The Michigan Wolverines host Notre Dame and Army, and end the season at home looking for Jim Harbaugh’s first win vs. Ohio State.
Ryan Ford, Detroit Free Press
CHICAGO — This is the stuff no one talks about when everything starts. And it’s why schools pay coaches all that money.
When Jim Harbaugh steamrolled into Ann Arbor in 2015, he took over a Michigan football team that had bottomed out and dealt with all the negative attention a group could over the three previous years.
Part of his first message to that club: Hungry dogs hunt best.
Fast forward to Year 5 under Harbaugh, and Michigan has made its way back to the dog bowl again. The circumstances are different. But plenty remains the same.
“We embrace the negative. We embrace the suck,” Harbaugh said Friday in Chicago. “Let’s take into account the things we’ve done. The times we’ve lost. And what we can do to make that not happen again. Ever. That kind of team, that kind of mentality. That kind of place.
“I’ve found that to be who we are. That’s our identity.”
Harbaugh’s record is what it is. He’s 26-5 against everyone in the Big Ten not named Ohio State. And 0-4 in what most consider to be the most important game on the schedule.
You cannot hide from the disaster that happened in Columbus last season. Harbaugh’s not trying to. You cannot hide from the fact Michigan’s put together three double-digit win seasons with two New Year’s Six bowls since Harbaugh inherited a program that had gone 20-18 in the three years prior — but also has zero championship rings. Harbaugh’s not trying to hide from that either.
Michigan’s embracing “the suck” because it has no other choice. Because this truly is life in the big time. The hard stuff. The stuff that makes a breakthrough feel like everything prior was worth it.
This is the real high-level football struggle.
This isn’t the flowery junk you typically find after a coaching change. That’s when a program suggests that the last guy was the worst coach ever while pushing the idea that rebuilding a football team is more difficult than splitting the atom — just in case they wind up with the same problems in Year 4 and no more answers that make any sense.
This is the stuff that happens when you’ve beaten all the warmup levels of the video game, but the big boss keeps knocking you down.
Michigan has won 73% of its games over the last four years. That’s No. 10 nationally. Michigan has won 74% of its conference games in that span. Only four Power Five teams in America have done better. One of those teams happens to be Ohio State, Michigan’s chief rival and a club firmly entrenched among the country’s most consistent and seemingly bulletproof powerhouses for — well, basically forever.
Harbaugh has put Michigan in a position that roughly 90% of the country would be envious of. At most programs, the hard part would basically be over and everyone would be getting pats on the back.
But this isn’t most programs. At least in terms of its self-perception.
On the field, Michigan has every reason to be confident heading into the 2019 season. U-M is the preseason pick to win the Big Ten this year in large part because this team has all it needs. Michigan has a senior quarterback in Shea Patterson. It returns four starters on a productive offensive line. It has receivers with game-breaking ability. It now runs an offense that makes sense in the modern era. This team even has a backup quarterback in Dylan McCaffrey that could probably start for more than a few Big Ten teams.
Michigan isn’t without question marks, though. The running backs aren’t proven, even if the line in front of them are. The defense lost serious talent, meaning it might not finish in the top four nationally for the fifth straight year. But it’ll hardly be swiss cheese.
This is about as strong a roster as Michigan could hope for considering the fact the Wolverines haven’t had a CFP appearance to leverage in recruiting. You’re not going to put together mega-classes like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State do until you make the playoff and win a national title — like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have.
Michigan football is somewhere between No. 5 and No. 10 nationally in strength of program, a spot most would be envious of. But with the four-team CFP, that’s no man’s land. Good, but not great. Purgatory.
The “all or nothing” aspect of college football championships is really hard. It’s a world few programs can realistically deal with every year. Harbaugh and Michigan believe they’re one of them. This will be their fifth chance to prove it. How many times can they come up empty before people decide they’re not?
This is where Michigan football sits right now. It’s not comfortable. It’s not easy. But it’s what everyone knew was coming. And if this team can be the group that finally lifts U-M out of purgatory, it’ll be beloved forever as a result.
In the meantime, the Wolverines might as well “embrace the suck” and hope that hunt finally produces what everyone has wanted all along.