Top to bottom, the 2016 campaign featured the most talented roster that Jim Harbaugh has had in his six years as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
The Wolverines began the season as the No. 7 team in the country, working their way up to No. 2 as they entered Kinnick Stadium 9-0 on November 12 for a nightcap match up with the Hawkeyes. Of course, a night game at Kinnick is almost always fatal for a visiting team with national championship aspirations and the Wolverines would see their perfect season come to an end as kicker Keith Duncan nailed the 33-yard game winner as time expired. Iowa won the game by one point by a score of 14-13.
While the loss to Iowa was certainly disappointing, Michigan was far from being out of the playoff hunt at that point – their CFP ranking dropping just two spots from No. 2 to No. 4. However, that narrow margin of loss – that close call – would be an ominous sign of things to come.
Two weeks later, the Wolverines would head into Columbus ranked No. 3 in the country for a match up with the No. 2 Buckeyes. For Michigan, a win would punch their ticket to Indy for the first time since the inception of the Big Ten Championship game. It was the kind of game that Jim Harbaugh was brought to Michigan to win; the kind of game that can change the course of a program. As it turns out, the game did certainly change the course of things in Ann Arbor, but not for the better.
As for the game itself, it definitely lived up to the hype. Both teams battled, both teams traded blows, and it would eventually require not just one, but two overtime periods to settle things in Columbus. It looked like Michigan had won the game on a crucial 4th down stop, but “the spot” would keep the Buckeyes on the field with a new set of downs. Curtis Samuel’s 15-yard touchdown run on the very next play would seal the Wolverines fate. In hindsight, it may have also sealed the fate of Jim Harbaugh as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
Ohio State would win the game 30-27, and would eventually land themselves in the playoffs for the second time in the CFP era.
For Michigan, it was another disappointing end to what could have been a transformational season, and Harbaugh knew it. It was painfully clear after the game that Harbaugh was in disbelief about the way things played out. He went after the refs, went after the spot, went after the inconsistency in calls and he was entirely justified in doing so. At the same time, it’s also clear that Harbaugh would never be quite the same after that loss. The fiery sideline personality was soon replaced with one that was much more reserved, the animated personality had become far more subdued.
That 2016 season may have been far bigger than just a disappointing season for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, it may have been catastrophic. Michigan would end up losing three games during that 2016 campaign by a combined total of just five points (and one very questionable spot) – and it’s still the closest they’ve come to a B10 title shot under Harbaugh to date.
Following that 2016 campaign, Harbaugh would post an 8-5 record in 2017, including his third consecutive loss to the Buckeyes. Harbaugh didn’t fare much better in 2018 and 2019, as his defense (under the leadership of Don Brown) would surrender a historic 118 points in consecutive blowout losses against Ohio State – bringing his coaching record to 0-5 against Michigan’s greatest rival. That 0-5 record officially put Harbaugh in a category all by himself, something I’m sure he thinks about often.
At some point, you have to wonder just how long a prideful and competitive guy like Harbaugh can continue on in the absence of a breakthrough year, particularly as it relates to Ohio State. You also have to wonder how long Michigan is willing to tolerate it. The harsh reality is that, with each passing year that doesn’t include a win against Ohio State and/or a trip to Indy, Michigan and Harbaugh inch ever closer to an unavoidable inflection point that nobody would have anticipated back in December of 2014.
With Michigan’s awful 2020 season now hanging in the balance due to COVID concerns, that inflection point may be mere weeks away.