J. Brady McCollough looks at the 25 biggest storylines in college football heading into the 2019 season. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh needs to end Ohio State’s dominance.
Jim Harbaugh is a lot of things. Quirky or downright weird, depending on the day. Perfectly enthusiastic or scarily intense, depending on your own personal makeup. Stubborn, always.
The one thing he’s not is dumb.
So Harbaugh knows what his Michigan Wolverines have to do in his fifth season in Ann Arbor to have a successful season: beat Ohio State on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Do it with so much pent-up aggression from 15 embarrassing years in one of sports’ most heated rivalries that it turns the trademark “THE” that Ohio State wants so badly back to lowercase.
The timing to this point has never been quite right for the Wolverines since their last big win over the Buckeyes in 2003. (Michigan beat a down Ohio State team in 2011 when Luke Fickell was the interim head coach in the aftermath of Jim Tressel’s “Tattoogate” exit.) All three of Michigan’s national championship-contending teams at season’s end — 2006, 2016 and 2018 — had to play Ohio State in Columbus against vintage Buckeyes teams.
Still, that is not an excuse for what the Wolverines have allowed from their rivals to the south. Ohio State has just been better. It has always been the case that the “Bucknut” fans have cared more about “The Game” than the wine-and-cheese Michigan crowd, but, at some point once Tressel took over — John Cooper was 2-10-1 against Michigan, which got him fired — the Ohio State program began to care more too about beating That Team Up North.
Former Wolverines coach Brady Hoke tried to bring that passion for the rivalry back, and he gets credit for that 2011 win and three near upsets. Hoke’s teams cared but just weren’t good enough.
Harbaugh, who played quarterback under Bo Schembechler and famously backed up a game-week guarantee with a huge victory in Columbus in 1986, was supposed to be the difference. He was supposed to understand the rivalry on a deeper level and begin a second “10 Year War” with Urban Meyer.
The Wolverines were inches away from winning the 2016 game, but the referees ruled that Ohio State quarterback JT Barrett’s overtime fourth-down run was a first down. The Buckeyes finished the game off from there.
Last season, Ohio State, a week after needing an overtime miracle to beat Maryland, injured Michigan’s pride in a fresh way, 62-39, keeping the Wolverines out of the College Football Playoff. It was the Buckeyes’ seventh consecutive victory in the series and 14th in 15 games.
Harbaugh will always have to live with the sting of 0-4 against Meyer. But Meyer’s retirement has finally made the timing right. There are no more excuses.
New Ohio State coach Ryan Day may well end up a worthy foil for Harbaugh over time, but this will be his first season as a head coach. New Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields may well end up torturing the Michigan defense for a few years, but this will be his first season as a starting quarterback.
Harbaugh has been here. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson has too. The Wolverines have modernized their offense with the addition of former Penn State and Alabama wide receivers coach Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator, and all reports are that Harbaugh’s not touching the offense.
Maybe most important, the game is at Michigan Stadium.
If this isn’t the year, when will it be? And, here’s a more existential question for Michigan: If Harbaugh can’t do it, can anyone?
The Wolverines play five top-25 teams before Ohio State. Of course, Michigan would like to win all of those games. But if Harbaugh doesn’t follow the Buckeyes’ model and prepare his team for that game a little bit each day, then he’s asking for whatever he gets Nov. 30. There are 15 years of proof of exactly what will happen.