Naturally, any Buckeyes fan is going to root against the Wolverines. Even during weeks when OSU isn’t playing, cheering against Jim Harbaugh’s squad gives us a game with at least something meaningful at stake.
And since our beloved Buckeyes had this weekend off, it’s likely a lot more of us tuned in to the primetime showing of the state up north taking on the Wisconsin Badgers. Ultimately it was a contest with a final score of 49-11, and one that saw the Wolverines unequivocally dismantled on a national stage.
This latest loss did more than cement the 2020 campaign as a disappointment for Michigan football, it sent the maize and blue (now 1-3) into a certified free-fall. At this point, it’s hard to even cheer against them, or at least it doesn’t feel the same: when a team just clearly isn’t on the same level as you, how can they really be considered a rival?
At this point also, it’s high time to wonder—out loud and publicly—what is wrong with the Wolverines?
Is it the talent level?
Michigan has always been a college football program with immense visibility. Their (previous) winning history brought the team 11 total national championships dating back to 1901 (most recently in 1997 under Lloyd Carr), and as such, their ability to land high-profile national talent is among the best in the country.
According to 247Sports, Michigan’s recruiting classes between 2017 and 2020 have been ranked nationally as follows: 5th (2017), 22nd (2018), 8th (2019), and 14th (2020).
And in the Big Ten these classes were ranked top 3(with a number 1 ranking in 2019) over this same time period. While recruiting always involves some degree of projection, the numbers dictate that talent simply isn’t the issue for the Wolverines.
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Is it a scheduling issue?
In 2020, this might be a part of the issue that not enough people are talking about.
Michigan opened the season by defeating the then 21st-ranked Minnesota Gophers. And while they did proceed to lose their following game at home, to a mediocre Michigan State team, their next two contests were against teams that are currently both ranked in the top ten (Indiana and Wisconsin, respectively).
Indiana’s newfound dominance came seemingly out of nowhere this year, and the Badgers have only played two games due to COVID-19 issues, so it makes sense that some are overlooking just how tough their slate of 2020 games has been.
Is coaching a part of it?
I think so, but maybe not in the way many do.
Jim Harbaugh, for whatever reason—be it the iconic khakis, his fiery and outspoken personality, or his messy and highly publicized split with the San Francisco 49ers—seems to be a lightning rod for media scrutiny.
And while he hasn’t done enough to warrant the immense fanfare and celebrity his hire as the Wolverines head coach garnered, he has still steered the program to favorable outcomes (his worst was an 8-5 mark in 2017) in every year of his tenure. His coaching history also speaks for itself: between his four seasons at Stanford and his time at UM, he holds a 77-42 record; this is in addition to a record at the NFL level of 42-19-1.
And this isn’t to say that Harbaugh is without blame for this year’s collapse, but I believe the issues in Ann Arbor have more to do with his assistant coaches, or one in particular: defensive coordinator Don Brown.
This season alone, the Wolverines have surrendered an average of 34.5 points per game. No matter what kind of talent you have on the opposite side of the ball, any team is going to struggle to post those numbers regularly.
Injuries have had an impact (most notably to standout defensive end Kwity Paye), but Brown was clearly outschemed last weekend, with Wisconsin utilizing multiple misdirection plays that capitalized on the Wolverines’ tendency to overpersue the ball.
And while Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz was sacked once during the game, this was the first time Michigan recorded a sack since their Oct. 24 victory over Minnesota. In a defensive scheme that’s predicated on having a strong pass rush, this simply won’t cut it.
This isn’t to say that Brown or the schedule alone is totally at fault for the Wolverines massive meltdown of a season thus far, just that they’re likely large parts of it. Quarterback play has been inconsistent, as has the offense as a whole.
And more simply: losing can be contagious. For a team that came into 2020 with high hopes, several early season losses can trigger a domino effect as confidence goes out the window.
So let’s keep an eye on the Wolverines as the season goes on. They’re in unfamiliar territory, and any number of things could happen, from an all-out death spiral to a spirited rally. The talent is there. It’s too early now to tell what kind of team Michigan will be when they face the Buckeyes on Dec. 12, but if this current trend continues, go ahead and get ready to celebrate..