lifting.
It’s as significant and important as beating Ohio State, getting to the Playoff and winning it all.
That’s not some throwaway line on a grease board. It’s who Harbaugh is.
According to 247Sports, Harbaugh told an elite Michigan signee, WR Darrius Clemons, that he would “entertain” offers from the NFL.
Any move to the NFL would have to be a job that would challenge him on and off the field like Michigan has.
It would also have to be with an invested owner and a hands-off general manager.
Harbaugh left the San Francisco 49ers after the 2014 season, and after the relationship between he and GM Trent Baalke had badly deteriorated over 4 years.
He was 44-19-1 with the 49ers, and went to the NFC Championship Game in his first season. A year later in 2012, the 49ers won the NFC and lost 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
In 2013, the 49ers lost in the NFC Championship Game, and a year later, after an 8-8 mark – the first time Harbaugh didn’t lead the 49ers to at least the NFC Championship Game – he and the 49ers “parted ways” after a 2-year power struggle with Baalke.
Two days after the season finale, Harbaugh was hired as Michigan’s coach.
The NFL is a different world, a hard lesson Urban Meyer learned after all of 11 months as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Think about this NFL resume:
- Harbaugh’s first 3 seasons as an NFL coach included 3 appearances in the conference championship game, and one Super Bowl.
- When Harbaugh arrived at San Francisco in 2011, the 49ers hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2002.
- Harbaugh won multiple playoff games. It’s rare for a majority of NFL coaches to win enough to keep their job, much less win playoff games. Harbaugh was 5-3 in the NFL postseason.
No wonder Harbaugh is the No.1 candidate for what appears to be 6 open jobs. The only job he likely wouldn’t “entertain” is Jacksonville, where Baalke is the general manager.
Of the remaining 5, there are fits – including where he began his NFL playing career (Chicago), and where he began his NFL coaching career as an assistant (Las Vegas Raiders).
Then there’s Miami, whose owner, Stephen Ross, is a Michigan alum who said Monday, “I’m not going to be the person who takes Jim Harbaugh away from the University of Michigan.”
But someone could, and now – after Harbaugh has returned Michigan to the national elite – is as good a time as any for Harbaugh to leave if he truly wants to challenge himself again in the NFL.
2. Up next
If Harbaugh leaves Michigan, expect Michigan to look at a short list of coaches. Among them:
- Matt Campbell, Iowa State: His work in a difficult situation to sustain success has been impressive. More appealing to the Michigan masses: He’s a true believer in collegiate athletics, much like Harbaugh. He’s the front porch of your athletics program, and a valuable ambassador for the university. He’s also an elite coach.
- Luke Fickell, Cincinnati: The UC administration has done everything it can to keep Fickel, but there’s a reason he hasn’t yet signed an extension. He makes $3.4 million a year, and is probably worth double that after leading Cincinnati to the Playoff this season and winning 44 of 51 games in the last 4 seasons.
- PJ Fleck, Minnesota. He has turned down everyone else to stay with the Gophers, but hasn’t had a job the caliber of Michigan within his sights. Would be difficult to say no.
- David Shaw, Stanford. A longshot, for sure. But why not swing big? He followed Harbaugh at Stanford, and could do the same in Ann Arbor. It’s all about timing — and if he thinks Stanford has hit its ceiling.
3. An early start
Drew Allar, a 5-star quarterback prospect in the 2022 recruiting class, enrolled at Penn State this week and took the first step toward getting on the field in September.
The obvious question: How much can Allar (6-4, 230 pounds), the No.4 QB recruit in the 2022 class according to the 247Sports composite, learn during the 15 spring practices and 4 weeks of fall camp?
Typically if a 5-star QB has the ability, he won’t be around more than 3 seasons. That means the more he sits, the more his talent sits, too.
Sean Clifford returning to Penn State was critical for the 2022 season, but his history of nagging injuries — and at times ineffective play – has left the Lions in desperate need of a strong No.2. Or more.
The centerpiece of a top 10 recruiting class, Allar is the biggest quarterback recruit at Penn State since Christian Hackenberg, who spent 3 seasons in Happy Valley before leaving after the 2015 season.
“Has a lot of (Hackenberg) in him,” a Power 5 coach who recruited Allar told me. “He’s got that, ‘I can make that throw’ attitude. A lot of arm talent, a lot of confidence.”
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: burning question, post bowl season.
1. Michigan: There’s Big Ten speed, and there’s Alabama and Georgia speed. Can Michigan find a quick upgrade with the 2022 recruiting class/transfer portal?
2. Ohio State: The offense can score with anyone. Can the defense, a country mile behind the elite of the SEC – the conference everyone is chasing – catch up?
3. Michigan State: Will QB Payton Thorne take a significant jump in Year 2 as a full-time starter?
4. Iowa: Can the run game, sluggish for 2 straight seasons, reach 4.0 yards per carry again?
5. Penn State: Will Penn State waste another elite defense in 2022 with a lack of creativity on offense?
6. Minnesota: Can the Gophers recapture the magic of 2019 with a familiar formula: an efficient throw game and an opportunistic defense.
7. Wisconsin: How do the Badgers respond to the biggest offseason of turnover on offense since Paul Chryst returned to Madison in 2015.
8. Purdue: Can Purdue score like it did against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl on a weekly basis in 2022? It may need it.
9. Maryland: Will a near complete turnover of skill position players benefit talented QB Tualia Tagovailoa?
10. Illinois: Can coach Bret Beilema use his Maul Ball offense with a completely rebuilt offensive line?
11. Nebraska: Can what amounts to the same team (with a different quarterback) save coach Scott Frost’s job?
12. Rutgers: Will Rutgers ever be able to recruit enough difference makers on the defensive line to escape the East Division cellar?
13. Northwestern: Can Northwestern upgrade the lines of scrimmage through the transfer portal over the next 4 months?
14. Indiana: Can the Hoosiers avoid another disastrous season in 2022 to not waste the huge strides made in 2020?
5. The Weekly Five
Five ways the Big Ten can close the gap on the SEC.
1. Approve the 12-team Playoff. The more teams in the Playoff, the more it can be sold to recruits.
2. Drop to an 8-game conference season, and add more non-conference games against Power 5 teams.
3. Start consistently winning non-conference games against the SEC, and annual head-to-head bowl games. Recruits want to play for winners.
4. Work with the SEC – not against it – in scheduling more marquee non-conference games between the conferences at campus sites. Highlight the unique conference footprint.
5. Embrace NIL. It’s the wave of the future in recruiting. Find how to make it work.