First in a series

After three years of The Harbaugh Experiment, it’s clear that results have been mixed. The overall record of 28-11 is good, but not great. The Big Ten mark of 18-8 is also good, but not great.

But the 1-5 overall mark between rivals Michigan State and Ohio State is clearly not good. And the empty trophy case — no division, conference or national titles — is absolutely an issue.

So what’s the crystal ball say for 2018? Get the cleaning crew ready to clear out some room in the trophy case. Yes, it’s time.

Am I crazy, you say? Michigan’s schedule has three extremely difficult road games (Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State), probably the most difficult troika of Big Ten West crossover games (Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin) and the massive weight of expectations on their collective shoulders.

But yes, it’s time. Why? Because all those great recruits from 2016 and 2017 are starters now. The quarterback situation is finally fixed. And, most importantly, the time has come for Jim Harbaugh to show how great of a coach he is.

It’s time to win the Big Ten East, and then a conference title. It’s time to earn a College Football Playoff spot. Yes, it’s time.

Here’s a quick look back to last year’s Crystal Ball projections:

2017 Projection: 9-3 (6-3 in Big Ten)
Actual Record: * 8-4  (5-4 in Big Ten)

*regular season

And now, on to this year:

Coaching situation

Jim Harbaugh was hired to put Michigan back in the national championship picture, and it hasn’t happened yet. But let’s be real. The flukiest of fluke plays got him beat against Michigan State in 2015 and a very bad call — yes, I’m an impartial observer — got him beat against Ohio State in 2016. So he hasn’t been far off and now all the pieces are in place for the Wolverines to make a run at the Big Ten title and a spot in the playoffs. It’s time for Harbaugh to make it happen — and the feeling is he will.

Quarterback situation

I’ve watched a lot of Shea Patterson at Ole Miss, and I’m a believer. He can make all the throws and make all the plays. He is exactly what Michigan has lacked under Harbaugh, a guy who can throw for 300 and four touchdowns if needed. He hasn’t officially earned the starting job yet, but to me it’s just a formality. The season opener at Notre Dame is just four weeks away, and it’s important for Patterson to take control of this team early in preseason camp and get this offense on the same page. There can be no doubt.

Strengths & weaknesses

The defense is solid at every level and is the best group in the Big Ten on that side of the ball. There will be All-Americans from this group. The skill positions are well-manned and with better quarterback play, they could really shine. The most obvious weakness, at least for now, is the indecision at both offensive tackle spots. There are still jobs to be won — or lost — there. Still, the strengths far exceed the weaknesses.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Notre Dame (W)
This is going to be one of those season-opening classics. Both teams are top-10 caliber with playoff aspirations. Michigan’s defense will dominate for long stretches and plays will get made late by the offense to pull this one out. The big win won’t make a season, but it will define it.

Week 2: vs. Western Michigan  (W)
The first of two easy nonconference home games will go smoothly. The Big House will be fun on a sun-splashed early September day.

Week 3: vs. SMU (W)
An easy walk in the park.

Week 4: vs. Nebraska (W)
Scott Frost in back home and he will get the Cornhuskers back on track, but it’s going to take a while. At home, Michigan puts up a big number in a laugher.

Week 5: at Northwestern (W)
Pay close attention this game. That first conference road game can be tricky and the Wildcats play smart, disciplined football. Talent wins out in the end for UM, but it’s going to be closer than you think.

Week 6: vs. Maryland (W)
The Terps just aren’t there yet talent-wise. A big first half leads to a rout, and the starters get to rest up for what lies ahead.

Week 7: vs. Wisconsin (L)
Yes, the dreaded L. Let me explain. I picked Michigan to win the East, and that means beating their division foes. I just can’t pick UM to go undefeated, so I had to throw a loss in there somewhere. Here it is, against a Badgers team that’s proven itself the past few years and will win the Big Ten West easily this year.

Week 8: at Michigan State  (W)
The Wolverines snap right back into reality and play a great game on the road against their state rivals. Michigan’s players are sick of all that “little brother” smart-aleck talk coming out of East Lansing, so they do this one right. Patterson has a huge day in a monster win.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: vs. Penn State (W)
Refreshed and energized after a week off, the Wolverines welcome unbeaten Penn State to the Big House with the division title on the line in a must-win game. Michigan answers the bell and knocks off a Nittany Lions team at 8-0 that would probably be ranked in the top-3 in the country at that point. It becomes the biggest win in the Harbaugh era.

Week 11: at Rutgers (W)
A romp. Enough said.

Week 12: vs. Indiana (W)
Not taking any chances and not looking ahead — yeah, right, I know — the Wolverines lay it on the Hoosiers. Harbaugh is still mad at Indiana for firing his brother-in-law (Tom Crean) a few years ago.

Week 13: at Ohio State (W)
Full disclosure, I put together all my game predictions before the Urban Meyer/Zach Smith news broke — and I still had Michigan winning. The difference for me is the huge edge Michigan will have at quarterback, and let’s be real, it’s just time. The Wolverines win 28-16 and claims the Big Ten East title. Yes, it’s time.

2018 Projection: 11-1 (8-1)
Final Standings: First in Big Ten East