Wojo: Harbaugh faces huge third-year test at Michigan

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

It’s not exactly a clamor, but it’s audible. Jim Harbaugh is about to enter his third season as Michigan’s coach, and according to the long-established icon gauge, this is when he will — should? — win big. That’s how it works, right?

That’s the narrative, and for all the attention Harbaugh has generated, it’s understandable, if a bit too simplistic. This is how it goes — if Harbaugh is so darn good, why hasn’t Michigan finished higher than third in the Big Ten East? Why is his record (20-6) only one game better than Brady Hoke’s mark after two seasons? Why is he 0-2 against Urban Meyer and Ohio State?

The easy answer is, Michigan lost a few crushers by the narrowest of margins, in historic and controversial fashion. But competition and misfortune can’t be the whole answer or the lasting answer, not with a coach of Harbaugh’s reputation.

I suspect these questions burn Harbaugh even deeper than he lets on. There’s a chance it’ll keep burning, because Michigan isn’t exactly set up for a Big Ten or national title run, with only five starters returning. And that’s why this will be a supreme test of Harbaugh’s acumen, the final season in which he won’t face the highest expectations possible.

Oh, Michigan needs to win 10 games or more to reinforce the giddy hope he’s brought to Ann Arbor. And if he’s to be judged among college football’s best, this is when true judgment begins, generally in a coach’s third season. Harbaugh and the Wolverines blew a chance to seal it a year ahead of schedule, losing three of their final four by five total points and finishing 10-3 again.

Fell short

By sheer volume of talent – 11 players drafted into the NFL — that team underachieved. By sheer lack of experience — one returning starter on defense — this year’s team will have to overachieve. The Wolverines have one of the nation’s youngest rosters (not that we’ve officially seen it yet), so they should be primed for next season. Except that youth isn’t an excuse anymore, after Ohio State and Alabama won titles with all sorts of freshmen.

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Three Big Ten opponents — Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin — are ranked higher than No. 11 Michigan, and only the Buckeyes have to visit Ann Arbor. Ohio State is the standard, as always, and by that standard Michigan is either lagging by a fair amount, or merely by a few fourth-down inches.

Asked this summer if the bitterness lingered from that 30-27 overtime loss in Columbus, Harbaugh had his mantra ready.

“Now it’s good,” he said. “I’m glad that happened. Hopefully that’ll motivate us to do better.”

The promise for the Wolverines is that Harbaugh has recruited very well and stacks his staff with respected coaches. The problem is, the competition isn’t shrinking, and surely is motivated by all the attention he draws.

When asked recently about his relationship with Harbaugh, Meyer barely creased his lips to squeeze out an answer.

“OK, very professional, very respectful,” Meyer said. “And it probably stops there.”

In a CBS Sports poll of 26 head coaches — granted anonymity — Harbaugh was named the most overrated by 13 percent. That’s hardly demeaning, considering Nick Saban was second.

But it’s a slight undercurrent around college football, that Harbaugh somehow is viewed as exceeding expectations without yet reaching them. He’s far exceeded the normal stir, taking his team from Florida to Italy to all sorts of adventurous places, but not yet to the top of the conference, albeit in a short window.

As far as rebuilding Michigan’s brand, reinvigorating the fan base and restoring the program’s reputation, Harbaugh has been a gigantic success. As far as beating rivals and winning close games, there’s work to be done. The narrow nature of the defeats, from the fumbled snap on the final play against Michigan State, to the 14-13 loss at Iowa, to the gasping loss in Columbus, will become less relevant as time goes on.

The Meyer standard

The third season is when acclaimed coaches often make a leap, with many of their own recruits. Meyer actually went 12-0 his first season but the Buckeyes were on a bowl ban. In his third season, he led them to the national championship. Oh by the way, he also won titles in his second and fourth seasons at Florida.

It’s true Meyer was installing an entirely new system when he took over at Ohio State. It’s also true he inherited quarterback Braxton Miller and a load of players. The Buckeyes endured one 6-7 campaign under Luke Fickell, but Meyer got a Tressel-trove of talent, as the Buckeyes were 23-3 in Jim Tressel’s final two seasons.

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Nick Saban is an unfair comparison for anyone, but we’ll do it anyway. In his third season at Alabama, he went 14-0 and won the national title, and has won three more since. Chris Peterson jumped from Boise State to Washington in 2014, and sure enough led the Huskies to the playoff last year, his third season. Even Penn State’s James Franklin shook off early stumbles and won the Big Ten last season, his third in Happy Valley.

The difference in one close game can be staggering. The Nittany Lions pulled off a stunning comeback to beat the Buckeyes 24-21 last year, while the Wolverines blew a lead against the Buckeyes. By the end, it didn’t matter that Michigan had beaten up Penn State 49-10. If Ohio State polished Franklin prematurely, it delayed Harbaugh’s confirmation.

Remember, Harbaugh was granted elite status more for his work with the NFL’s 49ers, where he went 44-19 and lost in the Super Bowl. He also revived a moribund Stanford program and went 12-1 his fourth season there.

Here, he inherited talented Hoke recruits but not an established quarterback, and saved his first season by plucking transfer Jake Rudock. Now Wilton Speight is holding off another transfer, John O’Korn, to start the opener against Florida, as Michigan awaits the maturation of prized redshirt freshman Brandon Peters. Rebuilding the offensive line also has been a challenge.

Until Michigan beats Ohio State and at least advances to the Big Ten title game, there will be manufactured debates, logical or not, about whether Harbaugh deserves his lofty status. He has shown plenty in two seasons, so naturally, understandably, that leaves people wanting more.