Jim Harbaugh: From God to National Punching Bag

The 2017-18 season was nothing short of a nightmare scenario for the Michigan Football program. In Jim Harbaugh’s third season with the program, the Wolverines went an unexpected 8-5 after a preseason top ten ranking, losing to both rivals. Michigan’s best win of the season was a 28-10 win against a 7-win Purdue team. Three different starting quarterbacks for Michigan strung together just 9 passing touchdowns on the season for an offense that struggled all season long.

Sitting at a 28-11 overall record, 1-5 in rivalry games, and 1-2 in bowl games, is Jim Harbaugh’s tenure going how anyone expected it to? Under Harbaugh, Michigan has finished 3rd, 3rd, and 4th in the Big Ten East Division. Looking at a big picture, the first three seasons of the Harbaugh era have been a disappointment.

When Jim Harbaugh arrived to Ann Arbor, one could compare it to the welcoming of the messiah. The Michigan fan base was kissing the ground that the former 49ers head coach had walked on, expectation for success was affirmative. This was considerably the home-run hire of the off-season in all of sports. It was a very popular opinion that Michigan would be back in the conversation for the playoffs very shortly because of Jim Harbaugh’s reputation to turnaround programs quickly much like he did at Stanford and in San Francisco.

Year One:

2015 came along, the first season under the “prodigal son” of Michigan Football, Jim Harbaugh’s, leadership. Expectations were high, but somewhat realistic in knowing that this was previously a 5-win ball club just a season prior.

The season started off with a disappointing Thursday night prime-time loss to Utah on the road. The tides took a turn several weeks later once Utah started emerging into a national contender, and it just so happened that Michigan was playing their best brand of football with three straight shutouts against BYU, Maryland, and Northwestern. To this day, that was arguably the best three-week stretch Harbaugh has had at Michigan.

After the trifecta of shutouts, Mark Dantonio and the Spartans come to the Big House on a two-game win streak over their in-state rival. Most of you know where this is going; Blake O’Neil happened, he fumbled the snap and yes the ball was free. Jalen Watts-Jackson was in the right place, at the right time for an MSU fluke, heart-breaker win in Ann Arbor.

Michigan still sat comfortably in the top 25 following the loss with a lot of hope for the remainder of the season going into the bye week. The Wolverines went on a four-game win streak and felt pretty good about their chances going into the rivalry matchup in Ann Arbor against the Buckeyes, who were coming off a loss to MSU. Let’s go ahead and say that the first meeting between Harbaugh and Urban Meyer was a lopsided one, OSU wins 42-13.

The Citrus Bowl had a different tale of the tape for Michigan, going up against Jim McElwain’s Florida Gators in a favorable matchup with a banged up Florida offense. Jake Rudock made his case for NFL teams on why he should be drafted; 20 for 31, 64.5 completion percentage, 278 yards, and 3 touchdowns against a top SEC secondary. Michigan won 41-7, finished 10-3 for the 2015-16 season.

Harbaugh’s first season was good not great, didn’t win the big games, the majority being content given it was his first season with the program. A lot returning talent coming back in 2016, Michigan was the favorite to win the Big Ten title, primed for a playoff run with the only question mark being the quarterback position. Another off-season of hype at the midst no doubt. The fan-base still praising Jim Harbaugh as if he were divine.

Year Two:

Through the first nine games, just two road games, Michigan looked like the playoff contender that the hype insisted on them being. At this point, Jim Harbaugh was being looked at like a Nick Saban, or an Urban Meyer. The resume was a pretty one, three wins over what were top ten teams, sitting at no. 2 in the nation.

November 12th featured a prime-time game against a non-ranked, below average Iowa Hawkeyes team in Iowa City at Kinnick Stadium, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated environments in college football. The 9-0 Michigan Wolverines were having the worst night of the season, nothing was going right for them offensively. In the final seconds, a late field-goal stunned Michigan and shattered perfection, 9-1.

The upset in Iowa City was a reality check for Michigan, but didn’t change the playoff picture much as Harbaugh still controlled his team’s own destiny by winning out. Two teams in front of them for the program’s first berth to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game for what would’ve been a rematch against Wisconsin, whom they bested at home 14-7 earlier in the season.

After handling Indiana at home, Michigan would move on to the big one in Columbus. This game lived up the its hype, and went down to two overtimes. 4th & 1 in 2 OT, Michigan up 27-24 after kicking a field goal, Ohio State will go for it.

J.T. got the first down, at least that’s what the call on the field was initially and even after further reviewing the spot, the Buckeyes converted. It was a close call, some are calling it a controversial one to this day. A play later, Curtis Samuel took it 15 yards to the house six, Ohio State wins it at home 30-27. Jim Harbaugh was fined about his rant regarding incompetent officiating following the overtime loss.

Finishing the regular season inside the top ten with a 10-2 record earned Michigan and Harbaugh a major bowl game bid in the Orange Bowl to take on Florida State. What was almost a comeback classic, ended up being a disappointment of a finish for Michigan. 33-32 Florida State win.

The biggest end of the season letdown for Michigan since 2006, from 9-0 just to finish the season 1-3. This team was talented, and experienced, had 11 players selected in the NFL draft. What did they have to show for the talent? Zero wins against the Buckeyes, zero divisional nor conference titles, this is an absolutely frustrating dose of reality if you’re a Michigan fan.

How do the fans feel about Harbaugh at this point? Some were calling for his head, but he still has the majority on his side insisting that we need to give him time. There were critics who said he was overrated and overpaid, people were really divided on their stance of the former Michigan quarterback.

Year Three:

A lot of fans, critics, and outside observers seemed to agree on that this was going to be a transitional season for Michigan. The program lost over 40 seniors to graduation, not to mention 11 drafted to the NFL. The Wolverines returned enough starters on offense and defense combined to count on just two hands, barely. There were people who expected a similar coaching job to what Urban Meyer did in 2016 after losing a similar amount of talent and taking his team to the playoffs.

The offense never established an identity in 2017 and struggled to score in the red-zone. Wilton Speight and John O’Korn were both put ahead of redshirt freshman Brandon Peters on the depth chart, and people questioned it from day one.

Michigan ended the regular season with an 8-4 record. Play-calling was a big criticism, and incompetent quarterback play seemed to be a trend despite Jim Harbaugh supposedly being a “quarterback guru”.

In Jim Harbaugh’s offense, quarterbacks aren’t asked to win games on their own, but in this team’s case, the quarterback play was so bad that it lost three out of the four regular season games. Youthful, inexperienced receivers struggled to create any separation and emerge into reliable targets. The tight ends were rarely utilized in the pass game. There was an evident switch-up in the passing game’s scheme when Jedd Fisch left Harbaugh’s staff and then added Pep Hamilton to the staff.

The run-game was inconsistent and didn’t have any noticeable presence against quality opponents, but Karan Higdon had a solid season for Michigan falling just short of a thousand yard season (164 attempts, 994 yards, 6.1 YPC, and 11 TDs).

Prior to the Outback Bowl, I was one of the people who thought that the missing piece for Michigan was simply a quarterback, considering that three out of the four regular season losses could have potentially been avoided with better quarterback play. I even thought Brandon Peters was about to make his case for the starting job in 2018.

People expected a similar result to the 2015-16 beat down over Florida in what felt like an easy match-up against a weak South Carolina team, Michigan was more than a touchdown favorite on New Year’s Day. This was arguably the worst performance for a Jim Harbaugh team at Michigan. Blowing a third quarter 19-3 lead, just to fall apart and lose 26-19 says it all. Three turnovers (two INTs, one fumble) from Brandon Peters on what was the furthest thing from an audition for the starting job for next season and another two fumbles from Karan Higdon and Donovan Peoples-Jones.

In what was supposed to be a statement bowl game, turned out to be an embarrassment game that has made Michigan a national joke with a perceived overrated head coach. I wouldn’t say Jim Harbaugh is on the hot seat just yet, but it’s definitely getting warm at the very least.

How do the fans feel about Jim Harbaugh now? They now, hopefully, realize that he’s human and has a lot to prove regarding if he’s anything special like people say he is. There’s no excuse for how the program was showcased in 2017-18. In year three, how do you not have one quarterback ready to perform? There was absolutely no reason for why a redshirt freshman like Brandon Peters wasn’t better prepared and ready to start in week one. There needs to be an immediate change in the coaching staff, both Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton’s jobs should not be safe.

What’s Next for Michigan, Harbaugh?

Right now, a majority of fans are demanding results in 2018 or declaring it a bust for Harbaugh’s tenure. A losing record against rivals (Notre Dame, MSU, OSU) will not be stomached well in Ann Arbor. If Michigan goes 0-3 against rivals, and fails to win his division yet gain, Harbaugh’s seat will undoubtedly be hot, if not on fire.

Michigan is paying Harbaugh $9 million per year to win big games, rivalry games, conference and national championships. So far, he’s only beaten one rival (3-9 MSU), has an 0-3 against Ohio State, an 0-2 against Michigan State at home, hasn’t been able to finish better than 3rd place in his own division, and has gone 1-2 in bowl games.

2018 will be a big season for Jim Harbaugh because we’ll get to find out what he’s made of 100 percent. Year four is the golden opportunity to showcase how you’ve built your program, the recruiting has been great, the talent is there, transfer quarterback from Ole Miss Shea Patterson might be eligible to play immediately, inexperience is no longer a factor, it’s time for results and if Harbaugh can’t produce said results, then he’s just not a great coach. That’s about all there is to it, the results just aren’t there and if they aren’t there one year from now, then Jim Harbaugh is a fraud.

 

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Bowl Game (and Season) Disappointment

The Outback Bowl did not go as planned for the Michigan Wolverines. They lost to South Carolina 26-19 after being up 19-3. Blowing that big of a lead is never good, especially when you were up sixteen near the end of the third quarter.

There were multiple reasons that U of M ended up losing this game, but the most glaring reason had to be the turnovers. After playing a clean, error free first half, the offense (and special teams) just imploded in the third and fourth quarters with five turnovers.

This Tim Drevno/Pep Hamilton led offense, especially the air attack, looked horrendous. They couldn’t capitalize in the red zone with five trips resulting in two field goals, a touchdown and two turnovers (one fumble by Karan Higdon and an interception thrown by Brandon Peters). Field goals aren’t ideal inside your opponents 20, but if the Wolverines would’ve came away from these five trips with four field goals and a TD instead of those two turnovers, this is a completely different ballgame.

Another reason for their disappointing loss was the play of quarterback Brandon Peters. The redshirt freshman had a chance to impress the coaches and give himself an edge in the QB battle heading into the spring and, if anything, made things even more muddled than they already were. He completed an atrocious 45% of his passes (20-44) and threw for just 186 yards with two interceptions. Those stats are unacceptable and showed that Peters is probably not the guy heading into next season.

But Peters wasn’t alone in the Wolverines playing an awful game. Besides that fumble near the goal line, Karan Higdon couldn’t get anything going on the ground. He had 17 carries for 65 yards. His backfield mate, Chris Evans, had nine touches for 24 yards. And while Donovan Peoples-Jones had six receptions for 58 yards, he was responsible for a crucial fumble on a punt return near the end of the game that nearly sealed the win for the Gamecocks.

The last takeaway that this bowl game showed involves Jim Harbaugh. This loss dropped U of M to 1-2 in bowl games under his leadership. It looked like his team wasn’t prepared for this game with the offense looking stagnant throughout, even when they were up 19-3. The five turnovers in one half, especially the second half, is alarming and needs to be cleaned up. And, for being a so-called QB whisperer, Brandon Peters looked like a deer in head lights, even with a month to prepare.

Hopefully this game provides a much-needed boost to this team heading into next year. The 2017 campaign was disappointing before this bowl game and it ended on an even more unpleasant note. 8-5 is not what Michigan fans envisioned or were hoping for when Harbaugh was hired in three years ago. There were grumblings of him being on the hot seat before this game and a loss to a less talented (or at least I thought) South Carolina squad with the same record as your team just made it hotter.

Next year needs to be the year that this team finally shows improvement under Harbaugh, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The play of the quarterback, whether it’s Peters, Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, Dylan McCaffrey or whomever, needs to be improved if this team wants to compete with the Big Ten’s elite.

Here’s to hoping this embarrassment of a bowl loss opens the eyes of the players and coaching staff and next season doesn’t end in disappointing fashion like it did for 2017-18.

Outback Bowl Predictions and Analysis: Michigan VS. South Carolina

So they meet again, Michigan (8-4) and South Carolina (8-4) will face off in an Outback Bowl Rematch on New Year’s Day. As of last night, this game holds meaning to not just Michigan fans, but Big Ten fans as well. The current bowl record for the conference sits at 7-0, with just one Big Ten team left to cap off the perfect record. Michigan will be tasked with keeping the Big Ten flawless this bowl season.

With a healthy, ready-to-go Brandon Peters led offense, Michigan has been the favorite (-7.5). ESPN’s Football Power Index is giving the Wolverines a 60.6% chance to win the rematch over the Gamecocks on Monday. Given the addition of Ole Miss transfer QB Shea Patterson, who may be eligible to play in 2018, Peters must be seeing this game as an opportunity to make a statement and remind the fans why he shouldn’t be overlooked for the starting job.

Brady Hoke’s Michigan team fell short in the final minutes of the game against the Gamecocks 33-28 last time they played. South Carolina leads the all time series by just a 2-1 record. Jim Harbaugh will look to tie up the overall series between the two schools, earn his team’s 9th win, get his 2nd post-season win at Michigan and ultimately head into the offseason with a lot to feel good about.

Shane’s Prediction:

This is a win that Michigan can benefit from going into their offseason after what has been a very disappointing season in Jim Harbaugh’s year three. Both teams have a lot to gain from a win in regards to their programs moving forward, a statement is needed from both Harbaugh and Muschamp.

The no. 3 total defense in the nation, whom were able to hold opposing offenses to less than 100 rushing yards six times, will be matching up against a South Carolina rushing attack that failed to gain 100 yards on the ground five times in 2017. This seems to be an obvious mismatch and I see the South Carolina being unable to move the ball effectively.

Michigan’s chances are as good as they can be with Brandon Peters undercenter and John O’Korn on the sideline. This game will be an audition for Peters to make his case for why he should be the starter come 2018. Getting the ground game going is equally as important, Karan Higdon is just 71 yards away from being the first 1,000 yard running back at Michigan since Fitzgerald Toussiant in 2011. South Carolina’s defensive front is good not great, and should be able to put some push against Michigan’s sub par offensive line. Brandon Peters typically has good movements in the pocket and isn’t afraid to step up for a throw under pressure, so that will be a matchup to keep an eye on all game long.

Keys for a Michigan victory would be to get up in the Gamecocks about as fast as they went up 14-0 on the Buckeyes, but this time instead of blowing that lead, keep the foot on the gas and get the win in convincing fashion.

To keep it short, I think Michigan handles South Carolina. I think they’ll perform in a similar fashion to the Citrus Bowl back in the 2015-16 season against Florida. Offense will be clicking on all cylinders for Michigan, Brandon Peters will look sharp and this game will be over at half. Statement win for Harbaugh on what 2018 will entail.

FINAL SCORE: Michigan 35, South Carolina 10. 

Mark’s Prediction:

When I was a little kid, I couldn’t wait for Christmas Day.  Gifts, Santa, family…all of it.  I also was keenly aware that after Christmas was the traditional Michigan January 1st bowl game.  Yes Sparty Nation, I said traditional.  I also couldn’t wait for what I hoped would be a gift that my Uncle Bob got from Stein & Goetz (which is now called the “M Den”).  Bowl game sweatshirts, t-shirts, pennants…I wanted it all and still do.

So much was made about Michigan being selected to play in Tampa at the Outback Bowl over other B1G teams.  I thought that was just plain stupid if I’m writing candidly.  Bowls are never, and I mean NEVER, going to take Michigan State or Northwestern over Michigan.  Why?  The answer is that is the way it is and it’s not changing in the big picture of college sports and business.

With that being said, we get the “Fighting Muschamps” from South Carolina.  South Carolina looked really good early in the season when they had WR Deebo Samuel.  Samuel appeared to me to be the type of WR who could win the Heisman Trophy due to his blazing speed and big plays.  When Deebo was inured and out for the season, SC turned to QB Jake Bentley and he got them to the bowl eligible status.  I’m going to warn Michigan fans and say “Don’t sleep on Bentley” as he can make all of the throws.  the question is “can he throw under pressure?”  We are going to find out on January 1.

As for the Gamecock (who didn’t own the COCKS hat in the 1990s?) run game has turned to a committee much the same way that Michigan has seemingly turned.  I do not anticipate SC running the ball with huge success.

Can Brandon Peters have a coming out moment?  Is this the game that tells Shea Patterson “Game On?”  I’m not sure but I know this…Peters isn’t going to shy from competition.  Not with South Carolina and not with any other QB on this roster.  Some key questions for Michigan fans:

  1.  Can DPJ make big plays down the field?
  2. Can the running game put Michigan in the second and short down & distance?
  3. Do we see a wildly diverse game plan?

My answers are YES, YES & YES.  And that’ll be the difference.  Expect a great performance from a Michigan team that sees the bowl game as a worthy exhibition of their team’s effort.

FINAL SCORE:  Michigan 28, South Carolina 10.

BONUS PREDICTION:  Sparty will be seething about not playing January 1st for months. 

Brandon’s Prediction:

The Outback Bowl this year features two 8-4 teams against one another. The Wolverines of Michigan go to battle with the South Carolina Gamecocks.

The last time these two schools met was in 2013, also in the Outback Bowl. South Carolina won that game 33-28, but it is mostly remembered for defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s jarring tackle on Michigan running back Vincent Smith. But that seems like a distant memory as the Gamecocks were coached by the legendary Steve Spurrier and U of M was under the leadership of Brady Hoke in that game.

This years matchup, I believe, also has the potential to be a close game with a big play or two as the deciding factor. Michigan has the slight edge in scoring offense as they averaged just under 26 points a game while SC scored just over 24. Both defenses were solid throughout the year as well, but the edge again goes to the Wolverines. They gave up 18 points a contest while the Gamecocks gave up 21.

I want to look at three crucial aspects of each team that could play into who wins and who loses. I would first like to look at what the keys will be for the Wolverines if they want to pick up their ninth win of the season.

The most important player in this game for Michigan, and possibly the whole game, is freshman quarterback Brandon Peters. His last game action came over a month ago against Wisconsin as he was injured in that game and sat out against Ohio State. So while he may be a bit rusty, Peters needs to have a good game for his team to get the win. He also needs to have a good game to give himself an edge in the QB battle heading into the spring. Even with the starter at the beginning of the year, Wilton Speight, deciding to transfer next year, Peters will have plenty of competition in Ann Arbor. Shea Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss had a pretty solid year in the SEC this year and has shown flashes of being a great quarterback. He will most likely be Peters biggest threat for the starting job, but you can’t count out Dylan McCaffrey or even early enrollee Joe Milton. This is an audition for Peters to show coach Jim Harbaugh that he is the man for the job next year under center.

Next, Michigan’s best player and highest rated NFL prospect, Maurice Hurst has decided to play for the maize and blue one last time before suiting up on Sunday’s next year. He had a great year with 59 tackles (13.5 for a loss) and 5.5 sacks. He could’ve sat out to focus on getting ready for the draft, but he wants to help his team one last time. This is also a great way for him to showcase his talents for scouts. South Carolina QB Jake Bentley already has enough to worry about with this stout, Don Brown led U of M defense and Hurst suiting up just adds another dimension.

Last for the Wolverines is the coaching of Jim Harbaugh. This year did not go as planned for Michigan and Harbaugh. After a ten win season last year, an 8-4 record is not what many expected for the team in Ann Arbor this year. There were some rumblings late in the year of him being on the hot seat after losing to Ohio State for the third time in three years, but another bowl win against an SEC foe could at least calm those whispers for a bit until next year rolls around. But a loss and an 8-5 record could make those flames burn a little hotter.

Now on to the keys for South Carolina to come away with a win. Just like Michigan, the Gamecocks most important player is their sophomore QB Jake Bentley. The signal caller didn’t have the most spectacular year with over 2500 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But it also wasn’t a bad campaign for the second year quarterback. The leading rusher for SC was sophomore back A.J. Turner with 517 yards and three TD’s, so if they want to be successful on offense, it will most likely have to be through the air and that falls on the shoulders of Bentley.

The next key for this South Carolina squad also lies on the offensive end. Junior tight end Hayden Hurst, a former minor league baseball player and preferred walk-on, is one of the best NFL prospects at his position heading into the 2018 draft. He was first team All-SEC at the tight end spot this year after hauling in 41 catches for over 500 yards and two touchdowns. He is a big target at 6’5″ and 250 pounds, and Bentley would be wise to look his way as much as possible to attack this Michigan defense. Hurst has worked his way from failed minor leaguer to a two-time captain and he will no doubt look to leave a lasting impact on this South Carolina team in his last game as a collegiate player.

The last key for the Gamecocks is also on the coaching staff, but it is not the head coach. Kurt Roper was relieved as offensive coordinator by head coach Will Muschamp earlier this month. Bryan McClendon, the co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach this year, is the interim OC for the Outback Bowl. The game against the Wolverines is a de facto interview for the permanent job and McClendon knows it. His play calling will be crucial for the South Carolina team and his young sophomore QB. He doesn’t want to change the way he normally calls plays, but he also doesn’t want to call the game conservatively and get out of his comfort zone. How Michigan reacts to a new play caller for the Gamecocks could be a crucial part of this game.

Overall, I think these two teams are pretty evenly matched, with Michigan holding slight edges both offensively and defensively. I think it should be a close game throughout with a late touchdown sealing the deal for the Wolverines.

FINAL SCORE: Michigan 31, South Carolina 17.