• For a handful of coaches, the offseason heat won't die down until Labor Day weekend. This week's #DearAndy mailbag focuses on three who should be in the center of it all, for reasons not always in their control.
By Andy Staples
February 14, 2018

From @fentoozlr24: It feels like the Michigan–Jim Harbaugh honeymoon phase is way over. How hot is Harbaugh’s seat at UM this year and does his job security potentially hinge on Shea Patterson’s eligibility? Going 0–3 against Ohio State/Penn State/Michigan State again seems like it would be a pink slip waiting to happen.

It definitely feels like the honeymoon phase is over, but even if the doomsday scenario you described happens, I can’t see Michigan firing Harbaugh at the end of year four. If things are going badly, I could see him heading back to the NFL, but I can’t imagine the school pushing him out the door barring anything exceptionally weird. What I can imagine is a much quieter offseason from Harbaugh, who seems to have abandoned the media strategy that garnered him so much attention early in his tenure. He’s smart enough to know that he doesn’t need to create awareness. He needs to create wins.

Michigan fans certainly seem long past the Harbaugh-walks-on-water phase of the relationship. That group has morphed from Harbaugh’s staunchest ally to his most vocal critic, and that change took place over the last year. Last year, when Harbaugh announced the team would travel to Italy for part of spring practice, the response was “What a great cultural experience for these players.” Last week, when Harbaugh announced that the team would take a trip to France after spring semester final exams—also a great cultural experience that includes a visit to Normandy so players can learn more about one of the most significant events in world history—there was a smattering of “Shouldn’t they just stay in Ann Arbor and lift weights so they might finally beat Ohio State?”

Let’s take the emotion out of it and examine where Michigan football is right now. The Wolverines made major strides in their first two seasons under Harbaugh, and then they went 8–5 in 2017 after losing 17 starters and finishing the season on their third starting quarterback because of injuries. A dip shouldn’t have been that surprising. Failing to beat a team that finished the regular season with a winning record (Purdue added a seventh win in the Foster Farms Bowl) was surprising. Michigan went 0–3 against the teams that are supposed to be its peers in the Big Ten East (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State). That dropped Harbaugh’s record against those teams to 3–6. The most troubling piece of that record is the 0–3 mark against Ohio State.

The biggest issue at this point seems to be trajectory. Ohio State just signed a class that would have finished No. 1 in the nation had Georgia not hauled in a historically high-rated group. Penn State signed a top-five class. Michigan State never seems to need highly ranked classes to be competitive under Mark Dantonio, so even though the Spartans finished 11 places below the Wolverines in the recruiting rankings, they do bring back a capable quarterback (Brian Lewerke) and a core of veterans who seemed to arrive a tad early in 2017. Michigan signed the No. 21 class in the country according to the 247Sports Composite, but the optics were worse than the reality because even though the bulk of all these classes got signed in December, the Wolverines lost the top-rated committed player in their class on National Signing Day when linebacker Otis Reese opted to stay in his home state and play for Georgia.

Harbaugh’s job security certainly doesn’t hinge on the eligibility of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, but this seems like a good place to issue a word of caution. I worry that if the NCAA decides Patterson can play immediately, he’ll be saddled with exorbitant expectations. He is very talented, and it’s quite fun to watch him keep plays alive with his legs and then throw deep. But he shouldn’t be asked to be the savior of Michigan’s program. Patterson had a quality group of receivers at Ole Miss, and Alabama beat the Rebels 66–3. Auburn beat them 44–23. From a talent standpoint, these are decent analogues to Ohio State and Penn State. And if Patterson had stayed at Ole Miss, he’d have found himself in a fight to win the job back from Jordan Ta’amu, who completed a higher percentage and averaged one more yard per attempt—though Ta’amu didn’t have to play Alabama and Auburn—than Patterson last season. Of course, Patterson also didn’t have Rashan Gary and Devin Bush playing on the other side of the ball in Oxford. Don Brown’s defense, which enters 2018 with far more experience than it did last year, should give the Wolverines’ offense some room to grow no matter who winds up starting at quarterback.

The Wolverines open at Notre Dame, which won’t be easy. (And get ready for a serious sky-is-falling-narrative if Michigan loses.) But the real drama will come in the back half of the schedule. What happens against Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State will determine whether Harbaugh’s tenure returns to its previous bliss or descends further into mad(online)ness.

From Sean: Why is the media so against the Herm Edwards hire? I wasn’t for it to begin with but he’s put together a strong staff and even though he closed strong on National Signing Day part two, the narrative was his folksy interview.

You’re going to have to expect a healthy dose of skepticism when the athletic director making the hire acts as if he’s doing it because he expects the two coordinators to do much of the heavy lifting and then both coordinators leave within two weeks of the hire. Also, Herm Edwards spent the past nine years talking on television for a living. He should have known exactly what the reception would be for his pre-Signing Day comments that feigned shock that a coach also had to recruit the parents as well as the players. But he said it anyway. Also, Edwards and AD Ray Anderson have touted their organizational structure and its NFL-style evaluation system as if it’s something revolutionary. Nick Saban has had such a system in place—with a much larger staff—since he walked in the door at Alabama in 2007. Did Anderson think other Power 5 head coaches were personally grinding through every Hudl clip that landed in each program’s inbox? Practically every major program has already modeled its recruiting operation on an NFL front office.

That said, the Sun Devils did close strong on Signing Day despite having to make up a lot of ground. Edwards has the kind of personality that should make him an excellent recruiter. As far as the Xs and Os, we’ll have to see once the games start. The college game in 2018 barely resembles the NFL game he left in 2008. It will be up to Edwards’s assistants to get him up to speed, and it will be up to Edwards to adapt. This could be a lot of fun if it works, but Edwards and the Sun Devils will have to answer some legitimate questions to prove it will.

From @HistoryOfMatt: #DearAndy, I get why coaches feel a need to play to the crowd when speaking at booster clubs, but what possessed Mullen to make the “blind squirrel” crack about UGA when his old team and new team were destroyed last year by a combined score of 73–10? Why give Kirby MORE motivation?

I have to admit, when I first read this quote from Mullen’s speaking engagement to a fan group on National Signing Day, I wasn’t sure who Mullen was calling the blind squirrel. Was it the Georgia program that just won the SEC and lost the national title game in overtime? Or was it the previous Florida staff, which won the SEC East in 2015 and 2016 but got fired?

Upon further review, Mullen is definitely talking about Georgia. This is bold and possibly crazy.

I like the idea of rivals gigging one another. It’s fun. I’d rather hear that than coaches poor-mouthing every time they hold a microphone. That said, Mullen had better be prepared for the comebacks if Oct. 27 comes and Florida hasn’t closed what appears to be a fairly significant gap against Georgia. If the Bulldogs win again, they’ll have the right to say whatever they please, and the Gators will have to take it.

The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is in a weird spot as rivalries go. Florida had won three in a row before last season, and the Bulldogs won 42–7 in 2017 on a day when it was clear to everyone that Florida coach Jim McElwain’s tenure was over. Logically, each side should feel comfortable letting loose with a little playful trash talk. But Georgia’s trajectory—there’s that word again—seems so steep that it feels inadvisable to poke that particular recently awoken Dawg.

But Mullen has never been shy about mixing it up. His mandate is to prove the Gators still belong in the same sentence as teams that have competed for national titles this decade, and rather than allow his fans to feel downtrodden, perhaps he feels he needs to speak some competitiveness into existence. Because he saw Georgia last year as Mississippi State’s coach, Mullen knows precisely the caliber of opponent he’s provoking. He also knows how far his new team needs to go to compete with such a group.

So his job these next few months is create a team that can back up his words. Otherwise, he’s going to get them thrown back in his face come the week of Halloween.

From Tony: If the XFL actually happens, any chance they start poaching stud freshmen and sophomores looking for a paycheck?

When I first saw the rumors that WWE chairman Vince McMahon might revive the XFL, I wondered if the league might try to make some headlines by offering a lower age limit and a chance for younger players to get a paycheck rather than play for a scholarship. The original incarnation of the XFL had an outlaw mentality, and that is the kind of status quo-bending move I would have expected that league to try had it survived.

But after watching McMahon’s presentation about the new iteration of the league, I can’t see it. The ethos this time seems to be status quo preservation, and such a move certainly wouldn’t fit the brand McMahon seems to be trying to mold.

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