With only 18 minutes to play in Monday’s Outback Bowl, Michigan led South Carolina 19-3 and appeared headed for a satisfying end to a somewhat disappointing season. Then the Gamecocks cut the deficit to 19-9 and then 19-16. On South Carolina’s first drive of the fourth quarter, Jake Bentley found receiver Shi Smith for a 53-yard touchdown pass to put Michigan behind for the first time. The Gamecocks added a field goal, the Wolverines failed to respond, and Jim Harbaugh’s team walked away with its fifth loss of the season.
Though plenty of programs would be satisfied with an 8-5 record and an Outback Bowl loss to an SEC team, for Michigan that result is pretty much unacceptable. Three years into the Harbaugh era in Ann Arbor, the honeymoon between coach and program is officially over, and the once-adored man on the sideline has to answer for his team’s lack of progress.
Only 14 months ago, Harbaugh could seemingly do no wrong. After a surprising 10-3 record during his first year at Michigan, Harbaugh had the Wolverines undefeated ranked No. 2 in the country entering November 2016. His program looked like a reborn juggernaut, set to lay waste to the Big Ten for years to come.
Then Michigan lost a low-scoring struggle to Iowa, dropped a heartbreaking rivalry game against Ohio State and suffered a one-point loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. This year, the Wolverines again entered with high expectations and again took some hits in Big Ten play, with a 5-4 conference record that was certainly not what they hoped for in 2017. Monday’s bowl game could have left a positive taste in Michigan fans’ mouths. After five turnovers and a blown 16-point lead, it instead left them looking to the sideline wondering what’s going on.
The biggest concern for Wolverines fans has to be the team’s inability to beat quality opponents. With the loss to South Carolina, Michigan has now dropped seven consecutive games to teams that ended the season ranked. Somehow, Harbaugh’s program has not beaten a team that wound up with eight or more wins since October 1, 2016. The Wolverines’ best victory this year, in retrospect, was over 7-6 Purdue. This is not what Michigan had in mind when it agreed to pay Harbaugh $9 million a year.
To be clear, Harbaugh does not belong anywhere near the hot seat. One bad season by program standards might augur bad things to come, or it might be a blip. After all, the Wolverines were a J.T. Barrett first down away from a strong shot at the College Football Playoff last season. If Michigan makes the College Football Playoff in 2018, this season will fade into memory.
But what’s undeniable is that Harbaugh is not the kind of miracle-working savior he was billed as when he took the job at his alma mater. He is a good coach with a strong track record, but he’s not Harry Houdini — nor is he Nick Saban or Urban Meyer.
Next season will go a long way in determining the fate of the Harbaugh experiment at Michigan. He’ll have a roster almost entirely composed of players he brought to town. The Wolverines’ 2016 recruiting class ranked No. 8 nationally, and their 2017 class came in at No. 5, so talent won’t be the issue. A tough schedule (at Notre Dame, vs. Wisconsin, at Michigan State, vs. Penn State, at Ohio State) could pose problems, but it could also give Michigan a chance to prove it belongs among the nation’s elite.
As we saw Monday, Harbaugh is very fallible. Soon we’ll find out whether his faults will outweigh his virtues and doom his once-promising tenure in Ann Arbor.