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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The Obstructed Final Four Preview

I apologize for not putting this out earlier as I am a college basketball die-hard, but of course, busy week as always.

The Final Four has been a product of your favorites getting there (Kansas, Villanova), a team that many thought could be a sleeper (Michigan) and of course, your annual Cinderella team (Loyola Chicago) on their magical run.  So it has been a mix of upsets and great games.  So what should we expect in the games on Saturday?

Honestly, anything and everything.

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Loyola-Chicago vs. Michigan

Of course, outside of the first 16 seed to win a game in UMBC over Virginia, Loyola of Chicago has made an amazing run, really putting down teams in the tournament in a decisive manner, notably Kansas State to get to the Final Four.  The rallying cry has been Sister Jean, the 98 year-old nun who follows the Ramblers in her wheelchair and has been the feel-good story of the tournament.  Of course, the Ramblers have played great basketball, probably playing the best team ball among any of the 4 remaining teams (and that says something given how the others have played great as well).  But it is a seasoned group, a cohesive group, and a well-prepared group headed by coach Porter Moser.  He has built a program that had struggled until the last few years and had the breakout season this year going 32-5 and winning the Wichita State-less Missouri Valley Conference (ironic how Wichita State leaves, loses in the 1st round and the Valley gets a Final Four team all in the year after).  But the Ramblers are a very balanced team and can really frustrate others with that balance and a good passing team.  Michigan on the other hand, has been a sleeper for most of the season in part because of their in-state rival Spartans expecting to do big things while Purdue has been front & center and Ohio State came out of nowhere.  But right now Michigan has turned it on since conference tournament play began, being that team that plays like no tomorrow.  John Beilein is becoming a coach who also prepares his team very well and one of the best in-game adjustment coaches today.  And like Loyola-Chicago, Michigan is a very balanced squad who can shoot, attack the basket, rebound, play physical/aggressive defense, etc.  And they can beat you in a number of ways.  The questions will be can Loyola get baskets down low against the bigger Michigan players, notably Moritz Wagner and can stop Wagner from doing whatever he wants?  The other question is if the game is on the line and Michigan is ahead late, can they hit free throws?  The Wolverines struggled for the most part at the line for good fraction of the season, and have shot 69% in the tourney at the charity stripe.  However, they can have games where they can sink them at the right times.  Those are the key questions I have about the game.  Loyola’s key thing is to really find a way from keeping Wagner not to have a dominant game, and that may decide it.  I think Beilein will end up finding ways to get the ball to Wagner and he will have a game and it will take tons of pressure off of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rhakman which may be too lethal for the Ramblers to handle.

MY PICK: Michigan 67, Loyola-Chicago 61.  I think Loyola-Chicago will have too many fits of finding a way to stop Wagner while the clock strikes midnight for Sister Jean’s squad.  But needless to say, whoever wins this I will be pulling for in the national championship.

 

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Kansas vs. Villanova

Despite all of the years since the Jayhawks last National Championship in 2008, Kansas has only made 1 Final Four appearance since and they’ve been pretty much the nation’s top dog for the last 10 years and been favored to be in this position EVERY YEAR.  Of course, the one year many went “yeah, they’re not that hot compared to prior years” is the year they do return.  And they get in with guard play and perhaps more reliant on the three than last year’s squad.  Villanova on the other hand, has probably made the argument of being the best team in the nation all year as they have put on clinic after clinic against opposing Big East squads and again in the conference tournament and their games against Alabama, West Virginia and Texas Tech.  They seem as well-oiled as any other team that has come through to cut the nets.  They play as versatile as any team in the nation as they are also a very trigger-happy squad from beyond the arc (as is Kansas), but has numerous guys to shoot the rock from beyond the arc, including their big men, which will create a problem for the Jayhawks big man Udoka Azubuike if he has to go out on the perimeter to defend, which means the Wildcats can attack the basket religiously and Kansas did have problems of letting Duke do that to them in the Elite Eight last week, and that’s when he was down low.  Of course, there will be a few things to me that will decide this game: which backcourt  will have the better game?  Will it be Villanova’s Killer B’s (Brunson, Bridges, and Booth) and Donte DiVincenzo or Kansas’s group of Graham, Newman, Svi, and Vick?  The other question will be, which team can stop the other’s 3-point shooting?  As good as both are, they are equally as good as defending the three.  So those will be my questions about this game, which to me will be must-see TV.

MY PICK:  Villanova 81, Kansas 77.  Of course anytime I ever pick Villanova they lose, so Kansas fans, you need to be happy.  That said, I think the fact that the Wildcats can post up and attack Kansas if they can get Azubuike out of the paint will create major problems for the Jayhawks and I think Nova has slightly more depth to their roster.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if Kansas wins.

That’s it for the Final Four round….will it be an all Catholic school championship, a Wildcat/Wolverine fight, a Final Four rematch from 2013, or will the Ramblers take on another mighty Kansas school?  Look forward to some great games!

-Fan in the Obstructed Seat

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