Jim Harbaugh’s interview with ESPN talk show host Colin Cowherd last week was, to put it mildly, on the uninspiring said, so much so that The Herd had to terminate the interview. Before Harbaugh’s boring answers, clearly done to tweak the host, Cowherd said that we need to be patient with Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, that he won’t turn it around in one year. Looking at the talent on hand and Harbaugh’s track record, I’m not so sure he won’t.
Remember, when Brady Hoke took over, his early recruiting classes were lauded. The 2012 & 2013 classes ranked 4th and 6th in the nation respectively, and those are the upperclassmen on this year’s roster. They haven’t played to their potential so far, but there’s every reason to think Harbaugh can turn it around quickly.
This is someone who turned around the moribund San Francisco 49ers franchise in his first year and rescued Alex Smith’s career. While you can turn over personnel in the NFL a lot easier than you can in college, the dramatic flip in the 49er fortunes in 2011 spoke volumes to Harbaugh’s ability to motivate.
The man also knows quarterbacks, as his work with Smith suggests. While I’m not in the “quarterback-is-the-end-all-be-all camp that’s so dominant in sports media, I don’t deny the position’s obvious importance. Michigan had turnover problems last year and if Harbaugh can get junior quarterback Shane Morris to simply take care of the football, the team can get better immediately. You may recall that better game management was precisely the formula Harbaugh used with Smith.
Michigan also has a veteran offensive line, with four seniors slated to start. Harbaugh likes to run the football. When he last coached in college, at Stanford, he ran the ball over 60 percent of the time. That was with Andrew Luck in his sophomore and junior seasons. How much more will Harbaugh want to pound the rock with an untested Morris behind center?
The defense is going to be the big determining factor for Michigan’s season. They lose their best two pass rushers and that was off a team that didn’t pressure the quarterback very well to begin with. The secondary was a competent unit, but didn’t make big plays. So when you consider the offense couldn’t take care of the ball, the defense couldn’t force turnovers nor get to the quarterback, it’s not a huge mystery why the Wolverines struggled to 5-7.
But strong safety is Jabril Peppers is a potential difference-maker. The sophomore was one of the country’s most touted recruits before injuries spoiled his freshman year. Another newcomer is defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, whose last job was at Florida with Wil Muschamp. Things didn’t work out for that regime in Gainesville, but it was no fault of the defense, which was as stingy as any.
I believe this year’s Michigan team is going to be one that plays like a firecracker has been lit underneath their posterior (appropriate analogy for the Fourth of July), runs the ball reasonably well, take care of the ball and show an improved defense. Harbaugh has excellent game management skills that will aid the Wolverines in close games. All of those are the reasons I’m bullish on their prospects, not just down the line, but immediately.
The question then becomes what is bullish? This is a program that decline from 8-5 to 7-6 to 5-7 in the final three years under Hoke. I would have thought predicting an eight-win season in the Big Ten East, easily the toughest side of the conference, was pretty good. It turns out, Las Vegas is even more optimistic—the Over/Under for wins on Michigan this season is 8.5. I’m still going to lean over and say they go 9-3, but that’s a stiff number to actually bet.
Here’s how the Michigan schedule breaks down, by degree of difficulty:
MUST WIN AT HOME: Oregon State, UNLV, Rutgers
MUST WIN ON THE ROAD: Indiana
FAVORED AT HOME: BYU, Northwestern
ROAD OPPORUNITIES: at Utah, at Maryland
Michigan can’t afford more than one loss in this group of games if they’re going to reach 9-3 and they might need to sweep all eight. The good news is, that looks doable. That leads us to the Big Four…
ROAD WARS: at Minnesota, at Penn State
HOME WARS: Michigan State, Ohio State
If I were betting the Wolverines to win nine games, I’d actually prefer the venues for these games be flipped. I think they would beat Minnesota and Penn State at home, whereas knocking off Sparty or the Buckeyes is going to be a tall order. The schedule makes big upsets of the Big Ten East’s two best a possibility, but losing to a couple of solid teams on Michigan’s level is also in play.
It’s been a long time since Ann Arbor saw really great college football. Michigan hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2004. That streak won’t end this season, but they’re a real contender to reach one of the premium New Year’s Six bowl games. I’m all for giving a new coach time, but that patience won’t be necessary with Harbaugh.