Michigan Football and its conundrum with Jim Harbaugh

EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN - OCTOBER 30: Head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts while playing the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 30, 2021 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN - OCTOBER 30: Head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts while playing the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 30, 2021 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

When Jim Harbaugh came back to his alma mater as head coach in 2015, there were some that believed it would take years before Michigan football got back in a bowl game. It was preposterous then given how many bowl games there are, but nonetheless, Michigan went 10-3 in Harbaugh’s first year.

By 2016, Harbaugh had Michigan football back in the top five and locked in another top-five battle with Ohio State.

We all know how that ended, JT was short and overall it was a badly officiated game. However, Michigan also led that game 17-7, and 14 of Ohio State’s 17 points in regulation were the result of Michigan turnovers.

This leads me back to last Saturday.

Michigan football outgained Michigan State 552-395, possessed the ball for nearly 10 more minutes, was more effective on third downs, and was even in turnover margin.

Yet, Michigan football still lost.

Like the Ohio State game in 2016, a lot of calls didn’t go Michigan’s way. Most notably, David Ojabo’s strip-sack of Payton Thorne probably should have stood as it was called on the field, a Michigan touchdown. The fourth-down pass on Michigan’s penultimate drive of the game probably should have drawn a holding or pass interference call.

However, that is not why Michigan lost the game.

Michigan was ahead 30-14 before being outscored 23-3 the rest of the way. Michigan scored seven times compared to five for Michigan State, but MSU scored touchdowns. Michigan kicked four field goals.

If Michigan turns two of those drives into touchdowns, it has 38 points at the very least in a game Michigan State only scored 37. Ojabo’s strip-sack returned for a touchdown then becomes a bonus instead of a potential tipping point in the game. Referees make bad calls in every game but Michigan could have made the referees a non-story by putting the game away itself.

By letting Michigan State hang around, Michigan also kept Kenneth Walker III as a factor in the game. If Michigan State is down 38-14 in the third quarter, it would have been forced to abandon the running game due to time and situation. Walker III finished with 197 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Given what we saw out of Payton Thorne on Saturday, I think it is safe to say he was not going to lead a 24-point comeback.

What this means for Michigan football, Jim Harbaugh

Getting back to Harbaugh, the loss moves his record to 3-9 against Michigan State and Ohio State. He needs to find a way to beat Ohio State this year, but the Buckeyes have consistently had one of the most talented three or four rosters in the country over the last decade.

Losing to Ohio State is one thing, but being 3-4 against Michigan State is completely unacceptable, especially considering Michigan has clearly had a more talented roster the last six meetings. Even worse, Michigan State and Ohio State have each changed coaches in the middle of Harbaugh’s tenure and Michigan is 0-3 against its rivals since.

Mel Tucker may ultimately leave for USC, LSU, or wherever after this season, but for Harbaugh that may not matter. When he was at Stanford, he was 1-3 against Oregon as it grew into the rivalry we now know it to be in the Pac-12 North.

Although the roster he built would go on to beat Oregon in two of the next three years after he went to the 49ers. As head coach of the 49ers, Harbaugh was 4-5 against the Seahawks, most notably losing the 2014 NFC Championship. Harbaugh has struggled to win his most important games, which leaves Michigan with a choice.

Harbaugh is excellent at resurrecting teams/franchises and Michigan has clearly shown last year was an aberration. Harbaugh has kept the program without scandal and it is a safe bet that Michigan will win 9 or 10 games most of the time under him. However, is he worth keeping around if he can’t beat Michigan’s rivals? That is what Michigan will have to decide.

A lot of fans, myself included, have stated there is not a clear or better candidate to replace Harbaugh when defending him in the past.

Matt Campbell has done more with less at Iowa State like Harbaugh did during the beginning of his Stanford tenure. However, with his most talented roster, the Cyclones are 5-3 before they have even played Oklahoma so his star has fallen some. Although the slam dunk hires don’t always pan out.

Tom Herman was the offensive coordinator of Ohio State’s national championship team in 2014 and went 22-4 at in-state Houston before taking the Texas job. He went 32-18 before he was fired last year despite the loaded recruiting base he had at Texas.

In the NFL, Matt Patricia was the hottest name on the market when the Lions hired him in 2018. A year after his firing, his efforts along with GM Bob Quinn, have the Lions trending closer and closer to 0-17 by the week. Rich Rodriguez was courted by Alabama before it hired Nick Saban and he went to Michigan a year later. We know how that turned out.

However, a fear of the unknown is not a justifiable reason to keep Harbaugh. It is on Warde Manuel to find the best possible candidate, even if that candidate may be clearly unbeknownst to fans and media.

Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan will always be good/very good. He has returned the program to the level it was Lloyd Carr, except Ohio State is far more formidable now.

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Michigan will have to decide if it is content being good or chasing greatness. However, now in year seven, it is reasonable to not expect any championships out of Jim Harbaugh.