Now that Jim Harbaugh is entering his sixth year at Michigan, the U-M head coach is sporting a 47-18 record. While that seems acceptable on the surface as a stark improvement on Brady Hoke's 31-20 mark from his time in Ann Arbor.
But Jim Harbaugh was not hired to just be an improvement over Brady Hoke. He was hired to beat Michigan State on a very consistent basis, tilt the rivalry against Ohio State back in Michigan's favor and to reinsert U-M into the Big Ten title race and even the national title picture overall.
In Harbaugh's five years, one of those benchmarks has been met so far, and it has left the program's fans in a precarious position. Some may feel that Harbaugh has done his job by turning the Wolverines program around into a perennial top 15 team, while others do not feel that his tenure has been a success until the Buckeyes are defeated and Michigan is in the College Football Playoff mix.
Now in 2020, Harbaugh has the opportunity to help rewrite the narrative following his coaching success as of late, and a win over No. 21 Minnesota would go a long way in doing so. But what exactly would constitute a successful season at Michigan?
Brandon Brown: This has become such a hard question to answer. My first thought was that Michigan needs to beat Ohio State, but I really just don't see it happening. Justin Fields is one of the three best quarterbacks in the country, Ryan Day is an elite coach already, the Buckeyes have as much talent as any program in college football and The Game is in Columbus. I just don't see it happening.
So if the most obvious development that would constitute a successful season isn't going to happen, what's next?
I really don't know.
Jim Harbaugh has been a very good coach but hasn't done anything of significance. He hasn't beaten Ohio State, hasn't really been in the running for a Big Ten title and obviously hasn't been in the mix for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Beating Minnesota and Indiana and Michigan State and Illinois and Rutgers is cool, but I think I could probably do that. Harbaugh needs to win against Ohio State or somehow position himself to play for a conference title, which probably goes hand in hand with beating the Buckeyes.
Another year of losing to Ohio State, failing to play for a Big Ten title and thus missing out on being nationally relevant would be a failure for Harbaugh in year six. If Michigan can do any of those things, it would definitely be a success. I'm not holding my breath.
Michael Spath: I'm on record saying this season is a bit of a 'gimme' year for college football and that if Michigan fails to win the Big Ten or beat Ohio State it shouldn't lead to an increased din calling for Jim Harbaugh's head. That said, the Buckeyes are playing in the same environment that the Wolverines are, and at some point we have to stop saying, 'Maybe next year.'
For me, though, this year is all about putting themselves in position to win it all in 2021. By season's end, Joe Milton needs to be one of the best QBs in the Big Ten, prepared to take over as the best in 2021. The offensive line, receivers, running backs, secondary, linebackers and defensive line all have to be playing their best football when Michigan meets Ohio State. Essentially, U-M needs to be ascending at year's end, which we haven't seen since 2015. In fact, the Maize and Blue are 0-2 in their final two games of the year each season since 2016.
Ultimately, this season will be judged by THE Game. No one is predicting Michigan to win, but the Wolverines cannot get boat-raced again. For me, this season is a success if U-M wins seven games and its regular-season showdown with Ohio State is competitive until the final series, with Michigan having a chance to win it. Call me lame, but that's where we're at as observers ... hoping for close.
Eric Rutter: Point blank, if Michigan fails to beat Ohio State or take down Minnesota on the road or wind up in the Big Ten title game, it is impossible to call any part of U-M's 2020 season a success.
Sure, if the Wolverines can make it through the nine-game season safely and without any injury, that can be viewed as a moral victory no matter the record because this season does not count eligibility-wise, but Michigan needs more than that to truly experience a successful year.
Going back to the initial proposition, U-M needs to hit on two of the three potential points of success. Michigan needs to pick up a big victory over ranked Minnesota to open the season and has to follow that up with either defeating Ohio State or making the Big Ten title game. If the Wolverines can achieve two of those three, then Harbaugh is looking at a successful year.
If Minnesota goes down, Michigan has a chance of making the title game. With a loss in week one, that probably does not happen. And if the Wolverines cannot top Minnesota, how much of a chance will they really have against Ohio State in Week 8?
So, something needs to give one way or another, and we will find out quickly what that something is.
Steve Deace: The 2020 season is a success if Michigan achieves something significant -- finishes with fewer than three losses for the first time under Harbaugh, beats Ohio State, wins the Big Ten East for the first time, ends its 15-year championship drought, finally makes the College Football Playoff, and/or wins a bowl game that matters. Michigan has already done everything else, other than what matters the most. Thus this is the only way for this season to be successful. Doesn't mean it's the only way for it to be enjoyable, but that wasn't the question. We're talking about success, not amusement. This is what's defined as successful by every other program Michigan aspires to be, therefore it's how success is defined for Michigan as well.
Jake Sage: If Michigan is lucky enough to get through an eight game Big Ten schedule plus a bowl game, then a successful season would be if the Wolverines finish the year with less than three losses for the first time since 2011. With a 7-2 record, the Wolverines would likely finish inside the top 10, for the first time since 2016.
While a win against the Buckeyes and making the Big Ten Championship is the ultimate goal for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, that feat doesn’t seem realistic after losing many key players from last year's team, including ones they expected to have come back this season like Nico Collins and Ambry Thomas, who opted out of the 2020 season. With an offense led by an inexperienced quarterback and young wide-receivers, while the Buckeyes return Heisman trophy finalist Justin Fields, Michigan is still not good enough to make the College Football Playoff.
There will certainly be growing pains for this young offense. However, if the Wolverines young wideouts Giles Jackson, Cornelius Johnson, Mike Sainristill, and A.J. Henning show they can make plays alongside Ronnie Bell and the Wolverines offense looks similar to how they did the last five games of last season (when they averaged 38.6 points per game) it will give Michigan fans hope for the future prospects of beating Ohio State when Fields is no longer under-center in Columbus.