(Image Courtesy: Patrick Semansky / AP)
Whenever the name “Harbaugh” comes up in a debate amongst college football writers, broadcasters, tweeters, etc., his record in rivalry games isn’t far behind. His 1-5 record against Michigan State and Ohio State in three years is Exhibit A why he’s failing to live up to expectations in Ann Arbor. What they don’t pay attention to are the inches between 1-5 and 3-3. A one-in-a-million botched punt snap cost them in 2015 against the Spartans, and a controversial spot on fourth down in overtime cost them against the eventual Big 10 champion Buckeyes a year later.
Those same critics were out in full force last week when Michigan erased a 17-0 deficit to escape against a depleted Northwestern club, 20-17. Those same critics who simply look at the fact that Michigan lost those big games, instead of how they lost those games, are now ripping Harbaugh for barely making it out of Evanston alive.
You can’t have it both ways.
If you’re one of those people who believe that all that matters in college football is whether you win or lose, that’s fine. I’m not one of those people. In a sport where the postseason field is entirely subjective, and the playing field between conferences is so uneven, you have to look more closely at how each team performs every week. Of course you need to win, and win a lot. But I will always be more impressed by a three-point loss to a top-10 team, for example, than a three-point win over an unranked team.
With that in mind, I have to downgrade Michigan after the Northwestern win. That’s consistent with how I’ve always done it. You barely win against a mediocre team, that’s gonna cost you in my eyes. The good news for Michigan is they have Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State all looming in the next two months. They have plenty of chances to bolster that Playoff resume. All they have to do is run that gauntlet — I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s at least possible — and there’s no question they’d be in. The Wolverines have been way too inconsistent this year. I think a 2-2 split seems pretty likely in that stretch, maybe 3-1.
If Michigan goes 9-3, the criticism will be deserved. Up to this point, it felt more like cynicism and clickbait than reasonable thought to blast Harbaugh for Michigan’s shortcomings. If they can’t break through this year, the heat will be warranted.
Sooner or later the Wolverines will have to win a conference title and make a Playoff for Harbaugh to be truly considered a success…but I’d also love to see who Michigan thinks it could get that would be better.