Michigan football: When will we know that the Wolverines are 'back'?
Was Saturday’s 31-10 throttling of Washington more than just a win for Michigan?
Was the 10th night game in Ann Arbor history (UM is 8-2) a sign of a true turnaround for coach Jim Harbaugh, who’s now in his 7th year at the helm of Wolverines football?
Some will say yes. Some will say no.
But either way, it’s been a yearly discussion since Harbaugh’s second or third season — and everyone wants to know when Michigan will be ‘back’ in terms of national recognition. Now, the term ‘back’ is also a touchy subject: Some seem to remember multiple national championships and never losing to Ohio State, the good old Days of Bo, or Lloyd Carr, or some other time when the Wolverines weren’t just average.
Don’t forget, those years weren’t as dreamy as the romantics want you to believe.
Bo went 5-12 in bowl games and barely edged Woody Hayes and Ohio State during the Ten Year War (5-4-1). So let’s not act like Michigan was some ultra-dominant force. Yes, it won Big Ten titles and beat up on Michigan State, but UM was still an 8-10-win team for all intents and purposes, even under Carr.
It had one national CO-championship in 1997, yet some like to act as if this was a regular thing. The Wolverines shared it with Nebraska.
Right now, Harbaugh is racking up about 8 wins per season. So far, he’s 51-22 — and that’s counting a 6-game season, so he’s right around 8 wins per year and looks like he could be quickly climbing if this year’s Wolverines end up reaching their goals. He’s yet to beat Ohio State, but that’s another story.
So back to Michigan being ‘back,’ and when that will happen. It’s all relative, really. Depends who you ask.
Of course, going into Madison on Oct. 2 to face the Badgers will be the early tell-all. Northern Illinois and Rutgers, both visiting in the next 2 weeks, should be nothing more than tune-ups for a Michigan team that has the potential — in the eyes of some — to really bring back a feeling of grandeur and pride.
The 2016 team was pretty close. Harbaugh nearly went to the CFP in only his second year. Had he done so, the 2016 team would have gone down in UM history and became folklore. Instead, hardly anyone talks about how Harbaugh just about had Michigan ‘back’ after just two seasons.
An appearance in the Playoff would have catapulted the Wolverines.
Beating Wisconsin, and decisively, will be enough to spark conversations about where things could go this year for the Wolverines. They’ll be a hot topic this coming week, highly debated and measured by everyone in college football. The hype will mount and the games will pass on the schedule. The next 2 weeks are important for Michigan, but not as important as Wisconsin week.
Nebraska might not be that great this season, but it’s still a hostile environment — one where Michigan will play Oct. 9, following the trip to Madison.
Two consecutive road games, then hosting Northwestern — the next leg of the schedule will be a lot different than lounging at home for the first month of the season.
One win over Washington, while it may feel good, just isn’t enough to buy into Michigan’s chances of being ‘back’ in Week 2, or anytime relatively soon.
On Saturday, Harbaugh was asked if his offense found an identity — a popular question in Ann Arbor for the past 5 years. Usually, it’s reserved for a few more weeks into the season, but someone decided to bring it out a little early this year.
“Maybe a little too early to say what the identity is. … We’ll see what that looks like every single week. I thought it was strong, as I said before. And there were some things we could improve, which makes you feel good in an early-season game where you get the win and there’s things to improve on, too,” Harbaugh said during his post-game press conference.
“Things to go to work on on Monday and things to get better at and things to have to get better at. Because you can. That’s a good feeling right now.”
College football, and sports in general, has gotten to the point where not many care about history.
Today, history is the past 3-5 years. And in collegiate athletics, it’s all about the team that the recruit remembers from throughout the years — not the teams of their elders’ years. Sure, the stories from the past are cool and all, but if a school has been garbage ever since the recruit can remember, that national title from 25 years ago doesn’t mean too much.
Michigan won’t be ‘back’ this year, despite the results.
It’ll have to run through the Big Ten and beat Ohio State before that even becomes a real conversation — and hold that stature for several seasons; it can’t be a one-time thing. Teams in the Big Ten such as OSU and Michigan State have recruited better than UM because of recent history. Yes, both programs have traditions, and OSU has a lot of wins, but the recruits care about what they have seen in their lifetimes: Program-defining and big-time national victories for the Spartans and Buckeyes.
Michigan won’t need a nearly-decade-long run like MSU needed from 2011-2018, because it has stronger brand recognition. Harbaugh needs a good 3-5-year span where the Wolverines are consistently beating rivals and winning big games.
He’s 1-5 in bowl games thus far. His marquee wins, other than his first bowl win vs. Florida, have all been in the regular season. In the long run, many of them have lost some of their luster.
So when will Michigan be ‘back’? It’ll take a lot more than a win over Pac-12 Washington, more than dominating the next 2 weeks, more than winning at Wisconsin and Nebraska — and more than beating Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State. That’s a tough schedule for one season.
Harbaugh will need to be successful through a few more — 8-10 win seasons, bowl games, rivalry wins — before anyone can say Michigan is truly anywhere near its way ‘back’ to the national spotlight.