When Jim Harbaugh and BR-43 Michigan take the Rice-Eccles Stadium field on September 3rd for their 2015 opener against BR-29 Utah, 2,923 days will have passed since Corey Lynch and Appalachian State handed the 5th-ranked Wolverines one of the most shocking losses in college football history. Although Lloyd Carr’s team did rebound to finish the 2007 season with nine wins, including a Capital One Bowl victory, that loss marked the beginning of the most frustrating period in Michigan football history.
The 2007 team was eight months removed from a Rose Bowl appearance, their third in four years, and was supposed to be a legit national title contender, seeking their first title in 10 long years. Those 10 long years have ballooned into 18 years. It’s been 18 years since Ryan Leaf and Washington State were victimized by a Rose Bowl clock error and the Wolverines capped a 12-0 season with a victory and national championship.
Defending national champion Ohio State has defeated Michigan three years in a row and 10 of the last 11 years. Michigan State has emerged victorious in seven of the last eight contests, with UM’s only win coming via that ugly 12-10 game in Ann Arbor in 2012.
With the exception of stretches in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Michigan has dominated their in-state rival, holding a healthy 68-34-5 all-time advantage in the series. They even won six straight as recently as 2002-2007. The Spartans and Buckeyes have accounted for eight of the last 10 conference crowns (two for Sparty and six for the Buckeyes). Michigan has zero since 2004.
2005 was the first season in two decades they didn’t finish ranked in the final AP Top 25. Including 2005, they’ve whiffed on the final AP poll in six of the last ten years. Michigan State has missed the Top 25 five times while Ohio State has only missed out once in that time.
Let’s keep things simple, not kid ourselves or waste anyone’s time with cute sugar-coating. Jim Harbaugh is here to end these streaks. Jim Harbaugh came to Michigan to win national championships.
That’s the ceiling. The passionate Maize & Blue folks will gladly take a Big Ten title or two but everyone is thinking bigger and won’t accept anything less.
The 1986 Big Ten Player of the Year has the financial and professional support of the university, a powerful nationwide alumni base, his athletic department, school administration and the city of Ann Arbor. There is absolutely no reason the ceiling should not be multiple national titles. Are those realistic expectations? It might solely depend on their ability to beat the enemies to the south while also reclaiming ownership of their own state.
“The expectations will always be high here and our expectations will be to have a great day tomorrow,” Harbaugh told MLive last month, while also calling the team a work in progress.
Harbaugh has said all the right things since his introduction on December 30th. He’s answered questions conservatively, if not agonizingly broadly by journalism standards (and definitely by today’s social media controversy-driven world’s standards). He refers to Ohio State as Ohio State, unlike his predecessor, Brady Hoke, who insisted on calling them Ohio during his four-run run. Harbaugh has admitted his team needs work, but hasn’t come close to uttering anything remotely questionable or aggressive that would lead all of us media pundits to wonder how long his act will last at the University of Michigan or what the floor will be during his tenure. Critics can attack his use of satellite recruiting camps but he’s well within the rules and doing something that the majority of coaches do, even if they don’t take their shirts off. The stops in Florida, Pennsylvania and Alabama might grind the gears of territorial opposing coaches but Harbaugh’s camps couldn’t be further from a death wish and recipe for his demise.
If the ceiling is numerous Big Ten titles and a couple natty titles, what is the floor?
All things considered, it’s difficult to see Harbaugh falling flat on his face. However, their futility against Ohio State and Michigan State could continue for the time being. The UM football culture has dramatically improved over the last six months and although it’s quite fun to include them in your bold predictions for 2015, a double-digit win season and sweep of MSU and OSU is unrealistic.
Harbaugh’s floor might be more about realistic expectations than actual results. Thousands of Michigan fans are staring with envy 800 miles south at Nick Saban and Alabama, but they’re an anomaly. Winning three national championships in four years is insanity. The game has changed dramatically since the likes of Bump Elliott, Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr captained the Ann Arbor-to-Pasadena Express. Michigan might hold claim 11 national titles, but 10 of those came before the Korean War. The game and elements surrounding it are only a vague mirage of what they were when Carr and Brian Griese stormed the Rose Bowl field on New’s Year Day 1998.
The floor is far more complicated than that of many coaches because Harbaugh has numerous, multi-level floors. As much as Michigan fans don’t want to accept it, there’s a chance that Harbaugh has two or three good or great years and bails for an ideal NFL situation. Or he could hover around Hoke’s .600 clip and reach mid-level bowl games in each of the next four years, with a win against OSU or MSU sprinkled in.
Bottom line: Pick your own floor.
Harbaugh is here to win national championships. That’s simple. He’s not here to play in the National University Holiday Bowl.