This time, it feels different. The circumstances surely are different. The opportunities are different. The knowledge of past experience is different.

The Jim Harbaugh rumors feel different.

Ahead of Black Monday when NFL teams fire their underachieving coaches and create 7-8 job openings, it’s worth watching what happens with Harbaugh, who just finished his 7th season as Michigan’s head coach. This week he was linked to a few NFL openings, mainly the Las Vegas Raiders and Chicago Bears. And while these NFL rumors used to be an annual occurrence with Harbaugh, I’m wondering if there’s actually something to them this year. I’m not saying he’ll go, but this time, it would make sense.

This situation kind of gives me Brian Kelly vibes, and not in that Harbaugh is going to surprise everyone and leave the team in the middle of the season. Kelly obviously realized that there was a ceiling to what he could do at Notre Dame; the Irish could make the College Football Playoff, yes, but there’s just no way they are going to win a national championship in today’s game — they get stomped every year in major bowl games these days. In other words, Kelly had maxed out at Notre Dame and taken it as far as he could. It was time for another opportunity.

I’m wondering if Harbaugh has come to the same realization the last few weeks. After the 34-11 loss to Georgia, Michigan has now lost 5 straight bowl games, 4 of which have come to the SEC. And the 4 losses to the SEC teams have come by an average of 18.8 points.

It didn’t used to be the case that you couldn’t win a national title at Michigan, or Notre Dame, but I think that is the reality right now. The SEC rules college football right now. After Monday night, it will have had 12 of the last 16 national champions, and 15 of the last 16 will have come from teams in the SEC footprint, with Ohio State in 2014 being the lone exception. The odds are stacked against Michigan ever eclipsing the season it just had. It would have to get a lot better in order to beat teams like Georgia and Alabama and reach the top of the mountain.

That’s all to say, Harbaugh may have done all he can do at Michigan. He finally beat Ohio State. He finally won the Big Ten. Leaving before he did either of those things would’ve made his tenure feel incomplete. His legacy is secure now, though, and he’d be leaving the program in a very good place.

Harbaugh is the most unique coach in the sport. He’s impossible to read. To call him quirky is an understatement. But I don’t think he’s just using rumors as leverage to get a pay raise, as is often the case with other coaches. Harbaugh doesn’t even have an agent, much less a power broker like Jimmy Sexton. Those agents are incentivized to toss their clients’ names in the ring for major job openings.

Before this year, Harbaugh took a pay cut from $8 million to $4 million, and he donated his $2 million in bonuses to University of Michigan employees who took pay cuts during the pandemic. So I don’t think this is about making more money. Harbaugh doesn’t seem to value that as much as other people in his position.

Besides, the connections to the Raiders and Bears are obvious. He could return to the storied franchise where he started his coaching career back in 2003 as a quarterbacks coach, where he became friends with Raiders owner Mark Davis. Or there will likely be an opening with a team he played QB for, the Bears, with an opportunity to coach Justin Fields.

In his head coaching career, Harbaugh had never stayed with a team as long as his Michigan run. He was at San Diego for 3, Stanford for 4 and the 49ers for 4 before arriving in Ann Arbor.

Harbaugh’s stock has never been higher while at Michigan, and that is crazy to believe just a year removed from a 2-4 season. There may never be a better time to get back to the NFL, which Harbaugh reportedly has always planned on.

Harbaugh, after seeing the sizable gap between a national title contender in Georgia and Michigan’s best team in over 15 years, can leave Michigan on a high note and return to the NFL. I’m not saying it will happen in the coming weeks, but it sure makes sense.