Sean Merriman, BTN.com web editor, April 13, 2016
Is there a more polarizing individual in the Big Ten than Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh?
Harbaugh has taken the college football world by storm since leaving the NFL to become Michigan's head football coach.
Satellite Camps, tweeting at Madonna and Judge Judy, spring break practice in Florida… You name it.
But let's take a break from focusing on all of Harbaugh's off-the-field antics and shift to what Harbaugh and the Wolverines are looking to do on the gridiron.
Michigan enters the 2016 college football season as a popular pick to win the Big Ten. But would winning the Big Ten title be enough to consider the season a success for Harbaugh and the Wolverines' football team?
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart and writer/web editor Sean Merriman debate the following topic.
What has to happen for 2016 to be considered a success for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines?
For 2016 to be a success for Michigan, the Wolverines need their offense to take the next step. The skill talent is promising with wideouts like Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. There also is Jake Butt, who may be the best tight end in the league. De'Veon Smith looks to be one of the Big Ten's best running backs. The keys? The line and quarterback. The Michigan front may have turned a corner last year after years of struggles. And the unit is getting better. The quarterback spot is up in the air with Jake Rudock gone. Pedestrian Wilton Speight seemingly has an edge coming out of spring drills. But John O'Korn-the more dynamic and talented option–will push for the spot in camp. The defense will be among the best in the Big Ten-and nation. Keep an eye on the line, which may have no peer from coast to coast.
Having said all that, topping last year's 10-3 mark (6-2 Big Ten) may be difficult. The season opens with five home games in which the Wolverines will be favored. But the 2016 season will be defined by road games at Michigan State, at Iowa and at Ohio State. Can the Wolverines win all three? Doubtful. So, look for a 10-2 or 9-3 season this fall in Ann Arbor-without a division title. Still, 10-2? 9-3? That would be a success in my book in Year Two under Jim Harbaugh, whose best days are ahead of him. He'll catch the Spartans and Buckeyes. It's a matter of time. It just won't happen this year.
Have you noticed that college football fans have recently gravitated towards the whole "what have you done for me lately" attitude? What Harbaugh has done lately is grab headlines while standing up for his players, his staff and his university. And his team played some darn good football last year as well, going 10-3 in his first season, which concluded with a commanding 41-7 win over Florida in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. So, fans have tasted winning again. They ran all over an SEC team in a bowl game. What's next? To me it's really quite simple — you have to beat your rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State.
As you mentioned, the Wolverines have to travel to East Lansing and Columbus to take on the Spartans and Buckeyes. In order for this year to be considered a success by Michigan Football standards, Harbaugh and the Wolverines have to beat Michigan State or Ohio State. Beating both would just be the icing on the cake, but I think fans would take one or the other in 2016. Is that a realistic possibility? Both MSU and OSU lost a ton of talent from last year. If there is one year to capitalize on that, this is the year. Playing on the road doesn't help, but Michigan is a veteran team with a nice mix of young, talented playmakers. As you said, Harbaugh will eventually beat the Spartans and Buckeyes, but if Michigan finishes 10-2 in the Big Ten, with both of those losses coming to Michigan and Ohio State, I don't think fans will consider 2016 a success.
Put it this way — would you rather be 10-2 with your only losses coming to Michigan State and Ohio State, or finish 8-4, but knock off the Buckeyes in the regular season finale? I would chose 10-2, but it wouldn't shock me to hear several Michigan fans choose the later. We will see.