Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN’s GameDay and college football analyst, believes the recruiting gap between Michigan and Ohio State has been a key ingredient why the Wolverines have lost eight straight to Ohio State and can’t move into that level of national playoff contenders.
The recruiting game was a major story line after the Wolverines’ 56-27 loss to Ohio State last November. Ohio State has dominated the rivalry for the better part of two decades, and coach Jim Harbaugh is 0-5 against his rival.
“When they hired him, other than the Michigan fanbase, I was elated because I was happy seeing him coming back to college, happy to see him coming back to his school,” Herbstreit said of Harbaugh on Tuesday on an ESPN call advancing Monday’s national title game. “I really thought, ‘Man, here we go.’ Him and Urban Meyer, it’s like Woody and Bo Round 2, is what I envisioned. It hasn’t turned out that way. Obviously, Urban’s gone and Ohio State hasn’t lost yet.
“Not only that, if we’re all being honest with each other, we can talk schemes all we want, but the real part that I’m sure Coach Harbaugh and his staff are looking at, they just have to continue to recruit. If Ohio State is the bar in the Big Ten, and you’re matching up with them — and there have been games where they’ve been competitive and there have been games when they’ve not been — where is Michigan falling short? I think that’s a question when they watch film they have to be able to look at.”
Ohio State went unbeaten during the regular season, but lost in a national semifinal to Clemson after building a 16-0 lead. What jumps out at Herbstreit is the difference in speed between Michigan and Ohio State. The Wolverines finished the season 9-4, including a loss to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.
“I think it’s overall, across the board, the athletic ability of Ohio State right now in the Big Ten is at a different level,” Herbstreit said. “When you watch Ohio State play Clemson, they’re stride for stride right there playing as good if not better. Clemson’s been winning a lot of championships lately.
“That’s the bar right now for Michigan. To me, right now, it’s not necessarily about scheme, it’s more about continuing to go out and get great players who can run. I feel like that’s the area when they play Ohio State they don’t seem quite to be at the same level right now.”
But it’s not just recruiting more talent. ESPN analyst Chris Fowler, who calls games with Herbstreit, said there’s more to it for Michigan as it works to overcome Ohio State.
“Even from afar, they have an Ohio State problem between the ears that translates more than just a gap in personnel, which is as Kirk said is real especially in the speed department,” Fowler said on the conference call. “The scores reflect more than that to me. I do think despite all the equity Jim (Harbaugh) has at Michigan, people do have higher expectations.”
Fowler brought up the upcoming schedule that has Michigan opening at Washington on Sept. 5, followed by games against Ball State and Arkansas State, then gets top-heavy with tough Big Ten games at home against Wisconsin then Penn State, before playing at Michigan State and Minnesota.
“That’s a hell of a gauntlet,” Fowler said. “So it’s not even going to be just about Ohio State next year. It’s gonna have to be winning a tough road game and then competing with those four Big Ten teams, two home, two away to even be relevant by the time late October rolls around. And then, obviously, the huge problem of going to the Horseshoe at the end of the year.
“It sets up as a very interesting year. With every year you fall short like this — and it’s not just Ohio State, it’s the bowl game where they hang with Alabama, but are not opportunistic and then they’re pulled away from easily in the second half — that doesn’t lie. That happened. I think it creates some urgency again for next year. There should be some external national pressure off — nobody will pick them for the playoff, I promise you, unlike this year, so we’ll see where they go.”