Tony Ding/Associated Press
By normal standards, Jim Harbaugh has been wildly successful in his tenure with Michigan.
Of the 15 coaching changes made during the 2015 offseason, only Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst (42-12) has accumulated more wins than Harbaugh’s 38 with the Wolverines. Nine of those 15 coaches have either already been fired or are still employed despite a sub-.500 winning percentage. (Harbaugh is sitting at 73.1 percent.)
And it’s not like he was gifted a burgeoning crop of talent. Harbaugh inherited a mess that had averaged fewer than seven wins over the course of the seven seasons before his arrival, yet he quickly turned it into an annual contender—in the decidedly more difficult of the Big Ten’s two divisions, no less.
Had he pulled that off at Maryland or Indiana, those schools would have already erected statues in his honor.
But when you’re the head coach of Michigan, the standards are anything but normal.
The Wolverines have earned at least a share of 42 conference titles and have claimed 11 national championships. Getting to 10 wins and finishing around 10th in the national polls in three out of four seasons isn’t enough in Ann Arbor, and going 0-4 against Ohio State along the way is downright unacceptable.
Sooner or later, Michigan’s athletic department will need to decide if it is content with this annual rendition of Groundhog Day in which the Wolverines spend three months in the College Football Playoff conversation only to suffer a devastating, end-of-regular-season loss to their archrival.
If that horror flick repeats itself again this fall, it’s probably time to find out if someone else can get the job done.
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Preseason expectations for Michigan are as high as they have been since the end of the Lloyd Carr era in 2007, and for good reason.
For starters, the Wolverines actually have an offensive coordinator now, and it’s a man who just helped oversee one of the most unstoppable offenses ever. They brought in Josh Gattis, the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach for Alabama in 2018. And the reports at the end of spring were that Harbaugh is letting Gattis steer the ship rather than imposing his will on the offense like he has in the past. Removing that “too many cooks in the kitchen” dynamic should help matters.
While Gattis doesn’t quite have Tua Tagovailoa and the likes of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III at his disposal anymore, there’s a ton of talent in this passing attack. Now a senior, Shea Patterson was the No. 4 overall recruit in the 2016 class. Donovan Peoples-Jones was the highest-rated wide receiver in the 2017 class, checking in ahead of fellow 5-star studs Jeudy and Clemson’s Tee Higgins. Tarik Black and Nico Collins were also top-25 wideouts in that class.
Those ratings coming out of high school don’t mean much of anything at this point, but it’s a testament to the amount of potential on this offense. When Patterson was ruled immediately eligible after transferring from Ole Miss, we all expected the Patterson-to-DPJ connection to be one of the best in the nation. It’s a year later than anticipated, but that could still be the case in 2019.
Moreover, for the first time under Harbaugh, the offensive line should be a legitimate strength rather than a question mark. Guys like Cesar Ruiz and Ben Bredeson, who were once thrown into the fire as freshmen, are now refined, veteran leaders. With a moderate amount of luck in regard to injury avoidance, this could easily be one of the five best offensive lines.
There are some question marks on defense after losing Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and David Long in the first 80 picks of the 2019 NFL draft, but can we really be that concerned? Michigan has ranked top four in the country in yards allowed per game in four consecutive seasons.
It’s not like the Wolverines haven’t dealt with attrition during those four seasons. Remember, Harbaugh had eight defensive players selected in the 2017 NFL draft, and Michigan was almost just as impenetrable the following year.
Despite losing those four star players, this defense is somehow overflowing with proven experience, positioned to possibly start multiple seniors at each of the three levels. Add in the immediate-impact potential of 5-star freshmen Daxton Hill and Chris Hinton, and Michigan might even be better on defense than it was in 2018.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
While it’s great for this season, the sheer volume of seniors in the projected starting lineup is one of the big factors making this a “now or never” season for Harbaugh. There could be as many as 13 seniors in Michigan’s starting 22.
When a program is even remotely considering a coaching change, that type of single-season roster turnover makes it even more tempting to hit the reset button.
The “winnability” of Michigan’s schedule is another key component in this conversation about Harbaugh’s future.
Per ESPN’s Football Power Index projections, Michigan has the fourth-best odds of reaching bowl season with an unblemished record. The Wolverines have a 7.5 percent chance of going 13-0, which may not sound great next to Clemson’s 49.4 percent chance, but it’s more than twice as likely as all teams not named Clemson, Alabama or Oklahoma.
Just in case it needs to be explicitly stated: fourth-best odds of going undefeated makes Michigan one of the top candidates to reach this year’s playoff.
While it’s not a particularly easy schedule—Michigan plays six games against teams in the preseason AP Top 20—it is a slate against which the supposed seventh-best team in the country can run the table. The Wolverines will face four of those six ranked opponents at home, and four of the six are ranked in the Nos. 15-20 range, which is preseason code for “We think you’ll be good, but we’re not expecting you to be ‘CFP’ good.”
If we’re setting lines on each of Michigan’s 12 games today, the team would be favored in each one. That may change if Penn State and/or Ohio State is better than expected, but that’s where we’re at for now.
As a result, anything less than 11-1 would be a disappointment and could be perceived as a fireable offense. It’s probably not quite a “CFP or bust” situation for Harbaugh, but the Wolverines had better at least still be in the mix when the final rankings are released.
Even 11-1 with a loss to Ohio State might not be enough to save his job, considering the game is at home this year and given Harbaugh’s history against the Buckeyes, the likelihood that it would keep Michigan out of the Big Ten championship yet again and the fact that Ohio State has a first-year head coach and a new starter at quarterback.
If ever there was a season for Michigan to pound Ohio State and put an end to its longest losing streak in the history of this rivalry, you would think this is the one.
And if it isn’t, perhaps the Wolverines need to accept they’ve milked Harbaugh for all he’s worth.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.