Jim Harbaugh can’t escape the scrutiny and comparisons. After four years at Michigan, he’s officially become the ant beneath the magnifying glass.

Not too long ago, everyone was praising Michigan for finally making an intelligent hire, bringing in an alum with deep ties to the program. Harbaugh checked every box. He was the one chosen to lead the Wolverines back to glory. Finding someone who disagreed with the hire was more difficult than locating Uzbekistan on a globe.

Four years later, the perspective on Harbaugh has flipped 180 degrees. All those folks clamoring that Michigan was bound and determined to return as a nationally competitive program are seriously questioning whether the Wolverines have the right guy holding the scepter.

That’s what happens when you go 0-4 against Ohio State and lose your last three bowl games.

Harbaugh wrapped up his fourth season in Ann Arbor, a year that ended in humiliating fashion. A 10-1 start was tainted by a 62-39 loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus. Michigan dropped a 41-15 contest to Florida in the Peach Bowl to end the year 10-3.

Michigan’s finish, combined with Harbaugh’s previous three seasons, prompted more comparison and skepticism. The comparison was to former head coach Brady Hoke, who also spent four seasons in Ann Arbor. The skepticism relates to Harbaugh’s future, and whether he’s capable of getting his alma mater over the hump.

One of these topics is ridiculous. The other is worth having a conversation.

Stop comparing Jim Harbaugh to Brady Hoke

Sure, comparing Harbaugh to Hoke is a quick, easy way to try and discredit basically anything that Harbaugh has done over the last four seasons. A few graphics with his name beside Hoke’s is always a good way to stir up conversation.

Just to join in the fun, here’s the comparison between Hoke’s four seasons in Ann Arbor and Harbaugh’s first four years, along with some of the most important statistics:

Michigan Hoke   Harbaugh
Overall Record    31-20       38-14
vs. Top 25    4-10       8-10
vs. MSU & OSU    2-6       2-6
10+ win seasons    1       3

Some have tried to use this type of comparison to show that Hoke’s four-year run and Harbaugh’s four seasons are incredibly similar. The chart — at least through these eyes — tells a much different story, though.

Harbaugh has recorded seven more victories, nearly two more per season. In college football, a two-win difference on a per year basis is pretty significant. And Harbaugh has already registered twice as many victories over ranked opponents. He’s also won at least 10 games in three of his first four seasons.

In case you forgot, Hoke won 11 games in his first season with the Wolverines and never hit a double-digit win total again.

Really, the only argument that can be made comparing Hoke and Harbaugh is the dreadful records against Michigan State and Ohio State, both are 2-6. True, Hoke did beat the Buckeyes once, but that came against a scandal-riddled, Luke Fickell-coached team in 2011. Neither head coach beat Urban Meyer.

Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

And, just for good measure, why not look briefly at player development, too. Through Harbaugh’s first three years at Michigan, the Wolverines have had 16 players selected in the NFL Draft. In the previous seven seasons with Rich Rodriguez and Hoke at the helm, only 18 players were picked.

Harbaugh’s total should tie that number in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, with defensive end Rashan Gary and linebacker Devin Bush both projected to be high selections. Michigan will almost certainly surpass that 18-player total in the later rounds.

Can we go ahead and put the Harbaugh-Hoke comparisons to bed? Other than the subpar record in rivalry games, there’s really nothing to debate.

Harbaugh hasn’t delivered, but Michigan is in a good spot

This is a conversation that seems a little more appropriate. Harbaugh has proven himself to be a quality coach at a big-time program, but winning conference titles and turning Michigan into a regular College Football Playoff contender is still something he’s trying to accomplish.

Yes, that was the most obvious statement of the year.

The way the 2018 season is impossible to justify. Watching a team implode in such embarrassing fashion in the final two games after an incredible 10-game win streak that included back-to-back-to-back wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State is unexplainable. For that, Harbaugh caught plenty of criticism. Fans and analysts alike blasted the fourth-year head coach for the lousy finish to an otherwise tremendous season.

Of course, no one was harsher than SEC Network host Paul Finebaum.

“This is the Michigan program that the Wolverine fans want,” Finebaum told WJOX. “They want a good program that will never be great. Michigan will never be great under Jim Harbaugh. Michigan will never be elite under Jim Harbaugh. Michigan will always be somewhere right below that line, which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with 10-11 wins — maybe eight or nine one year.”

Finebaum is right to some degree. There is absolutely nothing wrong with 10 to 11 wins regularly. And, realistically, Michigan probably won’t be joining the ranks of Alabama or Clemson as a regular visitor to the College Football Playoff anytime soon.

But what’s not mentioned here is that, usually, if a program can consistently reach that 10-win mark over an extended period of time, it’s probably going to make a conference championship visit now and then. And there’s probably a spot in the four-team field on the horizon, too.

While Harbaugh hasn’t delivered on those sky-high expectations early in his tenure, Michigan is still going to be a contender for the long haul. Recruiting rankings, more than anything, prove that the Wolverines are going to be around for awhile.

Recruiting Rank National B1G
   2019        7   1
   2018      22   3
   2017       5   2
   2016       8   2
   2015      37   5

Harbaugh has lassoed three top 10 classes in his five seasons on the recruiting trail. The two outliers came in 2015 — his first season — and in 2018 following an 8-5 campaign. Right now, Michigan owns the B1G’s top recruiting class and will likely dethrone Ohio State of its post after spending nearly the entire decade on top.

Yes, the primary reason for Ohio State’s dip is Urban Meyer’s departure, but Michigan is still beating out Penn State and Michigan State for prized recruits. That can’t be undersold.

Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

With no appearances in the B1G Championship Game and zero wins over Ohio State, the criticism of Harbaugh is easy to understand. But the Wolverines are still winning consistently, defeating quality opponents and continue to rake in top 10 recruiting classes. It hasn’t yielded the results fans of the maize and blue were hoping for just yet, but these are still very good trends.

Willingness to change is reason for optimism

After just four seasons, Harbaugh has already been labeled as a coach incapable of winning the “big one.” Finebaum said the head coach’s stock is “crashing to earth” and that he’s no longer considered one of the game’s elite coaches.

There are probably plenty of Michigan fans who feel the same way.

But there’s still reason to be excited and optimistic about the future for Michigan under Harbaugh. And maybe that didn’t really become apparent until this offseason.

Hiring former Alabama co-offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was a significant move. One of the rising stars in offensive play-calling spent six years under James Franklin at Vanderbilt and Penn State before becoming a disciple of Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa. He brings a ton of experience and knowledge to Ann Arbor.

It’s not just the Gattis hiring that’s significant, though. After convincing the offensive coordinator to return to the B1G East, Harbaugh acknowledged that he’ll allow Gattis to run the “whole offense.” This comes less than a year after Harbaugh told Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News that the offense operated under a “collaborative” effort and there wouldn’t be just one play-caller.

Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Harbaugh’s willingness to acknowledge that the offense needed a refurbishment — perhaps some new ideas — is a positive sign for the growth of the program. It shows he’s not some curmudgeon with a death-grip on his play-calling sheet, reluctant to change with the times.

Gattis’ ingenuity might be the spark Michigan needs to finally book a trip to Indianapolis on the first weekend in December.

Will Harbaugh eventually get Michigan over the hump?

Back in 2015, we were all speculating that Harbaugh would’ve led Michigan to a B1G title and would’ve made an appearance in the College Football Playoff by Year 4. Clearly that hasn’t happened.

It goes to show how difficult predicting the future can be in college football, even for a guy with the credentials and resumé that Harbaugh brought to Ann Arbor. After four years of failing to reach those goals, there’s a curiosity regarding whether Michigan will ever get to that point.

Even though Michigan has struggled in big-game situations, it’s still going to be in the mix for B1G titles and College Football Playoff runs. Maybe not quite as frequently as the folks in Ann Arbor would’ve hoped, but it’s likely to happen.

Bringing in top 10 recruiting classes regularly helps. Landing an up-and-coming offensive coordinator helps. Keeping defensive coordinator Don Brown helps. Longevity and consistency helps.

Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The bottom line is this: Michigan hasn’t had a consistent winner in over a decade until Harbaugh arrived. Even the end of the Lloyd Carr era had its ups and downs. Now, the Wolverines have put together three 10-win seasons, have been consistently ranked in the top 25 and have been in the mix for B1G titles regularly.

Michigan may not win a B1G title every other season or be a national championship contender year-in, year-out. It certainly won’t rival Alabama or Clemson anytime soon. Not many programs will.

Harbaugh has brought consistency to Ann Arbor, as well as a sense of relevance. It’s something Michigan has desperately needed for quite some time.

It’s impossible to know whether Harbaugh will ever win a B1G title or national championship at Michigan. But through four years, he’s done enough to be relieved of some of the harsh criticism thrown his direction.

He’s done more than enough to escape comparisons to Brady Hoke.