After the sorry Brady Hoke years, and Rich Rodriguez before him, the UM football faithful finally has reason to hope. New head coach Jim Harbaugh is a very smart guy, a terrific motivator, and a football guru. Plus he's an alumnus, having played for the Wolverines in years past. As the late Bo Schembechler might have said -- a Michigan man indeed.
Of course, Bo cut his coaching teeth in Ohio, Harbaugh played professionally for the Chicago Bears before going out to California to coach San Diego, Stanford, and then the San Fran 49ers. But it's the end game that counts -- as in -- where did they wind up and what have you done for me lately? In Bo's case, not too much. He passed on to the land of three yards and a cloud of dust many years ago. And his bowl record on the national stage was terrible but, by thunder, he got an athletic building named after him on the UM campus. Hail, hail indeed when one enters the hallowed grounds of Schembechler Hall.
But though Harbaugh is an Ohio native son himself, he is widely perceived to be a "Michigan man". Funny how that works out sometimes.
It was also widely expected that Harbaugh would eventually turn the Wolverine football program around and restore it to it's once proud place. But it wasn't supposed to happen in his first year. After all, for the most part, he'd inherited the same rag-tag bunch that Hoke had accumulated. Surely it would take at least a couple years to restock and reshape the team back to respectability under a completely new system.
Yet to his credit, Harbaugh hit the ground running. The former sad-sacks were quickly molded into a force to be reckoned with. Same players, different coach, and the results were astonishing. These guys are pretty good.
A close opening game loss to Utah on the road was nothing to be ashamed of. The Utes were nationally ranked and playing them in their own house was a mighty tough opening act. But then Michigan got on a roll. They walloped Oregon St. and UNLV. Granted, the Beavers and Rebels weren't exactly considered among the college football elite, but smashing patsies is what good teams are supposed to do.
Then UM rattled off three straight shut-outs against BYU (a decent team), Maryland (maybe not so much), and Northwestern (who was also ranked at the time). A very impressive stretch. Michigan football was back. Or was it?
Up next were their in-state arch rival Michigan State Spartans. A huge test. Though the Sparties dominated statistically, the Wolverines had the game in the bag. In the waning seconds, all they needed to do was punt the ball, or even take a safety to run out the clock. But the punter fumbled the snap, picked it up and fumbled it yet again -- right into the hands of a State player that would most improbably run it over 40 yards into the end zone for the winning touchdown as time expired. It was a college football moment for the ages. A million to one shot. But it happened.
Fast forward to the present. The Maize and Blue faithful still maintain they have a shot at the Big Ten title. Technically, they're correct. Michigan State got beat at Nebraska to hand them one conference loss as well. This week the Green travels to Columbus to take on Ohio State. You remember those guys -- the reigning national champions who remain undefeated this year? Assuming the Buckeyes take care of business at home (and a 13.5 point spread says that's likely), MSU would have two conference losses and be out of the Big Ten title picture.
Assuming Michigan gets past Penn State on the road this week, hardly a given, all the Wolverines would have to do is defeat those very same Buckeyes in a huge showdown in Ann Arbor the following week that would have had Bo and Woody worked up into a frenzy. Figure in the tie-breakers with head-to-head competition and -- presto -- UM could be in the Big Ten title game -- against Iowa. Last time I looked the Hawkeyes, while flying under the radar all year, were a perfect 10-0, with a home game coming up against patsy Purdue. Those guys are already in and will present a stiff test to whoever emerges victorious out of the UM/MSU/OSU circle jerk.
Nonetheless, hats off to Jim Harbaugh. He's worked wonders at Michigan in his first year, and it will likely get even better in the future. But no, despite what happens in the next couple weeks, UM is already out of the national championship picture. However they happened, two losses is a deal breaker when it comes to the Final Four selection committee. The Maize and Blue will be off to a respectable bowl somewhere to ring in the new year, but that silly botched punt cost them any chance of competing for a national title. So it goes sometimes.
But look out for Michigan in the near future. Once Harbaugh has had a couple years of recruiting his own players, and his systems are fully up and running, the Maize and Blue could indeed be national contenders.
And considering the depths they fell to over the last several years under Hoke and Rodriguez -- wouldn't that be something?
Even Bo would be proud. If he can ever find his way out of that damn dust cloud to see it....