Welcome to the LinkedIn Bowl: Michigan, Penn State staffs both need to update their resumes
On the list of things that no one could have predicted in 2020, Michigan and Penn State having a combined winning percentage of .200 has to rank pretty high. After all, we’re talking about teams that were a combined 11-1 when they met last year.
Penn State, at 0-5 for the first time in its 134-year history, and Michigan, which needed triple overtime to beat mighty Rutgers, meet on Saturday night in what Saturday Tradition is unofficially dubbing “The LinkedIn Bowl,” wherein the winner gets a free resume update. As in, the coaching staffs of both teams better make sure their contact information, skills and experience are all up to date, because changes to both of these programs are highly likely.
After seasons like these for two of the B1G’s premier programs, how can change not be coming? While that change may not come at the top, at least in the case of Penn State, there has to be consequences for two of the three most-talented programs in the Big Ten. So what is the optimal result for each program?
For the growth and long-term health of Michigan (2-3) and Penn State (0-5), the best-case scenario is that Penn State wins on Saturday.
It’s clear as day to anyone who has watched any of Michigan’s last 4 games that the team needs a reset. This isn’t working. Jim Harbaugh, in his 6th season, needed 3 overtimes to beat Rutgers. While I tend to believe Harbaugh has done well overall at Michigan with three 10-win seasons, he hasn’t come remotely close to fulfilling the expectations that accompanied him to Ann Arbor coming off a successful stint in the NFL.
That’s why Michigan doesn’t need any false hope — which is what beating Penn State would be. Just look at Nebraska, which felt great after beating Penn State, only to get routed by Illinois.
It’s hard to rationalize giving Harbaugh an extension at this point. Harbaugh is the lone Power 5 coach not under contract past 2021, so he either needs to be fired or extended after this season. No college football coach goes into the final year of his contract, because he wouldn’t be able to recruit.
While Michigan’s internal expectations may not be the same as those of the fan base, both parties can agree that this season is unacceptable. Can you imagine what a press release promoting a Harbaugh extension would say? Every fan would see through whatever spin the Michigan PR team mustered. Especially considering it will likely come shortly after Ohio State trounces the Wolverines. Remember, Ryan Day wants to score 100 on Michigan this year, and considering Rocky Lombardi carved up the Wolverines secondary, I think Justin Fields should be able to as well.
While Harbaugh hasn’t worked out as Michigan hoped, look on the bright side. For one, it didn’t randomly give him an extension that would’ve made his buyout more expensive, like Nebraska did with Scott Frost. Second, think about the potential opportunity to have your pick of the litter in terms of hot coaching candidates. Since schools will be wary of paying massive buyouts, the coaching carousel will likely be limited. South Carolina is in the market for a new head coach, too, but they are several tiers below Michigan. The schools in the same league as Michigan, such as USC and Texas, have been eking out wins and probably will hold steady. Michigan would be the prime available landing spot.
Michigan has a chance to make a perfectly understandable change, but beating Penn State (which still carries name value since it started the season in the top 10) might stall those plans.
In the case of Penn State, change won’t be at the top, as James Franklin deserves a mulligan. Sometimes it’s just not your year, and for numerous reasons (Micah Parson’s opt-out, season-ending injuries/health issues for Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Pat Freiermuth, unlucky call in Indiana game, etc.) that applies to the Nittany Lions. It’s crazy to think that Penn State ranks in the top 4 in the Big Ten in total offense and total defense, yet it is the only team in the conference that hasn’t won a game. It just doesn’t add up. When it’s not your year, it’s not your year.
Franklin entered this season as one of the sport’s best coaches, with three 11-win seasons in the last four years. Even after going 0-for-this-season so far, Franklin still has a .650 winning percentage dating to his tenure at Vanderbilt. He helped Vanderbilt reach its ceiling, and he looked to be on the way for Penn State, too. This doesn’t have to be a career-defining season for Franklin, especially when nothing has gone his way.
Look no further than Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, who has shown that it’s possible to have a random down season (Northwestern went 3-9 in 2019) and rebound with a vengeance after some offseason adjustments. And for an example outside the Big Ten, don’t forget that Brian Kelly went 4-8 after a ton of hype in 2016, but Notre Dame has rebounded just fine.
The best thing Penn State can do is forget this season ever happened and move forward, because it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see Penn State win double-digit games next season, considering it has done that 3 of the last 4 seasons. It’s like if Rory McIlroy randomly shoots 78 in the first round on Thursday, you’re not surprised to see him bounce back with a 66 on Friday. But in between rounds, Rory is grinding at the driving range and tweaking whatever went wrong. Penn State, this offseason, needs to ask honest questions about its shortcomings in order to get back to playing New Year’s Six bowls.
Penn State already hired a new offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach, defensive line coach and offensive line coach this offseason, but it can’t go into 2020 with the same staff. Michigan can’t either.
This was supposed to be a game that determined which of these teams would be in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl. Instead, it’s about which fan base will fall deeper into despair — and which coaching staff will be one step closer to finding new jobs.