ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit: 'Table is set' for Michigan to start season strong

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — ESPN College GameDay analyst Kirk Herbstreit was solidly in the Jim Harbaugh camp when he was hired to coach Michigan.

Like many college football observers, Herbstreit believed Harbaugh, whose first season was 2015, would re-ignite the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, challenge for Big Ten championships and national titles. But Harbaugh, kicking off his seventh season on Saturday when the unranked Wolverines open with Western Michigan, hasn’t led the Wolverines to those goals.

Michigan is coming off a 2-4 season, but opens the 2021 season with four straight home games.

Michigan is coming off a 2-4 season, but the players have spoken since spring practice of being rejuvenated because of the many staff changes. Harbaugh shook up things, particularly on the defensive side, and hired younger coaches and two former Michigan players, Ron Bellamy and Mike Hart, who also know how to recruit Detroit and southeast Michigan.

“I keep waiting for them to respond, like everybody else,” Herbstreit said on an ESPN conference call Thursday. “I think the schedule allows them to potentially get off to a good start. I can’t wait to see how certain positions play out, most notably at quarterback. It’s one thing to think you have an idea of what’s going to happen, it’s another thing to get in the games and see how it plays out.”

Cade McNamara, who started the last game of the COVID-shortened season last fall, is Michigan’s starting quarterback, and freshman J.J. McCarthy, a five-star recruit who enrolled early and participated in spring practice, is the backup.

The biggest offseason change was Harbaugh firing defensive coordinator Don Brown, 66, and hiring Mike Macdonald, 34, from the Baltimore Ravens, where he spent the last seven seasons. This is the first time Macdonald has called plays.

“There for a while we were all fired up about Don Brown and what he was doing and how aggressive they were," Herbstreit said. "Then it started to backfire in some games, and so they had to make a change. They’ve made household changes across the board on that staff and trying to create some new young energy, and we’ll see if it pays off.”

The Wolverines open the season with four straight home games. They play Washington in a night game on Sept. 11 in Week 2.

“Getting off to a big start against Western Michigan is critical, obviously, looking good and then creating some momentum before they get ready for the dogs, the Washington Huskies to come into town (for) a prime-time game,” Herbstreit said. “The table is set for them to get off to a good start. One way to squash noise and social-media noise or people who are chirping about Jim Harbaugh or the program is you go out and win. If you go out and get off to a good start on Saturday and that potentially leads you to another opportunity the next week, if you’re 2-0, that kinda blocks that noise out and it’s kind of an us against-the-world mentality.

“I keep looking at this team thinking, ‘Yes, it’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen.’ And, obviously, has not up to this point. It’s amazing to me Jim Harbaugh is in his seventh season in Ann Arbor. I remember like yesterday his opening press conference. We’ll see. The quarterback, to me, is big. How that position settles will be critical to what kind of year they end up having. We’re all excited to see if J.J. is a guy that gets an opportunity. We’re seeing young quarterbacks play all over the country.”

Herbstreit believes it’s good for the game if Michigan is successful and can return to the world of ranked teams and contenders.

“As a fan of the sport, I’m hopeful,” he said. “I want Michigan to win. I want Michigan to be a top-10 team. I want them to be a brand that everyone fears. That’s so good for the Big Ten and the sport. As I sit here, I’m hopeful. I hope they play great against Western Michigan. I’m hoping they get Washington and play well.”

Twitter: @chengelis