Look, we all know it’s going to work out eventually. The hire of Jim Harbaugh as head coach is the closest thing to a sure thing there is in the weird world of college football, having won at every stop in his career both as a player and a coach. Harbaugh stepped in at the University of San Diego and went 7-4, then 11-1 twice. He went 4-8 and 5-7 at Stanford, then 8-5 and 12-1. In his first three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers he went 36-8-1, played in two three NFC championship games and a Super Bowl.
While Harbaugh has yet to remain in once place longer than four years (I suspect his Michigan stay will be longer), at each one he builds a hyper-intense environment and wins in true Schembechler style.
Michigan finally has its most Michigan of Men. It seems inevitable that he’s going to win . . . and he walks into a situation where he’ll have tons of institutional support, 100,000+ fans in attendance every Saturday, a massive recruiting reach and budget without the academic restrictions he succeeded in spite of at Stanford, and also a roster previously stocked with quality recruits.
If the patented Harbaugh turnaround takes time, it probably won’t take very much.
Although there’s no way getting around it: the team he inherits is a downright mess. The defense kept most games from getting too out of hand, but the offense has a long way to go. Michigan has the choice of two lackluster candidates at quarterback, a running back stable that hasn’t produced anything, and an offensive line that’s been a mess for years. Against opponents not named Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio), Michigan’s offense moved at a crawl and points came at a premium. Notre Dame, Minnesota, and Michigan State had their way with the Wolverines, and Michigan even found itself in dogfights with Northwestern, Rutgers, and Maryland squads.
Vs. Top 40 (Football Outsiders): Opponents 32.8, Michigan 12.6 (0-5)
Vs. Others: Michigan 26.9, Opponents 15 (5-2)
But the turnaround is coming. The question is, when?
RECONCILING RECRUITING RANKINGS WITH THE EYEBALL TEST
While a Schembechlerite at heart, Harbaugh has been one of the best when it comes to matching his style to his athletes. At Stanford he won the Michigan Way: a power-run-based ground assault with a pro-style aerial assault keeping defenses honest. In San Francisco, he went the complete opposite direction, helping pioneer the proliferation of the spread offense in the NFL, operating out of the shotgun and pistol the bulk of the time and running at a fast tempo.
Given the personnel on hand and that the last guy who tried to bring spread looks and tempo to Michigan didn’t pan out so well, I think we all know what to expect from Michigan in 2015.
Although, neither of Michigan’s primary options at quarterback will ever be confused with Andrew Luck. Incumbent Shane Morris was once a four-star blue chip recruit but has been dealt a miserable hand at Michigan. He has the arm strenght to sling it deep but lacks accuracy. The transfer, Jake Rudock, comes in from Iowa with a higher floor and a known ceiling. Iowa essentially got the exact same production out of Rudock for two seasons (with a slight uptick in year two) but never really had the pieces around him to succeed.
But Michigan has, on paper, at least, the pieces a Harbaugh offense needs. They’ve got a talented tight end in Jake Butt, a pair of five-star rushers in Derrick Green and USC transfer Ty Isaac, and big wideouts who can take abuse at the line of scrimmage and block in Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson.
Which begs the question alluded to in the header . . . despite all the accolades and impressive sizes and star rankings, this offense has been a long way from competent. For this many four- and five-star guys to have this much trouble playing consistent ball might be the most damning aspect of the Brady Hoke era. We see it all the time in college football when a guy was a good recruiter but a bad coach, and the next guy comes in and starts making hay either in year one or two. Will 2015 be the year this offense finally produces?
A SOLID DEFENSE RELOADS
The good news is that if the offense needs a few games to find its feet, the defense can help. As noted before it was only thanks to a stout defense that 2015’s 5-7 wasn’t a heck of a lot uglier, and while the more talented offenses moved the ball just fine, the Wolverines kept seven opponents under 4.5 yards per play. While they lose some pieces there’s enough depth to keep me from being too concerned.
A pair of great run-stuffing tackles in Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow return, along with rush end Mario Ojemudia and a surefire starter on the All-Name Team, Taco Charlton. Despite the loss of two senior leaders at defensive end this unit is about as deep and well-stocked as you could want.
It’s a similar story at linebacker, where despite the loss of Jake Ryan there are four-stars all around. None came close to Ryan’s astronomical production (89.5 tackles, 14 for loss, three broken-up passes, and a pick), the two returning starters were still second and third on the team in tackles. They’ll also add Desmond Morgan who returns after missing most of 2014 to injury. Teams will probably continue to struggle to run.
In the secondary, Michigan hopes some experience will result in some more aggressive play. Opponents completed 60% of their passes for a decent clip of 6.8 yards per attempt, and the Wolverines were sorely lacking in passes defensed. Save for ball-hawking corner Jourdan Lewis, the returning contributors combine for six breakups and zero picks. Lewis had six breakups and two picks himself.
But there’s plenty of excitement surrounding the returning players, namely safety Jabrill Peppers, whose coming-out season was supposed to have been last year before he was hurt. Take this unit’s experience, inject a little Harbaugh Alpha Maleness, and you’ve probably got a pretty strong unit.
A COMPLETE RESET ON SPECIAL TEAMS
I see you, returner Amara Darboh, sole member of this unit returning in 2015. Harbaugh brings in former Fresno State and USC special teams coach John Baxter whose USC units blocked 27 kicks in the 2010-2013 seasons. He’s coaching up graduate transfer Blake O’Neill to handle punts, but on the placekicking front Michigan has just one guy on scholarship, freshman Andrew David. The staff is bullish on David but the fact remains that an 18-year-old will have to consistently hit kicks in front of 100,000 people.
IT’S MANBALL TIME
So the Turnaround Clock begins ticking. Typically, marry a stingy defense and a young offense with question marks and you get a season full of close games, and given the toughness of Michigan’s schedule, that certainly looks to be the case in 2015.
So which ones does Michigan win? The Wolverines draw a tough road opener at Utah, who’s made headway in the Pac-12 essentially by being Michigan West, and later host a salty BYU Cougars team who might be able to pick on this secondary.
One has to figure Michigan’s talent alone should give it an advantage over the Big Ten’s middle-of-the-pack teams. But the Wolverines will still host its annual matchups against Michigan State and Ohio State, along with tricky road trips to Minnesota and Penn State.
It’s all a matter of when Harbaugh can get his system and style in place. Because the wins are going to come. And I’d wager money that the team Michigan rolls out against Ohio State in week 14 will be a heck of a lot better than the one that it rolls out against Utah in week one.