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Is This Season “Do or Die” for Jim Harbaugh?

If we rewind the time back to the end of the 2014 season, Michigan had seen enough of Brady Hoke and wanted to make a change. The Wolverines had fallen into the middle tier of the Big Ten Conference. Worse, their two chief rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State had become the powerhouses of the conference and had religiously beat down the maize and blue on a consistent basis. Ohio State was going to the College Football Playoff and Michigan State was seeing a New Year’s Six game. It had become a Wolverines fan’s nightmare.

However, Michigan finally made their big hire that had eluded them for so long in bringing in one of their own in Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh helped put the San Francisco 49ers back on the map and after what seemed to be a marriage that went south and fast in San Francisco. Harbaugh, who had probably preferred an NFL coaching job, opted to go home and rebuild the once proud Wolverines squad. In year one, Michigan made leaps and bounds. After a nailbiting loss in Utah, Michigan dominated their opponents until the Michigan State game where a muffed-snap-on-the-punt-recovered-turned-to-touchdown gave the Spartans. People shrugged it at the time as a fluke. After some closer, not-as-dominating wins, Michigan got smacked by Ohio State once more.

“Okay,” fans said “it was his first year and we have to rid ourselves of the Brady Hoke era.”

The next year was great as the Wolverines went 10-0 and Harbaugh was considered as elite as Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Urban Meyer, etc. However, Michigan couldn’t do anything in Iowa City, losing to the Hawkeyes on a field goal to end the game (and some questionable play-calling down the stretch). After a surprisingly struggle win against Indiana, Michigan went to Ohio State and for about three quarters dominated. However, the Wolverines couldn’t finish the drill and went to overtime with Ohio State converting a 4th and 1 where many felt Ohio State DIDN’T get the conversion and then the Buckeyes won. Michigan also lost in their Orange Bowl appearance to Florida State, but the damage was done and the concerns of Harbaugh not getting them past Ohio State or win the Big Ten East crept in.

Michigan had high hopes in 2017 with seeing their enemies of Michigan State and Ohio State in Ann Arbor. Michigan State, who had been reeling from the year before (3-9 in 2016), stunned Michigan in a defensive, ugly, rain-soaked game. Worse, Penn State, who had been making noise since 2016 and actually won the Big Ten title, curb-stomped the Wolverines in Happy Valley and then Wisconsin nailed them the week before the Ohio State game (to which Ohio State won again). With the cherry on top, Michigan was the lone Big Ten squad not to win their bowl game.

The honeymoon was over for Harbaugh and the Wolverine fans. A 1-5 record vs. the Buckeyes and Spartans (to which Michigan fans have ripped Harbaugh for the muffed punt as he should have played it better) and non-competitive games they lost to Penn State and Wisconsin. Harbaugh needed a big year in 2018 in some manner.

Things got off slow when Notre Dame (another historic rival) edged Michigan in South Bend. However, it inspired the Wolverines as they dominated on defense, winning ten straight and ready to face off with Ohio State, who had turmoil with Urban Meyer and some near-misses (and an inexplicable beatdown loss to Purdue earlier in the season). Michigan had been favored by many (myself too) to win that game and keep Ohio State’s stellar offense grounded. And….nope. Ohio State put up 62 on Michigan’s defense. And with one dooming loss, Harbaugh’s future at Michigan was brought into question again.

Michigan will be considered by many as a top 5 team and favored to win the Big Ten. Ohio State is without Urban Meyer who stepped down and many feel like the Buckeyes due to graduation/draft, will take a big enough step back to have the Wolverines be in position for a Big Ten title and their first playoff spot since 2016. They do have a couple of tough road games at Wisconsin and Penn State, but neither team at this point is considered a monster threat. If they do have a hiccup somewhere along that line, Michigan could probably be okay if it is one hiccup. But November 30 is where it will count the most when Ohio State rolls into Ann Arbor again. That is where Michigan-and Harbaugh’s season is going to be.

If anybody knows about the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry, they know that the head coach on either side is really defined by it. Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer are both probably praised (more than they should be) by the Buckeye faithful if nothing more then by dominating Michigan in their times as head coach. John Cooper on the other hand, despite having a dominant run notably from 1993-1998, could never beat Michigan and his career at Ohio State pretty much defined (2-10-1) by his inability to beat the Wolverines. Lloyd Carr for Michigan was on both sides of that of being a Michigan great, winning games against Ohio State, but also criticized as being unable to beat the Buckeyes once Tressel took over. So far, Harbaugh has been heavily criticized by Michigan fans and ridiculed by Ohio State fans for his 0-4 record against the Buckeyes.

Harbaugh will continue to have top 10 recruiting classes come up through Ann Arbor and will have Shea Patterson once more to take the snaps at quarterback. Patterson, while he hasn’t put up monster numbers (newsflash: he won’t in that system at Michigan), has been solid, but had moments of struggles against some of the better defenses in the Big Ten. But he will have quality receivers and a upper-classmen strong offensive line. Defense, for as strong as they were, will have to answer from the exits of Rashan Gary and Devin Bush. But the defense should be strong enough to make up for it.

It’s hard to think a 10-2 season with both losses being conference losses could end up stinging Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Wolverines fans hoped he was the answer to the Ohio State problem and instead he’s been not much different than Brady Hoke to this point. Harbaugh needs to win the Big Ten East and obviously beat Ohio State to at least be taken seriously at Ann Arbor. If he can’t, well, Michigan will be continuing to ride neutral in the Big Ten with really no end in sight.

-Fan in the Obstructed Seat

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