Is Michigan Football Dead?

September 1, 2007 may well go down in history as the day Michigan football died. Before we get into what happened on that day (and I’m sure college football diehards can guess), let’s provide a little background.

The prior season, 2006, Michigan football was in the national title hunt. They entered that season ranked #14, but a week 3 blowout win over rival #2 Notre Dame, 47-21 on the road, vaulted the Wolverines into title contention. After 5 more consecutive wins to begin the season 8-0, Michigan was ranked #2 in the country behind only their ancient and eternal enemies, the Ohio State Buckeyes, who were also undefeated. The two teams came into their traditional late-November rivalry game both 11-0 and ranked 1 & 2 in the nation.

It was said at the time to be the Game of the Century, and while since that season we’ve a couple more Games of the Century (2011 #1 LSU at. #2 Bama, then last year’s #2 LSU vs. #3 Bama with President Trump in attendance), the 2006 Ohio State-Michigan matchup was still one of the most anticipated college football games ever.

The final score was Ohio State 42, Michigan 39, and while the score looked close, Ohio State was in control for most of the game. Anytime Michigan got close, Ohio State managed to widen their lead. Late in the 4th quarter, Ohio State was up 42-31, but a late TD + 2 point conversion brought Michigan within 3. Ohio State recovered Michigan’s onside kick attempt, picked up a first down on the ensuing drive, and then was able to run out the clock.

Nobody knew it at the time, but that game marked the last time that the Michigan Wolverines were an elite college football program. Since that game, Michigan football has had a record of 103-68 including that season’s 32-18 Rose Bowl loss to USC, and including this season’s 1-3 start. That’s still a 60% win rate, but 60% is not going to cut it when you are considered to be one of college football’s most elite and storied programs.

And especially not when your biggest rival, Ohio State, is 138-24 over that span, an 85% win rate.

Again, nobody knew at the time that Michigan football was about to fall off a cliff. Coming in to the 2007 season, the Wolverines were ranked #5. They were the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the preseason, ahead of #7 Wisconsin and #11 Ohio State, and were projected by most to win the Big Ten that year.

But then they took the field. Their first game on the schedule was the Appalachian State Mountaineers, who were the #1 ranked team in the FCS division of college football and winners of the past 2 FCS National Championships. But it didn’t matter. No matter how good App State was at the FCS level, they had no shot against an FBS powerhouse like Michigan. No FCS team had ever beaten a ranked FBS team, ever. Vegas didn’t even put out a line for the game. It was what we usually call a “cupcake” game. Michigan even paid App State $400k for the game.

By halftime, the college football world was buzzing as App State went into the locker room with a 28-17 lead on the mighty Michigan Wolverines. But come on: there’s no way App State will actually pull this off. Most of us expected Michigan to wake up and pull away in the second half. But they didn’t.

Late in the 4th quarter, Michigan pulled ahead 32-31. On the ensuing App State drive, their QB Armanti Edwards threw a pick and Michigan was setting up to kick a 43-yard field goal with 1:42 to play. App State blocked the field goal, took control of the ball, and kicked a 24-yard field goal with just 26 seconds on the clock to take a 34-32 lead. Michigan drove down the field quickly and set up for what would have been the game-winning 37-yard field goal with 6 seconds to play, but App State again blocked the attempt and won the game.

Immediately, the game was hailed as not only the greatest upset in college football history–that was obvious–but potentially in the history of all sports. Still to this day, it’s kind of hard to believe it actually happened. If you want to re-live it, here’s the condensed version:

Michigan fans were stunned. This type of thing just doesn’t happen, especially not to them. But it had. The following day, the Wolverines fell completely out of the rankings. The next week, with UM still in shock, unranked Oregon came into Ann Arbor and beat the brakes off of Michigan 39-7. Michigan would reel off 8 straight wins and climb all the way back up to #13 in the rankings, but closed out the regular season with a 37-21 loss at Wisconsin, and a 14-3 loss at home to Ohio State. Michigan managed to pull out a 41-35 win in the Gator Bowl over Heisman Winner Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators, probably because it was head coach Lloyd Carr’s final game. He retired after the bowl game after 13 years as head coach, and 28 years at Michigan overall.

Michigan football still has not recovered from that App State game. The following season, 2008, under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines went just 3-9. It was the first time in 33 years Michigan failed to qualify for a bowl game. In 2009, they went 5-7, and then 7-6 in 2010. Rodriguez was out after three seasons.

Brady Hoke took over as head coach in 2011, and it appeared Michigan was back. They went 10-2 in the regular season and got their first win over Ohio State since 2003, although it was the season after Jim Tressel was fired in disgrace and prior to Urban Meyer’s arrival. Still, a win’s a win. Michigan beat Virginia Tech 23-20 in the Orange Bowl to finish 11-2 and with a final ranking of #9. But that was the last time Michigan would ever finish a season ranked in the top 10.

Any hopes of Michigan being “back” were quickly dashed early in the 2012 season. Michigan entered the year ranked #8 in the preseason polls, and faced a huge early season test in the form of an out-of-conference, neutral-site showdown against defending National Champion Alabama. The Tide rolled 41-14, making it clear Michigan was still nowhere close to being “back.”

Hoke would go just 20-18 over his next three seasons (including 2012), losing two bowl games and failing to even qualify for a bowl in his final season, 2014.

In January 2015, with the Michigan coaching job vacant and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh seemingly on the outs, speculation began to mount that Michigan would be able to get the former Wolverines QB to right the ship in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh was one of the hottest names in coaching at the time, having been a success at every stop in his coaching career: San Diego State, then Stanford, and then the 49ers, who he led to the Super Bowl in just his second season as head coach.

Despite going 36-11 in his first three seasons in San Francisco and never failing to reach at least the NFC Championship game, by year four Harbaugh was rumored to be in a “power struggle” with the 49ers front office. He had apparently worn out his welcome there, and as early as October, rumors were flying that the front office was going to send him packing. The team finished 8-8 and Harbaugh was fired on December 28. Apparently, though, he had been informed as early as December 14 that he would not be returning as head coach after the season.

On December 30, Harbaugh was announced as the next head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

Expectations were sky-high for Harbaugh’s tenure at UM. After 7 disappointing seasons under Rodriguez and Hoke, it seemed like things were finally turning around in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh was considered a slam dunk coaching hire, a virtual certainty to return the Wolverines to powerhouse status. And it made sense at the time: this guy had won everywhere he coached. He was a Michigan Man through and through. He went a Super Bowl, for goodness’ sakes.

Harbaugh’s first season got off to a bad start, losing 24-17 to Utah at home. But the Wolverines rebounded and reeled off 5 straight wins, 2 against ranked teams. They headed into the in-state rivalry game against #7 Michigan State ranked #12 in the country, and with 10 seconds left in the game it looked like Michigan was about to secure its biggest win of the Harbaugh era.

Until the infamous fumbled punt.

It was one of the most stunning and improbable losses in college football history. All Michigan had to do was punt the ball away and they would’ve won.

Had Michigan won that game, they would have probably jumped back in the playoff hunt. They were still able to reel off four straight wins, but got blown out by Ohio State in the last game of the regular season 42-13 in Ann Arbor to finish 9-3. Michigan demolished Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl that post-season, and so despite the three painful losses, things were looking pretty good for the Harbaugh regime.

Michigan came into the 2016 season ranked #7 in the nation and got as high as #2 following an 8-0 start to the season. But they were stunned 14-13 in Iowa City by the Hawkeyes on November 12, putting an end to their undefeated streak. Still, they only dropped down to #4, and two weeks later were back up to #3 entering their rivalry matchup against Ohio State, who was at the time ranked #2. With a win, Michigan would be 11-1 and probably ranked either #2 or #1.

In the 2016 version of The Game, Michigan jumped out to a 17-7 lead nearing the end of the third quarter. Their defense was stifling the Buckeyes and it appeared Michigan was the better team. Wilton Speight threw a pick at the end of the third quarter, and Ohio State was able to capitalize and cut Michigan’s lead to 17-14. Ohio State eventually kicked a late field goal to send it to OT, although their kicker missed a 23 yarder earlier in the 4th that would’ve tied it up earlier, and turned the game-tying field goal into a game-winning field goal.

Overtime is what this game is remembered for, though. The two teams traded TDs in the first OT, but in the second OT Michigan was held to a field goal. Ohio State’s ensuing possession came down to a 4th & 1, which if they failed to convert would have been the end of the game. JT Barrett took a QB draw, ran up the gut and was hit right around the first down line. The refs called it a first down on the field, although it looked unbelievably close and was going to have to be reviewed.

This was the view on TV at JT Barrett’s point of furthest forward progress:

Michigan fans will forever insist that Barrett was stopped short, but the commentators on ESPN’s broadcast were in agreement that Barrett’s forward progress took the ball over the first down line. ESPN’s resident referee consultant Dave Cutaia agreed: forward progress was enough for a first down. Michigan fans were more focused on where Barrett landed, which was about a half-yard short of the line.

After a review, the referees concluded that the play on the field could stand as called. It was not confirmed, but Ohio State got a first down. On the very next play, Curtis Samuel took a handoff 15 yards in for the walk-off TD.

Harbaugh was livid. He ripped the refs in his postgame presser and was eventually fined for his comments. Had Michigan won that game, they would’ve gone to the Big Ten Championship game and faced off with Wisconsin. Ohio State actually didn’t make the Big Ten Championship because they had lost to Penn State earlier in the season, and with the two teams’ conference records tied, Penn State was ahead of them. But Michigan had beaten Penn State 49-10 earlier that season, and so would’ve had the tie-breaker over the Nittany Lions.

It would have been Michigan’s first ever Big Ten Championship game berth (the Big Ten only instituted the conference Championship game in 2012), and a chance for Michigan to win its first Big Ten title since splitting it with Iowa in 2004.

Still to this day, Michigan has never made a Big Ten Championship game, and has not won an outright Big Ten title since 2003.

The 2016 loss in The Game was absolutely brutal for the Wolverines. Ohio State was at their most vulnerable in the Urban Meyer era, and their offense had become clearly dysfunctional that season. The loss marked Michigan’s 5th straight to Ohio State, and dropped the Wolverines to 3-14 against the Buckeyes dating back to 2000.

Michigan would go on to lose 33-32 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

In the 2017 season, Michigan would go just 8-5, losing again to Ohio State despite the game being in Ann Arbor and despite Ohio State having to play then-backup QB Dwayne Haskins due to JT Barrett getting injured late in the third quarter with Michigan up 20-14. Haskins led Ohio State down the field to take the lead and they never looked back, winning 31-20.

That season, Michigan also lost to Sparty 14-10, got blasted 42-13 by #2 Penn State in Happy Valley, lost 24-10 to #5 Wisconsin on the road, and lost the Outback bowl game to South Carolina despite jumping out to a 19-3 lead.

In 2018, Michigan began the season ranked #14 but lost 24-17 to #12 Notre Dame in week 1. Still, the Wolverines were able to reel off 10 straight wins and came into the Ohio State game ranked #4 and featuring the top defense in the nation. Ohio State had lost twice that season and was only ranked #10 after getting smashed by Iowa on the road 55-24, so it looked like a prime opportunity for Michigan to beat Ohio State and make it to the Big Ten Championship game.

Instead, Ohio State hung 62 on Michigan in what would be Urban Meyer’s final game in the rivalry. Another promising Michigan season vaporized by Ohio State.

Last season, Michigan finished 9-4 and lost to both Penn State and Wisconsin. The cherry on top was getting blown out 56-27 at home against Ohio State. They then lost 35-16 to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. On the bright side, at least Michigan beat Notre Dame and Iowa last year.

But at this point it should be clear: Michigan is no longer an elite college football program. They just aren’t. Everyone thought they would return to elite-status with Harbaugh at the helm, but it just hasn’t happened. Certainly Harbaugh has been better than his predecessors Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez, but Michigan is a program that aspires to compete with the Ohio States and the Alabamas of the world. That’s how they have traditionally viewed themselves.

Since taking over, Harbaugh is 0-5 against Ohio State. And only the 2016 game was close. Harbaugh is just 3-3 against Michigan State including 1-3 at home. Since Michigan running back Mike Hart’s infamous “little brother” crack about Michigan State in 2007, Michigan is just 5-9 against “little brother.” And since 2000, Michigan is 3-17 against Ohio State.

Since the 2007 season, Michigan is 3-6 against Wisconsin (2-4 since Harbaugh’s arrival in 2015) and 5-6 against Penn State, although Harbaugh has been able to split the Penn State rivalry 2-2.

Since the start of the Rodriguez era in 2008, Michigan is 2-7 in bowl games and has failed to qualify for a bowl game 3 times.

Harbaugh at Michigan is 0-11 as an underdog, which says it all about their ability to compete with elite teams.

Over the past decade or so, Michigan has been maybe the 5th best team in the Big Ten behind Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State. Those four teams are unequivocally better than Michigan–hands down, no debate at all.

But even ranking them 5th best in the Big Ten might be giving Michigan too much credit. Since 2007, Iowa has gone 107-60, a 64% winning rate (compared to Michigan’s 60%), and gone 6-5 in bowl games, only failing to qualify for a bowl game twice (2007 & 2012). You can argue that Iowa has been a better program than Michigan since 2007. They’ve got a better bowl record and a better overall record than Michigan over that span. And at least Iowa made a Big Ten Title game in 2015. Iowa has gone 5-2 against Michigan since 2009.

I think I actually have to put Iowa ahead of Michigan.

The worst part about it for Michigan is that we’re even having this conversation at all. Michigan football used to dominate Penn State–they won 9 straight games against the Nittany Lions between 1997-2008. From 1892-2004, Michigan compiled a record of 47-10 against Wisconsin.

And Little Brother? From 1970-2007, Michigan went 30-8 against Sparty.

Michigan has won 42 Big Ten titles, but none since 2004.

I haven’t even really said much about Michigan’s 1-3 start this season, and I’m tempted to cut Harbaugh some slack and chalk this up to the unique circumstances of the pandemic, but then again the virus hasn’t seemed to slow down elite programs like Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson. Wisconsin only played one game prior to this past weekend’s Michigan game, and had a two-week layoff due to game cancellations, yet the Badgers were still able to deliver a 49-11 beatdown to the Wolverines on Saturday night.

This year, Michigan lost to Indiana for the first time since 1987.

Time to face the music: Michigan is no longer an elite football program.

In Lloyd Carr’s 13-year tenure as head coach (1995-2007), his worst season was 7-5 in 2005.

Michigan has had seven 5-loss+ seasons in the 12 seasons since Carr retired.

From 1969-1989 with Bo Schembechler as head coach, Michigan only had 2 seasons of 4 or more losses, and only 3 seasons with 3 losses.

Something has gone horribly wrong in Ann Arbor since 2007.

The more they lose to a real elite program, Ohio State, the more it shows just how far Michigan is from being one. How can you even call it a rivalry anymore?

It’s a given that Michigan is no longer an elite program in the nation, but nowadays they’re not even an elite program in the Big Ten.

We all thought Harbaugh could bring Michigan up to the Ohio State/Alabama/Clemson level, but he hasn’t even gotten them up to Wisconsin’s level.

I don’t want to say Michigan football is dead because I still think someone can come in and return them to their former glory, but at the same time, if Jim Harbaugh couldn’t do it, then who the hell can? They’re not going to poach Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney.

Michigan is still an elite brand. They have a nationwide fanbase, a hugely powerful alumni network, and according to a study, the third-highest Athletic Department revenues in the nation. Kids around the country still grow up dreaming of one day donning the Maize and Gold. They’re still able to draw in recruits from all around the nation: the 2020 recruiting class features players from Colorado, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, California, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland and Virginia.

But they might not be able to bank on the brand for much longer. Basically nobody under the age of 30 has ever seen Michigan Football at its best.

The longer Michigan remains mired in mediocrity, the more likely it is future generations won’t view Michigan as an elite program. Elite players want to go to elite programs. Eventually, if Michigan stays bad, elite recruits will start to view Michigan as “beneath them.”

Why would a kid born in 2001 who has his choice between offers from elite programs pick Michigan over the likes of Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama or Georgia? Unless his parents are Michigan alums, he’s not going to Michigan.

The one thing Michigan has going for it is it remains a good pro-factory. There are currently 33 Michigan football players in the NFL, which ranks 5th among all college programs. They’re still well-behind Ohio State’s 50 and Alabama’s 56, but they’re ahead of programs like Georgia (32) Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma (all tied at 29).

But I’m sure that’s not much comfort for Michigan fans who want to see their program win. Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson have all won National Titles during the CFP era. Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Georgia have all made playoff appearances and are generally in contention for the Final Four every year.

What is Michigan going to do? How do they get better from here?

The easy answer is to fire Jim Harbaugh. The sports media is saying he’s on the “hot seat” and at 1-3 this year he just might be. Despite his deep ties to Michigan, I’m sure the boosters’ patience with him is running thin.

Personally, I think Harbaugh is still a good coach, although he hasn’t really shown it at Michigan. It’s hard for me to completely write off all the great things he did as a coach prior to landing in Ann Arbor. I still think the potential is there for him. It took Dabo Swinney 7.5 seasons at Clemson before he finally got them to break through and win a Title, although by his sixth full season (where Harbaugh is now) Clemson had become a consistent 10+ win program.

Harbaugh has been better than both Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, his two immediate predecessors. I know that’s a low bar to clear and it’s not going to cut it in Ann Arbor, but there’s just a sense that it has to work with Harbaugh in Ann Arbor or else it might never work. He feels like their last, best hope.

He was the Michigan Man coming back home to his dream job, destined to be the one to salvage the once-proud program.

Maybe that was a false media narrative. Maybe they can do better than Jim Harbaugh.

The most buzzed-about coaching candidate in the nation right now is Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, and he’s probably going to get lots of offers from big time programs after this season, but the problem for Michigan is that Fickell is as Ohio as they come: born in Columbus, went to Ohio State, got his start in coaching at Ohio State as a GA, and was on the staff from 2002-2016 including as the interim coach during the 2011 season after Tressel got fired. He was a coach on two different Ohio State National Championship teams (2002 & 2014). His wife even went to Ohio State.

Luke Fickell is not going to Ann Arbor. He’s been brainwashed to hate Michigan since the day he was born. The guy bleeds scarlet and gray.

He probably sees himself as the favorite to succeed Ryan Day if and when Day moves on, although given how good Day has been at Ohio State I would guess that probably won’t be for a long time.

Beyond Fickell, there’s Matt Campbell of Iowa State, Josh Heupel of UCF, and Tony Elliott (Clemson’s OC). Campbell is an Ohio native, although he doesn’t have the deep Ohio State ties Fickell does.

The thing is, none of these guys have the pedigree or the experience that Harbaugh had when he stepped into the Michigan job. None of them are “Michigan Men.”

Then again, maybe Michigan will be more open to candidates from non-Michigan backgrounds the next time around, considering Michigan Man Harbaugh wasn’t the answer.

I’ve seen some Michigan fans suggest with a straight face that they could get Urban Meyer to succeed Harbaugh. I won’t even entertain that one for a second.

If I were Michigan, I’d go young and offensive-minded like Ohio State did with Ryan Day. That seems to be the trend nowadays, both in college and the pros. They could go after Joe Brady, the Carolina Panthers’ OC who last season was the LSU OC on the record-setting, National Championship team. Prior to that Brady was with the New Orleans Saints. He’s got a great resume. He has zero ties to Michigan whatsoever, but that shouldn’t disqualify him from consideration.

If they are still insistent on a Michigan Man, then perhaps the window is not yet fully closed on Les Miles’ coaching career. Of course, Miles just turned 66. He’s currently the head coach at Kansas but the team is not doing well under his leadership. He’s 3-15 between this season and last, but we all know what he did at LSU. He won a National Championship in 2007 and, coincidentally, the game was against Ohio State. Miles last year said it was “heartbreaking” that he never got the opportunity to coach the Michigan Football team, so I would assume that if Harbaugh gets canned and Michigan comes calling, Miles will absolutely take the job.

But does Michigan want him? That’s the real question. I would love to see Les Miles back in a big-time college football coaching job. He’s easily one of the best personalities in the sport. But I do think the ship might have sailed on him and Michigan.

Plus, there’s this rumor that dates back to the 1990s about why Les Miles was never offered the Michigan coaching job:

Here’s the biggest Michigan football conspiracy theory. On this day 20 years ago, head coach Gary Moeller (who had the team performing at a remarkably high level during his tenure) found out that assistant coach Les Miles was sleeping with his wife. He went out to Detroit, got publicly drunk, had an incident, and got a DUI. The fallout is immediate.

At this time, Bo Schembechler was in Mexico on vacation and couldn’t be reached for a few days until he got back (different times). The pressure was mounting for Moeller to resign, and he succumbed to the pressure before Bo got back to Ann Arbor. Bo was furious when he got back and never would have let Moeller resign, however it was already done and assistant coach Lloyd Carr was named his successor.

Carr was a staunch supporter of Moeller and, from there forth, held a strong vendetta against Les Miles. When Carr finally retired after the 2007 season, Miles made it known in Michigan circles that he would be the next Michigan coach if asked. He just needed to coach LSU in the National Championship Game that year first. The wait until the NCG proved problematic, and while AD Bill Martin was interested in Miles, Carr and President Mary Sue Coleman blocked his hiring due to past transgressions, and went with Rich Rodriguez when the opportunity presented itself. If Miles was hired back then, Hoke and Harbaugh would probably never have become Michigan’s head coach.

Is it true about Miles sleeping with Gary Moeller’s wife? Who’s to say. But it might explain why despite 3 head coaching vacancies in Ann Arbor over the past 13 years, Miles never got the job.

Maybe Michigan will never forgive Miles for what happened. But more than that, I think the main things that would keep Miles from getting the Michigan job are his age and his terrible record at Kansas. On top of that, Miles’ later teams at LSU were incompetent offensively. It seemed like the game kind of passed him by and he failed to adapt. But damnit it would be awesome to see Miles back on the big stage.

My gut tells me Michigan will go young and offensive-minded. They need to modernize the program, and right now Ohio State just has way too much offensive firepower and talent for Michigan to handle.

Maybe that’s why Harbaugh hasn’t worked out: like Miles, Harbaugh’s teams have been offensively-challenged. Despite the fact that Harbaugh was a QB in his playing days and had a great track record with QBs–Andrew Luck at Stanford, Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers–his offenses at Michigan have been terrible. He has had zero success grooming QBs. It’s possible the college game has passed him by.

If Michigan feels that way, then they will probably let him go. They could try hiring a big-time young offensive coordinator to run the offense for Harbaugh and I think that could work, but if this season keeps going as badly as it has gone so far, Harbaugh might be a goner.

At this point I think the only thing that could save his job is beating Ohio State. But does anyone think that’s even remotely possible?

Octavian

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