The Detroit News' John Niyo and Angelique S. Chengelis break down the Wolverines' 26-19 loss to South Carolina. Angelique S. Chengelis


Jim Harbaugh has done it again. He has managed to become the flashpoint of hot debate, and not even on purpose.

In almost every key moment in every big game this season, Michigan collapsed, capped by its second-half meltdown against South Carolina. And now comes Harbaugh’s biggest challenge yet, by far. The Wolverines were unsettled at quarterback and unproven in all sorts of places while going 8-5, but this is on the coach and his highly compensated staff.

Harbaugh deserves scrutiny, with a 28-11 record after three seasons, a 1-5 mark against his rivals and a 1-2 bowl record. And you know what? He should welcome the scrutiny. He looked like a coach who needed a wake-up nudge, and my guess is, he just got it. His feisty demeanor and creative play-calling went on hiatus, and maybe he intentionally toned it down with a young team. If so, time to crank it back up.

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This is the Wolverines’ reality check, and while they’ll find it painful, it also can be helpful. The objective adjective to describe Harbaugh’s tenure ticked down from “underwhelming” to “disappointing,” but it can tick back up in a hurry.

For perspective, go back one year, when Mark Dantonio and Michigan State faced an even tougher reality check. The Spartans went 3-9 and incurred all sorts of off-field issues, cornered by controversy. No way out, right? Wrong. Dantonio pulled off a remarkable 10-3 turnaround by doing what Harbaugh’s program now must do — reassess, but don’t panic.

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Oh, the Wolverines need to make changes, especially to a staid offensive philosophy that requires updating. That means changes to the staff, with offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton under particular scrutiny. Harbaugh reportedly is interested in adding Dan Enos, former Central Michigan head coach and Michigan State quarterback.

Staff reflection

Dantonio rebounded without dismissing a single member of his coaching staff, despite calls to do so. He stayed the course because his decade of success allowed him to do so. Harbaugh hasn’t reached that level of continuity here, although at some point, he must. But his standing as one of the highest-paid, highly touted coaches in college football comes with a price. People are less willing to be patient, so he has to be prepared to respond.

That’s why it was such a priority to land Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson. Some argue Michigan is merely a quarterback away from contention again and Patterson could be that guy, if he’s immediately eligible. It could very well work, but it’s still disconcerting Harbaugh hasn’t consistently developed quarterbacks here. Michigan also hasn’t come close to building a pounding offensive line, and there might be a change there too, with assistant Greg Frey reportedly talking to Florida State.

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One five-loss season can be overcome, and Michigan returns a load of talent. Chase Winovich announced Wednesday he’s coming back, so the Wolverines will return nine of 11 starters to the nation’s third-ranked defense. That gives them a solid chance, and if you care about early prognostications, they’re already popping up on top-10 lists for next season. Athlon Sports ranks Michigan No. 7 in the country, with Michigan State No. 10 and Ohio State No. 3.

Harbaugh is famously adept at courting attention and stirring hype, so he can’t be surprised he’ll spend a chunk of this offseason as a trendy talk-show topic from coast to coast. Fox Sports analyst Cris Carter, a former Ohio State player, already jumped on Twitter to declare Harbaugh “the most overrated coach in football,” but mocking isn’t just coming from rivals and SEC mouths. Former Michigan player Amani Toomer blasted away about Harbaugh’s record and “embarrassing” losses to Ohio State and Michigan State.

Some of this is predictable piling-on, and some is fair. Is Harbaugh suddenly on a heated seat? As far as job security, of course not. As far as his reputation as one of the top coaches in football, yes.

Recruiting boost

His forte is running a traditional power offense and molding quarterbacks, and Michigan’s offense was historically bad this season. The Wolverines threw their fewest touchdown passes (nine) since 1975. Wilton Speight looked shaky before he got injured. Then John O’Korn looked lost and Brandon Peters stumbled and the running game didn’t look so powerful when it wasn’t plowing over Rutgers and Minnesota. In the five losses, the Wolverines averaged 2.3 yards per carry.

They face a brutal schedule next season, with road games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, and home contests against Wisconsin and Penn State. And they’ll still be untested in key areas, while hoping to get a boost from the return of two promising players — offensive tackle Grant Newsome and receiver Tarik Black.

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Harbaugh’s touted 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes should start to produce more, and if Patterson is as dynamic — although prone to risk-taking — as he looked in 10 starts at Mississippi, a lot of Michigan’s offensive deficiencies could be obscured. Few people predicted the Spartans would bounce back so quickly, with questions along their offensive and defensive lines. But quarterback Brian Lewerke became a play-making force and the receivers were terrific, and Dantonio leaned on long-standing tenets of cohesiveness and continuity.

Harbaugh is more apt to choose chaos over continuity, and that works for many top coaches. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban churn through assistants and rosters, although they’ve loaded up on talent for years. Harbaugh’s program isn’t near that level, but every season can’t include a desperate hunt for a quarterback.

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Don Brown’s defense should be staunch again. Because of its aggressiveness, it was susceptible to breakdowns, but those generally occurred in the second halves against good teams. The offense simply failed to control play, showing little edge, attitude, or spark. Curiously, you could say similar things about Harbaugh, who came here with abundant edge, attitude and spark, yet looked oddly detached at times this season.

Maybe he’s found the Big Ten competition tougher than expected, miscalculated on some recruits and assistants, and will adjust. It’s also reasonable to suggest it was the demeanor of a coach who knew this would be a transition year with so few returning starters, and didn’t want to panic when things went awry.

Whatever was missing, Harbaugh should be newly motivated to rediscover it. Coaches and programs can be refueled by criticism and adversity — the Spartans, case in point — and now it’s Michigan’s turn. Harbaugh is about to endure an offseason of pointed questions, and he should chew it like he’s ready for it, almost like he needs it.