Will Michigan’s salvaged season matter if Wolverines can’t beat Ohio State?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A month ago, the story of Michigan’s season was a radically different one, rife with unhappiness, uncertainty and, yes, even in Ann Arbor, growing questions from a loyal fan base about its handpicked coach and his long-term plans.

At tailgates large and small on a cold, sopping wet day in late October, the gloomy weather reflected the mood: The Wolverines stood on the brink of another lost season, a Big Ten championship already gone after disheartening losses against Wisconsin and Penn State.

Like a bad song playing on a loop, Jim Harbaugh’s 1-10 record against top-10 teams became an inescapable part of the Michigan football soundtrack with No. 8 Notre Dame coming into town. Divisions formed between Harbaugh loyalists and those wondering whether he was, indeed, the coach who could finally make Michigan a champion again.

Anthony Wilson, who has been going to games since junior high school, kept dry under a Michigan tailgate tent with his three nephews. “Jim Harbaugh and his staff have done a good job,” Wilson said. “We’d like to see it quicker, but I support him and I think we’re headed in the right direction. Most want it a lot quicker. With social media and all of that, [with a lack of] success against top-10 teams, some of the fans are frustrated.”

“Because there is no success against top-10 teams on the road,” his nephew, Chris McCollom, cut in. “So I disagree with him about Harbaugh. I don’t support him. I did at first, but these last two years … I don’t support him anymore because he hasn’t done anything for me to support.”

On and on they went, pitched back-and-forth debates among friends and family, and on local radio, all the way up to kickoff. Then, perhaps the most unexpected outcome of all happened: Michigan dominated Notre Dame 45-14 to seize control of the narrative to its season.

A 44-10 pounding of rival Michigan State a few weeks later shifted the story to the one now unfolding: a resurgent, confident Michigan team with its eyes set on the biggest goal it has left — ruining Ohio State’s season. Ah yes, Ohio State. The team Harbaugh has been unable to beat in five years as head coach, the team against which success or failure is measured. Among all the questions Michigan has answered since Notre Dame, here is the one that remains: Does anything that happened over the past four weeks even matter if the Wolverines lose to Ohio State?

“You still have two-thirds, maybe even three-quarters of the fan base squarely in his corner,” said John U. Bacon, whose most recent book, “Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football,” goes inside the Michigan program. “Everyone’s getting impatient about Ohio State and Big Ten titles, especially after Jim’s first year, when you go from five wins to 10 wins. Everyone, perhaps even Harbaugh himself, is surprised he still hasn’t beaten Ohio State, still hasn’t won a Big Ten title. In many ways, that first year might have been the worst thing he could have done.”

When Harbaugh took over for Brady Hoke in 2015, it was hard to find anyone who thought Michigan would double its wins total in just one season. Going 10-3 in Year 1 with a dominant win against Florida in the Citrus Bowl perhaps glossed over the hard work that remained for Harbaugh and his assistants and accelerated championship expectations.

Then, in 2016, Michigan lost against Ohio State in double overtime with a possible College Football Playoff spot on the line and it appeared the Wolverines were close to breaking through. Harbaugh, meanwhile, became one of the most visible coaches on social media, mostly for his subtweets at coaches across the country — drawing criticism and raising eyebrows among many outside Michigan.

Beyond social media, though, Harbaugh made it clear he would do things his way, and it did not win him many friends in the process. He fought to make satellite camps an issue across college football. He took his team to spring practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, then decided he would take the players to destinations around the world, including France, Italy and South Africa. His recruiting methods seemed unconventional too, including well-documented sleepovers and tree climbing to win over prospects.

That bold, brash persona has dissipated in the intervening years, and so has his fiery sideline demeanor; but it has not made him any less of a target for those looking to take shots at him and his program, especially when Michigan loses. That is what happened at the end of last season, when Michigan squandered an opportunity for its first Big Ten championship since 2004 and a playoff spot with a 62-39 loss against Ohio State — then followed that up with a blowout loss to Florida in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.

Still, Michigan opened the 2019 season at No. 7, and all eyes were focused on Harbaugh once again. Could this finally be the year?

But after a disastrous performance against Wisconsin and heart-stopping loss to Penn State erased the Wolverines’ championship hopes, some Michigan fans started to openly wonder about Harbaugh too. On the one hand, no one wants to go back to the Rich Rodriguez or Hoke eras. The fans realize Harbaugh had a deep hole to dig out from, and Michigan is in a far better place now than it was when he inherited the program. Harbaugh has three 10-win seasons, with the possibility for a fourth, plus two New Year’s Six appearances since he arrived.

On the other hand, why has Harbaugh relied on transfer quarterbacks and not developed his own quarterback in five years? Why hasn’t the gap closed with Ohio State, a team that has made head-coaching and quarterback transitions appear seamless? Why does Harbaugh keep losing assistants, particularly offensive coordinators? Why is it taking so long to win the Big Ten?

“Jim Harbaugh was brought here to compete for national championships and beat Ohio State and win Big Ten championships and we haven’t done any of that, and this is Year 5 and these are his players,” longtime Michigan fan Chad Anthony said. “There’s accountability in that, but I ask all the other fans, ‘If we shove Harbaugh out for whatever reason, who are we going to get that we can rally around that’s going to be better and bigger than Jim Harbaugh?’ And the old adage, ‘If he can’t do it, who can?'”

Bacon added, “This is a program that’s been unstable for a decade. They tried the proven outsider, which did not work, and the unproven insider, which did not work. If Harbaugh doesn’t work out, what’s next, and what high-end coach in his right mind would take that job? If Harbaugh is not good enough for you, then what do you want?”

Therein lies the push-pull at Michigan, and a more uncomfortable question no one wants to consider. Michigan is 22 years removed from its last national championship, and 15 years from its last Big Ten championship. Is this a program still capable of winning in a way that is commensurate with its tradition-rich history?

“That question’s still out there,” Bacon said. “It is unrealistic to think Michigan’s going to do what Alabama and Clemson have done year in and year out, be in the playoff and compete for the national championship. Even Ohio State can’t quite do that. It’s harder in the North. It’s harder in the Big Ten. It’s harder when you have other priorities, as well.”

That is a question even the biggest Harbaugh critics do not have a ready answer for, beyond naming Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban as coach (neither is coming to Ann Arbor). No one inside the Michigan administration has any appetite to lose Harbaugh, who has the full support of athletic director Warde Manuel. If Harbaugh goes, it will be his choice and his choice only.

And because he has stayed at Michigan longer than at any previous coaching job he has held, the speculation about whether he is ready to get back into the NFL seems to come around like clockwork every year. It happened again after the Penn State loss. Harbaugh sent a letter to the parents of recruits and current players in which he wrote, “the recent claims that I am ‘pursuing an exit strategy’ are total crap” and pledged his commitment to their sons.

After a rough start to the season, it appears Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson is more comfortable with new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. James Black/Icon Sportswire

The aftermath of that loss served to galvanize the team, which has blown out each opponent it has played since then. Perhaps the offense has finally gotten more comfortable with new coordinator Josh Gattis. Perhaps quarterback Shea Patterson is in a better position to make plays. Perhaps the defense has grown up. Harbaugh, who has praised the way his team has matured from week to week, compared it to growing crops.

“You can’t plant potatoes one day and expect to eat potato salad the next day,” he said.

Maybe not, but at certain point, you have to know whether the season will be bountiful, too. “I don’t think we really had an option,” offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield said. “You’re playing at Michigan. You’re expected to win, so to give up on a season would be really disappointing. Everybody knew what we had to do to clean up the minor details. We had no option but to respond.”

The Wolverines have responded, but the biggest test comes Saturday, at home against an Ohio State team that has dominated the series in recent years. Since 2001, Michigan has beaten the Buckeyes just twice. In this decade alone, Ohio State has scored 30 or more points in eight of their nine meetings. In the one game it didn’t, Michigan still lost.

Without question, this is the worst stretch Michigan has ever had against Ohio State in the history of their rivalry, adding an even greater urgency to their latest matchup.

The result may very well drive the ongoing conversation to one extreme or the other: a firm, strident belief Harbaugh can get the job done, or an ever-creeping doubt about where the program is headed.

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