Jim Harbaugh is going to receive some harsh criticism for the way Michigan’s season unraveled. Some of his biggest critics are already starting to write him off as an overrated and overhyped coach with an animated personality.
This wasn’t exactly the kind of outcome many would’ve expected from Harbaugh in his third season in Ann Arbor. When he was initially hired prior to the 2015 season, 2017 was the calendar UM fans were impatiently waiting to purchase. Year 3 was the anticipated “return” of this program to the national spectrum.
Instead? Michigan ended the year with an 8-4 record and a fourth-place finish in the B1G East. No wins against an opponent with a winning record. Another loss to Michigan State. Another loss to Ohio State.
After a letdown campaign, some of Harbaugh’s greatest doubters — guys like SEC homer Paul Finebaum — are carving holes in his reputation as Michigan’s savior.
Why hasn’t Harbaugh finished higher than third in the division? Why is he just 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State? Why hasn’t he reached the B1G Championship Game? Why — in Year 3 — are the Wolverines finishing 8-4?
Even some of the biggest supporters of the Maize and Blue have to be scratching their head after failing to beat the Buckeyes or make a trip to Indianapolis after three seasons. A little disappointment set in after Michigan took a slight step back after a pair of 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2016.
Those questions, those emotions, all of it is fair.
But while critics have questioned his competence and fans — at least a hesitant few — have allowed fractions of doubt to seep in, 2017 might be the year that Harbaugh has proven he’s catapulted Michigan back to national prominence. An 8-4 finish, and the reactions from across the college football landscape, may just speak to the job Harbaugh has done in such a small window.
It relates to what Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said last Saturday when he announced Mike Riley was no longer the head football coach of the Huskers.
“Nobody wants to go 4-8,” Moos said. “I want to get this program to where we’re disappointed if we go 8-4.”
Obviously Harbaugh didn’t prove his name belonged in the conversation with some of college football’s most elite coaches after winning just eight games. He’s not rivaling Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Dabo Swinney following a fourth-place finish in the division.
Maybe it sounds weird, but it should serve as a positive for Harbaugh, and Michigan fans, that 8-4 is considered a disappointment, and that Harbaugh’s credentials are being so heavily scrutinized.
Consider this: In the eight years prior to Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor — dating back to 2007 — Michigan reached or surpassed the eight-win mark just three times. Rich Rodriguez was never able to get the Wolverines to that total. Brady Hoke went 11-2 in his first season (2011) and followed it with an 8-5 campaign the following year. He finished his run with a 7-6 record in 2013 and went 5-7 in his final season.
The program has had very little consistency over the last decade.
Year Head Coach Record (B1G) 2007 Lloyd Carr 9-4 (6-2) 2008 Rich Rodriguez 3-9 (2-6) 2009 Rich Rodriguez 5-7 (1-7) 2010 Rich Rodriguez 7-6 (3-5) 2011 Brady Hoke 11-2 (6-2) 2012 Brady Hoke 8-5 (6-2) 2013 Brady Hoke 7-6 (3-5) 2014 Brady Hoke 5-7 (3-5) 2015 Jim Harbaugh 10-3 (6-2) 2016 Jim Harbaugh 10-3 (7-2) 2017 Jim Harbaugh 8-4 (5-4)
Harbaugh has provided that stability.
In Harbaugh’s first season, Michigan chizzled out 10 wins just one year removed from falling short of bowl eligibility. For most of 2015, the Wolverines were a player in the East.
Last fall, Michigan was drenched in the national spotlight. The Wolverines were in control of their own destiny for the entire year, coming up just short of a division title, a B1G Championship Game appearance and a potential berth in the College Football Playoff. A blown 10-point lead to Ohio State cost Harbaugh a shot to compete for a national title in Year 2 — though most wearing the maize and blue will tell you it was the officiating that stood in UM’s way.
That team was loaded at nearly every position and 11 players were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft. It left this year’s team severely depleted, forcing Harbaugh to usher in an entirely new starting lineup essentially. Still, there was a belief that Michigan could be a national contender.
It didn’t play out that way. The Wolverines dropped a close 14-10 contest to Michigan State, a night when monsoon-like conditions surrounded Ann Arbor. They were blown out by Penn State two weeks later. Michigan closed out the year with back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, both ranked in the top 10.
From a quick screen shot, Harbaugh’s third season unraveled similarly to Hoke’s third year — a comparison that has been made far too often recently. But the program is in a completely different place than it was in 2013, and the outlook is much brighter.
Michigan was expected to be much more competitive when Hoke entered his third season. That was somewhat of a make-or-break year for the program at that specific point. Conversely, Year 3 for Harbaugh was expected to be somewhat of a rebuilding campaign after losing a plethora of NFL talent from the roster. There was some hope that maybe the construction would be ahead of schedule and the Wolverines could possibly compete for the East again.
It didn’t happen. Instead, Michigan landed right where most had anticipated — around the eight- or nine-win mark and a spot square in the middle of the division.
Disappointing? Yes. Concerning? Not at all.
There’s a bright future ahead for Michigan. Even before the 2017 season kicked off, most were looking ahead to the 2018 campaign. It’s expected to be the next chance the program has to compete for a B1G title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Even after a down year, there’s still plenty of optimism filling the air in Ann Arbor.
That didn’t happen when Rodriguez or Hoke were in town.
It’s difficult to say that Michigan fans grew complacent with eight wins and a bowl appearance in the past. If that was the case, Rodriguez or Hoke might still be in control of the program. But there was that “just make us competitive” attitude.
Now, fans — and media — are starting to expect B1G titles and national contention on a yearly basis. It’s a healthy place to arrive for a program so rich in tradition and glory. Sure, it puts Harbaugh and the Wolverines under the microscope, but that comes with the territory.
Harbaugh has received harsh criticism for Michigan’s less-than-stellar year. And there’s a lot of disappointment about that 8-4 finish.
Oddly, it’s a sign he’s doing something right.