Wojo: Harbaugh, UM quickly make up ground in Big Ten

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

A year ago at this time, it was all words and wonderment, a hype train blowing its whistle. Jim Harbaugh was here to stir things up, to shake up the Big Ten and rattle college football.

As it turned out, the reality met the outside hype, as Michigan went 10-3, crushed Florida in a bowl game, and hey, almost actually beat Michigan State. A lot of distance — between Michigan and its Big Ten brethren, between fantasy and reality — was made up quickly.

So with the season just finished and recruiting churning madly toward the Feb. 3 signing date, it’s time to recalculate the hype-versus-expectation equation. We now have a full year of evidence, and without a hint of hyperbole, it’s fair to say Michigan could win the Big Ten next season, and might be favored to do so.

Ohio State and Michigan State lose a ton of talent, not that Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio have much trouble reloading these days. Their programs are firmly established, their current runs are historically good and their coaches are excellent. This is more about an old-world power regrouping, and whether Michigan’s rise can keep up with the suddenly heightened expectations.

A glance at the pre-pre-pre-preseason rankings is startling, for what it’s worth. Pundits from ESPN to USA Today to CBS Sports rank Michigan anywhere from third to seventh in the country, just behind or ahead of Ohio State. Michigan State generally is pegged between 11th and 14th. USA Today’s way-too-early projected playoff foursome is Alabama, Florida State, Stanford and Michigan. According to Bovada in Las Vegas, Michigan has the third-best odds to win the national title at 12-1, behind only Alabama and Clemson.

Closing the gap

Too soon? Of course it’s too soon. Michigan hasn’t even wrapped up its possible No. 1-ranked recruiting class. (See, the train runs year-round).

Too much? Ah, that’s the question, and the next step is always harder.

I think top four in the national rankings is too high for the Wolverines, who return 15 starters but must replace quarterback Jake Rudock, and still have talent holes to fill. I also think it’s too high for the Buckeyes, who lost nine underclassmen to the NFL and return only eight starters, although quarterback J.T. Barrett is one.

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Top 10 is reasonable for both, with the Spartans not far behind. They lose many of their best players, from Connor Cook to Shilique Calhoun to Jack Conklin, but when their depth was tested last season, it shined. Michigan State smothered Ohio State and Iowa, before getting smothered by Alabama.

College football is all about gaps, many of them subjective and regionally biased — between the Big Ten and the SEC, between Alabama and Everybody Else. When Harbaugh arrived, he didn’t say much, didn’t guarantee anything, so there was a lot of guessing about Michigan. Could he find a quarterback? Would he dive head-long into recruiting?

We’re not guessing any longer. Harbaugh is a maniac on the recruiting trail, and a regular on the national scene. He went from President Obama’s State of the Union Address in Washington to high school visits Thursday morning, as the latest recruiting period opened.

Some of the stories get exaggerated or misconstrued, and it’s fair game to fire away at the Harbaugh publicity machine. He doesn’t care and he doesn’t stop, and he can’t, because his rivals have a multi-year head start. There’s a benefit to his madness and he knows it, from the satellite camps last summer, to the possible Florida trip this year, to the relentlessly high profile. It contributes to recruiting rankings that tab Michigan no lower than third. Of course, Ohio State is right up there too, and Michigan State is recruiting better than ever.

Harbaugh certainly has met expectations so far. And that nagging concern he’d feel the tug of the NFL again? Well, he declared this his favorite year in football, then pulled off the seemingly impossible – his name wasn’t legitimately linked to a single NFL opening.

Experienced returnees

The Wolverines should have excellent pass-catchers in Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt. They return four starters to an offensive line that needs to be better. The defensive line should be very good, although Willie Henry’s departure to the NFL is a blow. And a secondary featuring Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers should be among the best in the country.

Now, Harbaugh will try to do with transfer John O’Korn what he did with Rudock, who turned into a superb leader. And it won’t be easy replacing an entire linebacking corps, no matter how suspect it was, while adding a new defensive coordinator in Don Brown.

Michigan earned this attention, just as Michigan State and Ohio State earned it the past several years. The Spartans mostly lived up to it, going 12-2, winning the Big Ten and reaching the playoff. They lost a three-year starter at quarterback but have a load of tough running backs, and should have a stellar defense with a star in Malik McDowell.

If you’re looking for clues in the schedules, good luck trying to separate the positives from the negatives. Michigan has eight home games and a weak non-conference slate (Hawaii, Central Florida, Colorado), but plays Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State on the road. Michigan State plays Notre Dame and BYU in the non-conference but gets Michigan and Ohio State at home.

It’s all just numbers and notions and rankings right now, but at least we have more football evidence than a year ago. Ohio State and Michigan State will remain near the top, we’ve seen enough to say that. If there’s a notable gap between them and Michigan, no one’s seeing it or saying it anymore.