Let’s do a thought experiment for a moment, leaving out who this coach or university might be, although the headline more or less gives it away.
You are a highly paid, much-hyped head coach. Lauded by many as a “savior” of the program and someone to ultimately lead them back to the promised land.
Through your first 31 games, you are 24-7. Not bad.
However, you are 0-2 against your arch-rival. You’re also 1-2 against your biggest in-state rival, who you consider to be your “little brother.” And you’re 1-1 in bowl games.
Overall, in what any program would be consider to be your biggest games, you have a combined 2-5 record.
Believe it or not, through his first 31 games, Jim Harbaugh has the same exact record at Michigan as Brady Hoke did. And to his credit, Hoke was at least 2-2 in his first two seasons against Ohio State and Michigan State. Of course, Hoke’s time at Michigan ended badly with the program getting progressively worse throughout his tenure.
Nobody in their right mind would be calling for Harbaugh’s job right now, but it’s time for the much ballyhooed head coach to start delivering results for the Wolverines when it matters most. And in truth, if it was anybody but Jim Harbaugh who was currently coaching Michigan, there would be a lot more pressure on that coach’s shoulders.
Saturday’s home defeat to the Michigan State Spartans was the latest disappointment for the Wolverines in a big game. One loss won’t quite derail Michigan’s season, but it certainly makes every game from here on out a must-win situation. With a trip to Happy Valley in two weeks, Michigan could be a non-factor in their own division by the time the Buckeyes visit Ann Arbor for the last week of the regular season.
The loss to Michigan State was an all-too familiar refrain for Wolverines fans in their biggest rivalry games.
Everyone remembers what happened in 2015, when the #7 Spartans defeated #12 Michigan at the Big House on a walk-off punt block touchdown.
Later that year, Michigan was smashed by Ohio State in the first matchup between Harbaugh and Urban Meyer with the Buckeyes winning in Ann Arbor by a 42-13 scoreline.
Last season brought more heartbreaking losses for Harbaugh and the Wolverines. First, a double OT loss to Ohio State in a #2 vs #3 matchup with a spot in the College Football Playoff arguably on the line. Michigan blew a 10-point lead in the second half and had the Buckeyes on the ropes numerous times.
Ultimately, all Harbaugh was left with was blaming the officials. In particular, Harbaugh was upset about a controversial fourth down play where the officials gave J.T. Barrett a first down that kept the game alive for the Buckeyes. While Barrett “probably” got the inches he needed for the first down, Harbaugh was unconvinced. And his post-game rant inspired memes and t-shirts.
Then in the Orange Bowl, Michigan allowed a touchdown with 36 seconds left to Florida State, falling by a final score of 33-32. Especially after the loss to Ohio State, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of Wolverines fans after a previously undefeated season had offered so much promise.
Had Michigan held on to win just one of those games, Wolverines fans would probably be feeling a lot better about themselves right about now. But at this point, Harbaugh may have racked up a lot of wins to begin his coaching tenure in Ann Arbor, but there’s an empty feeling about it, isn’t there?
Let’s face it, Michigan has fallen short against Ohio State. They’ve fallen short against Michigan State. They haven’t made it to the College Football Playoff. And they haven’t even qualified for a Big Ten Championship Game. In fact, Michigan has never played in a Big Ten Championship Game, even though it’s been in existence for six years.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect Jim Harbaugh to make the playoff every year or start winning championships immediately for the Wolverines. The Michigan program has been in a far better place over the past three years than they were under Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez before that in terms of rankings and relevance.
But Michigan fans have to start asking themselves how many more 10-3 seasons are going to be good enough if the Wolverines continue to stumble against the Spartans or the Buckeyes each year? Is that enough to justify all of the Jim Harbaugh love over the past few years?
The Big Ten East isn’t getting any easier, especially with Penn State’s resurrection under James Franklin and the Spartans bouncing back after a horrible season last year. If Harbaugh and the Wolverines fall again to Ohio State, then some serious questions will need to be asked about the program moving forward.
Harbaugh can pick up as many victories over the likes of Indiana and Illinois that he could ever dream of, but unless he can start beating the Spartans and the Buckeyes, his tenure at Michigan will always be more hype than substance.