Rankings don’t mean much to Michigan fans in the first week of July.

They’ve had the preseason hype before, and fantastic starts to the recruiting cycle are nothing new, either. Every feeling of July optimism can be replaced by November devastation for Michigan fans. That’s the narrative that’s now shaping the Jim Harbaugh era.

But there’s a certain ranking that has more significance than a typical July ranking. It’s July 2, and Michigan has the No. 3 recruiting class in the 247sports rankings. The Wolverines have commitments from 18 (!) recruits in the 2019 class, eight of which came in the last two weeks.

Yeah, I know. Not all of them will stay committed. Save your “these rankings don’t matter in July” rant. I’d actually argue that with the expedited recruiting cycle —it’s Year 1 of earlier official visits and Year 2 of the early signing period — rankings matter a whole lot more in July than they ever have. But I’ll save that argument for another time.

The argument that’s more relevant is what this could mean for the 2018 season, and how it’s going to put that much more pressure on Harbaugh to maximize a golden opportunity in Year 4.

Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

For what it’s worth, that wasn’t my way of suggesting that Harbaugh is feeling pressure from inside the athletic department. I had someone email me the other day asking if I thought he was a good “hot seat candidate,” to which I replied that I don’t think there’s any scenario in which Harbaugh is fired in 2018 (I did actually appreciate the email).

So now that we got that out of the way, how about an actual big-picture breakdown of this early 2019 recruiting success.

I’m of the belief that you can only do so much selling as a recruiter, and viral stunts have a shelf life. Sooner or later, you have to win like the big boys or else you won’t recruit like the big boys, and visa versa.

I wrote that Harbaugh’s 2018 class felt like that realization hitting home. His class ranked No. 21, which was a significant step back from the top-5 class he put together in 2017.

Two big factors contributed to that. There was, of course, the 2016 season that Michigan had in which it was ranked in the top seven in every poll except the final one. Compared to the 2017 season, which Michigan spent unranked for nearly half the year, and it’s not hard to see the recruiting class correlation there.

And obviously, size matters. Recruiting class size, that is.

Harbaugh’s 2018 class had 19 signees, which is one shy of the amount of commitments Michigan has for 2019…with basically six months until the first signing period begins. All signs point to Michigan’s 2019 class being closer to 2017, when Harbaugh signed 30.

Limited scholarships meant that Harbaugh had Co. had to be a bit more selective in their scholarship process. Losing battles to SEC schools for 4-star recruits like Otis Reese and Emil Ekiyor didn’t help, either. Those get magnified when a class has a limited amount of scholarships. Those get magnified even more coming off a disappointing season.

Michigan definitely doesn’t have limited scholarships with this many early commitments, and time will tell if this season proves to be a disappointment.

That’s why this feels like such a crucial window for Michigan.

Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When traditional powers finally have that breakthrough season, it usually translates to big-time recruiting success.

Look at what it did for Kirby Smart following Georgia’s run to the national championship game. He put together the highest-rated class of the recruiting rankings era. USC finished No. 4 in the recruiting rankings after its Rose Bowl season in 2016. Following consecutive New Year’s Six bowls, Penn State just put together it’s highest-rated class of the recruiting rankings era.

What would it look like if Michigan did that? We were supposed to see in 2016, but that obviously didn’t happen. Since the Wolverines were ranked No. 2 in November 2016, they’re 8-8 against Power 5 teams. Compare that to Georgia, who was 11-8 vs. Power 5 teams from October 2015 through the 2016 season.

That’s not my way of saying Michigan is also about to win a conference title and reach its first national title game in decades. But I’d love to see just how much a year like that would benefit the Wolverines’ brand. The team holding on to yesteryear would finally have a chance to break into that upper echelon of college football elite that it’s been locked out of in the 21st century.

Maybe a breakthrough season would mean that Michigan could start consistently recruiting like Ohio State, which hasn’t finished outside of the top seven in the class rankings since Urban Meyer arrived. Considering Harbaugh has yet to beat Meyer on the field, it’s not surprising that he has yet to win the overall battle on the recruiting trail.

And if you’re under the impression that Michigan doesn’t want what Meyer has at Ohio State, you’re crazy:

  • 5 of 6 seasons finished in top 6 in AP
  • 47-3 vs. B1G
  • 2 Playoff berths
  • 1 national title

That’s the standard that every team outside of Tuscaloosa is striving for.

Michigan can’t accomplish all of that in 2018. Just beating Ohio State would probably feel like winning a title at this point, though.

What the Wolverines can do is change the narrative that their days of being a college football power are behind them. Maybe the narrative is a touch overblown, at least in the recruiting world. The early 2019 success suggests that much.

Harbaugh’s recruiting start is impressive. If his finish is impressive, chances are, Michigan didn’t disappoint in 2018. The schedule won’t do Michigan any favors, and there’s no guarantee that Shea Patterson is finally the quarterback that Harbaugh can beat elite teams with.

But yes, the opportunity is still there. It could finally be Harbaugh’s turn to seize it.