Michigan Fans: Demand Change Or Wait It Out?
Following the Wolverines' 56-27 loss to Ohio State Saturday, Michigan fans are left with three options:
1) Demand Change: Jim Harbaugh is the first coach in Michigan football history to go 0-5 against Ohio State. He's the first coach to make it five years without a Big Ten title. Harbaugh was hired to restore U-M to what it once was - a conference champion and a victor over the Buckeyes.
For all the good he has done, he has failed at goals No. 1 and No. 2 (and that doesn't even account for the other goal of winning a national title). Perhaps most glaring is that the Maize and Blue appear further away from beating OSU than it did in Year 2 of the Harbaugh tenure, relying on Brady Hoke recruits.
With the exception of Jon Runyan Jr., every scholarship player on the Michigan roster was recruited by Harbaugh in his classes of 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. These are his guys. This roster configuration was his plan. This is no longer a Rich Rodriguez or a Brady Hoke problem. You can blame them for 2008-14, and maybe 2015 and 2016, and I'll even throw in 2017, but Harbaugh has had five years, and his team got blown out in THE Game. At home.
According to the 247Sports.com college team talent composite rankings, which measures an active roster's players by their high school recruiting rating, Michigan trailed Ohio State by 56 points in 2015 (by comparison Auburn trailed rival Alabama for 116 points in 2015). In 2016, U-M trailed by 50 points, by 81 in 2017, by 121 in 2018, and 120 in 2019.
As Ohio State was putting together elite class after elite class, U-M was falling further behind, and with Michigan 13th and the Buckeyes fourth in the current 2020 recruiting class, that gap is expected to getting bigger by next season.
Ohio State is on a historic run, but Harbaugh's lack of success has contributed to that - a victory in 2016, 2018 or in 2019 puts at least a hurdle in front of the Scarlet and Gray, and gives U-M ammunition to land the type of recruits needed to compete for championships. It changes the narrative, as the Maize and Blue have done with Michigan State and Mark Dantonio. It makes a rival's job a little bit harder and that is how a shift can begin.
Instead, 0-5 has given Ohio State even greater pitches to recruits and has made Harbaugh's "sell" empty. He can't sell results. He's still selling hope and promise, but recruits want to play for championships, and Michigan isn't. There's enough left (NFL aspirations, academics, better option than MSU or Maryland or Iowa) to continue to grab good recruits but the difference-makers have no reason to go to Michigan.
U-M is stuck in a cycle. It can't recruit the Top 50 talents needed to beat Ohio State because it can't sell results, and it probably can't beat OSU without that talent, not when the coaching hasn't proven to be good enough to overcome the talent gap.
Harbaugh gets credit for making a few tough decisions along the way, ditching his old offense and bringing in Josh Gattis, but it also took him four years to realize he wasn't coaching Stanford in 2010, and in that time OSU was pulling away.
Some will demand he gets rid of defensive coordinator Don Brown and he might (though the way he reveres Brown, probably not), but this entire program is Harbaugh, his vision, his philosophy, his attitude. He's surrounded himself with coaches, analysts, and strength coaches, and while there are a lot of good people at U-M, the collective staff is not good enough.
Harbaugh can make more changes but it's very likely the problem is not everyone around him but Harbaugh himself.
2) Wait It Out (And Hope): The Dabo Swinney argument.
It took Swinney seven years before his big breakthrough, making the playoffs in 2015 and finishing runner-up. A year later, the Tigers won the national championships and Clemson has, arguably, been the best program in college football these last five years.
Swinney lost two or more games in each of his first six seasons in Clemson, including three or more in four of the six (he went 10-3 in 2014). He lost to in-state rival South Carolina from 2009-13, his first five years, and while he had greater success against Florida State, he was still 2-4 against the Seminoles in his first six tries.
In the past five years, however, Clemson is 10-0 against South Carolina and Florida State.
If you believe Harbaugh is still the coach to lead Michigan to championships, Swinney is your hopeful comparison.
Of course, it would help if Ohio State was more like South Carolina (29-34 over the last five years) or if Ryan Day peaks early, like Jimbo Fisher did at FSU, and then trails off - Fisher won a national title in 2013 and was 13-1 in 2014 but then went 10-3, 10-3 and 5-6 from 2015-17 before leaving for Texas A&M.
The fate of Clemson coincided with the arrival and flourish of QB Deshaun Watson, and if Michigan can get a transcendental player like that, it would help. So far, the Wolverines haven't had one. Rashan Gary was maybe supposed to be that guy (the No. 1 recruit in the country in 2016) but he proved to be more Tim Jamison than Brandon Graham.
Other than that, who has Michigan landed that could have been that player? Shea Patterson as a five-star transfer? He finished his career strong but he's not a Top 20 quarterback in college football. In fact, U-M's quarterbacks under Harbaugh: a transfer that lost his job at Iowa (Jake Rudock), a three-star with minimal offers (Wilton Speight), a transfer that lost his job at Houston (John O'Korn), a four-star that transferred to Illinois (Brandon Peters) and Patterson. Michigan has to do better at the game's most important position. It needs a Watson (or Justin Fields).
But if the Wolverines can get that player, and perhaps he's already on the roster (redshirt freshman Joe Milton) or is coming (2021 five-star JJ McCarty) it could be what Harbaugh and Co. need to beat OSU and win a Big Ten title. And if you have the patience to wait a bit longer, and believe in Harbaugh, then you just sit pat.
3) Accept Fate: It is what it is.
Over Harbaugh's tenure, Michigan has been more talented than every team but one. During that time, the coaches have proven to be one of the 2-3 best in the Big Ten. Michigan will have no problem in future years beating Maryland and Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Rutgers, and when at home - Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State.
U-M is probably looking at consistent nine- or 10-win seasons for the next decade. Sure, it will lose recruits to Ohio State, but it won't lose many recruiting battles to anyone other than Penn State in the rest of the Big Ten.
Michigan probably loses tough non-conference games on the road (Washington in 2020) and could lose to Minnesota in Minneapolis next year plus Ohio State, but nine wins is likely the floor. In 2021, the Wolverines will have to navigate Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State on the road but could win one or two, and likely loses to OSU again. And the Buckeyes again in 2022 and 2023.
Maybe one of these years the Maize and Blue will get the Buckeyes, catch them on an atypical down season and we'll all be happy to see another victory in THE Game during our lifetime but for the most this is what Michigan is and will be. The second-best team in the Big Ten, and a huge gap between 1 and 2. Good seasons, a nice Jan. 1 bowl game, beating Michigan State regularly, and finishing Top 15 if you beat an SEC team in the postseason.
Playing for Big Ten titles, making the playoff, drawing even with Ohio State ... all figments of our imagination. Michigan can be good but never great, not as long as the Buckeyes remain what they are.
Of course, there is a fourth option and you know what it is - gray areas. Accept borderline academic recruits, recruits with character issues, pay recruits and their families. Operate like an SEC school. Sell your soul to win.