Can Michigan Football Take The Next Step?

What needs to happen over the next 8 months for Michigan football to take the final step under Harbaugh.

New Year's morning I tweeted out the following about what I think the Detroit Lie-Ins offseason priorities should be.

Which got me to thinking, maybe I should take the time to do the same for Michigan football? So here we go. But first, some perspective. Because if we don't recognize how far we've come, we probably won't agree on what it will take to get where we ultimately want to go.

Jim Harbaugh has done a tremendous job rebuilding the Michigan program, and that endeavor should be acknowledged and commended. We have rebuilt our season ticket base, our brand, and our program. We've gone 10-3 three of the four seasons he's been here. The last time the Wolverines won double-digit games three times in four years was the pinnacle of the Lloyd Carr era from 1997-2000. Michigan has already spent more weeks ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll under Harbaugh as it did the entire decade before he arrived combined. The Wolverines have had eight players picked in the first three rounds of the NFL draft so far under Harbaugh, which matches their total from the eight drafts before he became head coach. And it's possible as many as five current Wolverines could go that high in this coming draft.

A foundation has been laid. Therefore, the question is no longer about what's the Wolverines' floor, as it was in the time sandwiched between Carr and Harbaugh. Rather, the debate is now about what is Michigan's ceiling? And here's a key point to consider in that debate -- in today's college football you only get so many cracks at elite status, before the recruits needed to get and keep you there move on to the next new or proven hotness.

Harbaugh's former team, Stanford, is a good example of what I'm talking about. Four years in a row Harbaugh and his successor David Shaw had the Cardinal knocking on that door, but failed to kick it in. And now Stanford has lost three games or more three times in the last four years (two of those seasons it lost five games). Sometimes the wheel of destiny spins even faster nowadays. Miami was second in the playoff rankings heading into week 13 of the 2017 season, but last week Coach Mark Richt retired suddenly after the Hurricanes suffered a 7-6 free fall.

To put it bluntly, it's unlikely Michigan becomes a consistent 10-3 type program in this era under Harbaugh, or anyone else for that matter. Just ask Michigan State, which was a model of consistent excellence before James Franklin and Harbaugh established themselves in the East Division. Now Mark Dantonio is 20-18 the last three seasons in East Lansing. That's only four wins better than the three-year record that got Bobby Williams fired.

Nor is comparing Michigan to Wisconsin equivalent, either. As in winning 10 or 11 games a lot without really being a factor nationally most of those seasons. The Badgers did that in the beleaguered West Division, which has since upgraded its coaching talent significantly and gone 8-1 in bowls the last two years. Not coincidentally, the Badgers went from their highest preseason ranking in the AP Poll ever to 7-5 this season. Furthermore, there's not enough talent in this region of the country for Michigan to sustain "pretty good." You have a narrative to sell elite recruits outside your footprint, or you don't. Recruiting at this level is a zero-sum game.

All this evidence indicates either the Wolverines will take the next step as a program under Harbaugh soon, or they will take a step back to a "cycle up" program, which is what Stanford has become. Sandwiched around those five loss seasons, the Cardinal went 12-1 and won a Rose Bowl. Michigan fans like to point to the example of Dabo Swinney, but this is a much deeper conference than the ACC that gave Dabo ample time to ramp up. Dabo also won two conference titles and a major bowl game during that ramp up as well. Two things Harbaugh has yet to do, which only accelerates his clock. This is why I wrote here recently 2019 is the decisive year for Harbaugh.

Which brings us to the future.

When I was a kid, a commercial that used to run a lot during college football games had this tag line: "We don't make a lot of the products you buy, we make a lot of the products you buy better." This seems like a fitting mission statement for where the Wolverines need to go next.

I don't believe a program with the seventh-best record in college football the past four seasons needs to make wholesale changes. What it does need is strategic flexibility, as well as a check under the hood to make sure everyone is on the same page. Especially when you have two team captains electing not to play in a major bowl game against their home state school, leading to another internal conflict reported by Dotman on the 247 premium board (check it out if you're a subscriber over there).

Strategically, Michigan needs to evolve from brawler to boxer, like Rocky did under Apollo Creed's tutelage in Rocky III. Right now, the Wolverines are pretty danged good at punching you in the mouth. Whether that's running over you on offense, or solving their problems with aggression on defense. However, when they run into a team that can punch back, they have no counter and crumble. See that hideous 1-9 record against AP top 10 teams under Harbaugh. See getting destroyed in their last two games of this season by a combined 49 points.

Barton Simmons at 247 said it best, Michigan is going to have to recruit like Alabama and Georgia to take the next step playing like this. Meaning they can just out-man you at most positions. But they don't have the recruiting footprint of either of those schools, and even Nick Saban has evolved his scheme on offense and his native defense in recent years to remain dominant. In other words, that dog won't hunt.

Michigan should look to its kissing cousin historically, Notre Dame, for what needs to happen next. Brian Kelly took Notre Dame all the way to the BCS title game in 2012. But after that face plant, the Irish lost 9 games the next two years. Knocked on the door of the playoff again in 2015 before a late loss at Stanford, and then collapsed to 4-8 in 2016.

Translation: Notre Dame took a step back after failing to take a step forward, putting Kelly on the hot seat. So how did Kelly buck the trend and reinvigorate his program?

A competitive and stubborn guy who made his bones as an offensive whiz gave up the ghost, and made wholesale coordinator changes on both sides of the ball. I'm not suggesting Michigan should replace Don Brown (who may get the Temple head coaching job), but as I wrote last week, the evidence is mounting Brown needs to adapt to upper tier opponents figuring out how to exploit what was once an innovative scheme. For now, this comparison is more about Kelly the offensive guy realizing his offense needed a singularly dedicated coordinator, and his team needed a singularly dedicated head coach.

To be fair to Harbaugh, he did evolve his offensive scheme to incorporate the zone read and RPO this season. And the incoming recruiting class includes three players whose skill sets in the slot are indicators further evolutions are to come. However, there's no mistaking that on gamedays, as we just saw again in the Peach Bowl, Michigan too often fails to adequately use its weapons and adjust to situations that call for more urgency on that side of the ball.

Hiring a singularly dedicated offensive coordinator could also help with any internal chemistry issues as well, by freeing Harbaugh up more to be there to relate to his players. I remember listening to an interview Kelly gave after that 2016 implosion, and he said the number one reason he needed a singularly dedicated offensive coordinator is he was spending too much time doing everything but coaching the whole team.

Since Kelly made this assessment, the Irish have had their best two-year run as a program in more than a quarter century (22-4). Sure, they got dominated in the playoff by Clemson, but they got there. Michigan hasn't even gotten to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game yet.

Harbaugh has been willing to make changes and address concerns each offseason so far at Michigan. But now comes the toughest test of them all -- the man in the mirror.