No. 4 Michigan

Jim Harbaugh never doubted he would rise to the top of the coaching profession. He has never lacked focus, or for confidence. He walked into meetings at the University of San Diego with the same swagger he walked into meetings with Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and, now, Michigan.

He wasn’t the lucky one—YOU were if you were smart enough to find him.

So wasn’t Stanford smart, in 2006, to find him answering his own phone down San Diego way?

Rankman recently, at a wedding in Pasadena, ran into one of Harbaugh’s former USD players.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Eric Ruiz, who played football at Chino Hills High, only spent one year for Harbaugh, in 2006. But it was a year Ruiz will never forget. And he wanted to tell me about it.

Even though USD was a subdivison, 1-AA school, Ruiz said Harbaugh coached as if he was already coaching the San Francisco 49ers.

Ruiz said Harbaugh was 100% no bull crap, a man whose steely stare could cut you in two. He walked into team meetings, said nothing, turned on the projector and start breaking down film.

Ruiz said Harbaugh would tell his team, in 2006, before practice, “Men, we’re going to beat USC today, we’re going to beat Pete Carroll.”

A year later, in his first year at Stanford, as 42-point underdogs, Harbaugh’s team shocked Carroll’s Trojans at the Coliseum. You can’t make this stuff up.

Harbaugh’s impact on the Pac 12 still permeates. At a Rose Bowl kickoff panel last Wednesday night, people suggested that UCLA and USC were hoping to play more like Stanford.

I actually stopped the discussion at one point and said, “Do you people just realize what you just said? USC and UCLA have to be more like Stanford?”

Yet, it was true, because Harbaugh still has a grip on league he left years ago. It was Harbaugh who dared challenge Stanford’s soft reputation and high academic standards by suggesting he could probably find 22 smart guys in the country who could play football.

It was Harbaugh who hijacked USC's power-program identity and Harbaugh who started the winning streak against UCLA that dates to 2008.

It is best, though, to bet on Harbaugh now rather than later, that’s why we think Michigan is ready to challenge for the College Football Playoff. It doesn’t matter that he’s breaking in a new quarterback, or that he’s pitted in the Big Ten East division against two schools—Michigan State and Ohio State—that have owned Michigan of late.

Harbaugh teams tend to burn bright but not for long. He’ll get his guys high as a football kite for three, four or five years before he starts, top to bottom, wearing everybody down.

This is the year to pounce because the schedule is favorable, with an opening stretch against three schools—Hawaii, Central Florida and Colorado—that went a combined 7-31 last year.

Harbaugh, more than any coach in recent memory, just seems destined for things. For a period of time he dictates, you capitulate and it takes a while before things return to normal.

Michigan might actually be a year away from contention, but you don’t want to sit on Jim.

Harbaugh is always about the present. His time is always here and now.

Rankman's countdown so far:No. 16 Boise State, No. 15 Washington,No. 14USC, No. 13UCLA, No. 12Stanford, No. 11 Oregon, No. 10 Ohio State, No. 9 Michigan State, No. 8 Tennessee, No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 6 Florida State, No. 5 LSU. [/membership]