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Jim Harbaugh's contract status looms at start of unusual Michigan vs. Ohio State game week

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Unbeaten Ohio State is a 30-point favorite over Michigan in a rivalry game that has a strong chance of not happening because of the Wolverines' recent COVID-19 outbreak. And while there has been hand-wringing about The Game, the employment future of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who has one year remaining on his contract, has been the subject of continued debate over the weekend.

The Wolverines (2-4) are scheduled to play the Buckeyes (5-0) at Ohio Stadium on Saturday in the regular-season finale of this abbreviated, Big Ten-only season. Because of a COVID-19 outbreak that forced Michigan to cancel last Saturday’s game against Maryland, the Michigan-Ohio State game is also in jeopardy.

This would be the 117th meeting between the rivals, who have played every season since 1918.

Michigan's Hassan Haskins runs against Ohio State during last year's game in Ann Arbor.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh typically holds a news conference on Monday, but late Sunday, the program announced that because there will be no resolution regarding a return to practice until Monday — Michigan had to pause in-person activities last Monday — media availability will be held mid-week.

There were 14 positive results among Michigan athletes between Nov. 28 and Dec. 4, according to a weekly release from the athletic department last Friday. UM does not provide a breakdown per sport.

There were 2,562 athletes and staff tested, with 15 positive results, and that includes one staff member. A report from the Associated Press on Thursday indicated at least 12 football players had tested positive.

The earliest Michigan can return to practice is Monday, but that will depend on the latest batch of tests that were expected to be evaluated Sunday.

“It is disheartening that we are not going to be able to play Maryland and our hope is that we can play Ohio State and finish the season in the final week,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said last week in a video produced by the athletic department.

Last Tuesday night during the College Football Playoff rankings show, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who later apologized in a video posted to his Twitter account, raised the possibility Michigan could skirt OSU to avoid a blowout. Herbstreit made his comments after Michigan had paused in-person activities for the second straight day.

“I still think Michigan waves the white flag and potentially avoids playing Ohio State next week and then they’ll potentially get a game on the 19th,” Herbstreit said during the show. “Michigan could opt out, basically, of that game and keep Ohio State out of six games to qualify for the Big Ten championship. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

He apologized to Harbaugh and Michigan for his remarks.

Ohio State has won 15 of the last 16 against Michigan, including eight straight, and this is the largest point spread in The Game in at least 40 years. The Buckeyes are coming off a 52-12 victory at Michigan State last Saturday. Ohio State opted not to play at Illinois the week before because of COVID-19 issues. The Buckeyes were minus 23 players, including 17 on scholarship, because of injuries and the virus. Head coach Ryan Day, who had tested positive for COVID-19, did not make the trip to East Lansing.  

The Michigan vs. Ohio State game is scheduled to kick off at noon on Fox. The issue for the Buckeyes, if they don’t have a game against Michigan, is to either find a new opponent to fill the spot Saturday, or the Big Ten will have to revise the rules to ensure Ohio State, No. 4 in the CFP rankings, meets the six-game threshold to qualify for the Big Ten title game on Dec. 19.

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who chaired the Big Ten’s return-to-play committee, told The Detroit News last Wednesday that the conference athletic directors could work to tweak the rules.

“I would think that if something would happen to Ohio State and they’d have to cancel another game, that that’s something that we’ve got to revisit,” Alvarez told The Detroit News. “They’re sitting up there still ranked No. 4. Our league can’t keep them from having the opportunity if they have a chance to be in the finals.”

While Michigan is working to determine if it can practice Monday, Harbaugh is the subject of a new wave of speculation. A story from Pro Football Talk on Sunday indicated Harbaugh, according to “multiple sources” is “eyeing a return to the NFL” as a head coach.

This is Harbaugh’s sixth season at Michigan and the previous four years he was San Francisco 49ers head coach. His name annually gets circulated late in the year for NFL jobs.

If Saturday's game takes place, it will be the 117th meeting between Michigan and Ohio State.

Local reports over the weekend also indicated Harbaugh has inked a three-year extension to his contract that expires after the 2021 season and should soon be announced. Sources told The News that nothing on that front is imminent the next few days, although that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

There has been a sense that because the early signing period begins Dec. 16 that Michigan would have a deal in place with Harbaugh so that recruiting would not be affected.

On Nov. 9 during a weekly Monday news conference, Harbaugh was asked about rumors linking him to NFL jobs and whether he intends to be at Michigan for a lengthy amount of his time. Earlier this summer, he said he and Manuel had started to discuss an extension during the winter but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, things stalled. Harbaugh said there were “bigger fish to fry” in terms of negotiating an extension.

“I don’t really have anything to say because I don’t have any real interest in listening to that kind of stuff,” Harbaugh said in November of the NFL speculation. “I think you know me by now. I always letting the actions speak for what you have to say. I’ve always thought this, that your actions speak so loudly that people can’t even hear what you’re saying. I’ll let the actions speak as they have in the past.”

He was asked if the interpretation of his actions suggest that he intends to coach at Michigan for a long time.

“Yeah, those are the actions,” Harbaugh said. “And no matter what I say to you, I’ve been here for five and a half, almost six years, and I’ve experienced this, (that) no matter what I say, the next day, something else is said or the next year the same thing comes up.”

When he was asked if he intends to work on a contract extension, he interrupted to make his point.

“No matter what I tell you, tomorrow something else will be written by somebody else,” Harbaugh said. “I’m going to let my actions speak loudly and, hopefully, you know me, my actions have been consistent.”

This has been a wildly inconsistent season for the Wolverines, who were among the programs most vocal about getting the season started after the Big Ten initially decided to postpone in mid-August. At 2-4 they are on the cusp of their worst season since going 5-7 in 2014, Brady Hoke’s final year that opened the door for Harbaugh to take over. Two games remain on this schedule, Ohio State and the crossover game Dec. 19, so Michigan could finish .500 with wins in both.

But that’s a big if, even if Michigan can play Ohio State. The Wolverines were hit early with opt-outs by returning starters, receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas, not to mention a number of injuries to starters throughout the season left the team limping and reliant on younger, untested players.

Harbaugh, since the players returned for voluntary workouts in mid-June, has been proud of the program’s stringent COVID protocols and how well the players had adhered to them. 

The Big Ten has the most restrictive rules of the Power Five conferences in terms of when a player can return after a positive COVID test. There is a required 21-day layoff, because there must be cardiac tests and a week-long re-acclimation period.

According to conference regulations, there is a "Test Positivity Rate" and "Population Positivity Rate" based on a seven-day rolling average. Because Michigan is not specific by sport in the data released, it is difficult to determine for certain where football falls in the Big Ten’s color-coded testing spectrum. Michigan’s team roster is comprised of 131 players.

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis