Michigan mailbag: Fans look through their grief to bowl game, 2019

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh is getting his fair share of scrutiny, probably even from himself, but in no way is his job in jeopardy.

In the aftermath of Michigan’s 62-39 loss at Ohio State, I have made the rounds checking on a few friends who are die-hard Michigan fans to make sure they have moved on. It's hard to say to them, "Hey! The sun will come up tomorrow!" because, well, the sun doesn’t come up in southeast Michigan until, probably, spring practice.

So then you go with, "It’s OK. They won 10 games. They had a good run," and that’s when the kicking and screaming begins, and you start to feel uncomfortable because it’s impossible to say the right thing.

The good news for Michigan fans is John Beilein’s basketball team got that big win over North Carolina and offered a distraction from the end of the football season. Sort of. Here goes with this week’s mailbag:

Question: I’m still in mourning. Is there any reason for hope? — @CV1701D

Answer: Chipp, oh Chipp — is it THAT bad? Hope? There’s no denying that a 62-39 loss to your arch-rival — would nemesis be the better word here? — is going to hurt for a long time. You might never forget it. Like ever, Chipp. I mean, this is going to scar you.

No, no, no. I didn’t mean any of that. Continue to mourn what could have been, Chipp. It won’t make you feel better, but maybe you need to cry it all out before you move on and embrace the hope.

Here’s the thing, Michigan has recruited well and has a highly-ranked class of incoming freshmen and are still in the running for at least one key addition. More than likely, Shea Patterson returns at quarterback along with a line that definitely got more experience and will have another spring and camp, not to mention bowl practices, with Ed Warinner. Tarik Black is only going to get healthier.

The key, in my mind, is to hire an offensive coordinator and become a bit more innovative. No one is saying Jim Harbaugh should depart from what he does best; just add more wrinkles. Be more diverse. On the defensive side, there will be some key losses, but defensive coordinator Don Brown feels good about the guys who will be stepping into the roles vacated by Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.

Devin Bush hasn’t declared yet, but let’s just say he’s gone — he is going to be a tough player to replace not only for his skill but his fire. All in all, a 10-win season is a 10-win season. Not satisfying for you, of course, because of the Notre Dame and Ohio State losses, but think about next season and the three rivalry games at Michigan Stadium. Are you feeling ANY better Chipp? Chipp? Chipp? Answer me!

More: Michigan: Five story lines for bowl season

Question: Should we say potent offense wins championships, not defense? — @speens8024

Answer: Mike, I will never believe that. Ever. But I’ve always been a big believer in defense wins championships, so there’s that. I know why you’re saying this after Ohio State’s offense torched Michigan’s defense. Totally get that. Defenses are always adjusting to offensive wrinkles, and offenses continue to evolve (and Michigan’s should, too, by the way). So, I still believe a great defense takes teams and programs to the next level. How did Purdue beat Ohio State, by the way? Dwayne Haskins was off, but Purdue’s defense had something to do with it.

Question: What bowl do you think Michigan will be in? — @AndyZerkel

Answer: Andy, I left Columbus thinking Ohio State will beat Northwestern in the Big Ten title game and reach the playoff and Michigan will go to the Rose Bowl. Now, with the whole Oklahoma-Ohio State debate, I’m thinking Oklahoma will go to the playoff and the Buckeyes will head to the Rose Bowl. That leaves Michigan in either the Fiesta or Peach, and I’m going to go with Fiesta.

Question: Since the ’98 Rose Bowl (’97 season), has Michigan played in a more pivotal bowl game than this upcoming one — win and finish Top 5 or 6 w/a lot of talent returning next season; lose and fall out of the Top 10 with a cemented “also-ran” B1G status to OSU? — @BowTieSports

Answer: I think all bowl games are important, Jay. That’s my diplomatic response. This is huge, I’d agree, for the reasons you expressed in your question. When people say the bowl game is a springboard into next season, it really is for so many reasons, including attitude and approach.

Coming off the last bowl game, a loss to South Carolina and an 8-5 season, it was a springboard toward making staff and personnel changes. A win in the upcoming bowl puts Michigan in that lead pack heading into the 2019 season. Can the Wolverines stay there? That's a completely different question, but this is where it starts. And you’ll have a group of returning players that knows what a 10-game winning streak feels like and also knows what a punch-in-the-gut loss feels like. They’ll also know what it took to rebound for the bowl and that will have a huge impact. Now, it’s a matter of following through and achieving that.

Joe Milton

Question: Do you expect the bowl game (and practices leading up to it) to be about playing the big dogs in a focused quest for an 11th win or about maximizing playing time for next season’s up and comers? — @GailVanBrimer

Question: How much playing time does Joe Milton get in the bowl game? I expect McCaffrey and Milton to battle for QB with Peters transferring and Patterson going pro. What other freshmen might get showcased? — @fcrDave

Answer: They need this bowl win. They have to win this bowl, so, yes, the “big dogs” will play. Bowl practices, the early ones, in particular, are about the younger players and for guys coming off injuries. Someone like Tarik Black will get a lot of reps in bowl practices and so will young offensive linemen and running backs.

As far as the quarterbacks, still not sure where Dylan McCaffrey is in his recovery but Jim Harbaugh said he’ll be back for the spring. Joe Milton will get playing time in the bowl if the game situation dictates that.

This is about winning, and Shea Patterson is the quarterback. Now, I used to think he would be one-and-done, but Patterson is a competitor and, take him at his word when he says he has never loved a team as much as this one. He wants to have his own “Revenge Tour” and beat Notre Dame and Ohio State, and I’ll bet he wants to be recognized as the top quarterback in the Big Ten. Still, Milton will get tons of reps in bowl camp, but hold off on the Joe Milton Era for now.

Question: What if Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and Oklahoma all lose this weekend. It’s a long shot but what if? — @zybowskipjr

Answer: What else, Paul? Aliens land on earth and dogs start talking? Paul, Paul, Paul. All of these things are NOT happening. But to indulge you … no, I can’t. I can’t even begin to think all these things could or might happen. But if they did … hope. You're not going to get me to talk about this. I’m not saying it, and you know what “it” is and it is such a long shot! But yeah, I guess (insert eyeroll emoji).

Jim McElwain

Question: Will we ever modernize the offense? — @TortsAndSports

Question: How would Jim McElwain look as OC? Any other possibilities? Need better ideas than run-run-pass-punt. They never correct to the defensive alignment. — @fcrDave

Question: Do you see any changes in the coaching staff? — @KrollRon

Question: How do you see the upcoming bowl and season to go? Meaning offensive direction. — @Leroys_bar

Answer: Lots of offense-focused questions and for good reason. Look, Michigan scored some points this year in large part because of Shea Patterson. But the Wolverines also left a lot of points out there because of — at times — stale play-calling. There also were dropped passes, so let’s be clear it’s not all about the play-calling.

I like the idea of Jim McElwain as an offensive coordinator. I like the idea of Jedd Fisch returning to Harbaugh’s staff as an offensive coordinator. By no means am I suggesting the offense has to be overhauled — Michigan did a lot of good things this fall. It needs to be updated, though. Even the wrinkles they showed this fall seemed predictable.

There ARE playmakers on this offense. Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones come to mind, as well as Tarik Black when he’s back to full strength. Why not engage the fullbacks more? Sure seems like Ben Mason can do a lot more than he was asked to do. The offense needs some fresh eyes, and by fresh eyes, they could be ones belonging to a coach already on staff.

Question: Which is worse: A) Buckeye Fans B) Fire-Harbaugh Michigan Fans or C) Discovering the TP dispenser is empty at a critically important time? -- @EricWandersleb1

Answer: Very challenging question. So you already know Buckeye fans can be tough on you, so that’s a given. And the toilet paper being empty at a critical time? Been there, done that (no one needs to know how that was done, but it was done, OK?)

So that leaves us with the Fire-Harbaugh Michigan fans. I’m not even going to go with the response that so many have: If not Harbaugh, who would you hire? There are a lot of worthy coaches who would be terrific head coaches here or anywhere. Harbaugh has to deliver, there’s no doubt.

I was thinking back to interviews I was doing right after he was hired and I remember saying, yeah, he’ll have them in the national championship hunt in three or four years. Well, he did — for a while. It’s about finishing, and he needs to finish. I’ll venture a guess he knows this. But 10 wins (possibly 11) is a terrific year, except for that loss at Ohio State. There are no mulligans. It was brutal and shed some serious light on the Michigan program and where it needs to improve. Harbaugh self-scouted after the bowl loss after the 2017 season, and he’s got to be self-scouting now.

But fire him? No chance. The program is making progress and the recruiting is going extremely well.


Twitter @chengelis