ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh has won on and off the field in his two years at Michigan, posting a pair of 10-3 seasons and generating a lot of publicity with his outside-the-box approach.
The Wolverines, though, have only managed to finish third in the Big Ten East Division those two years Only time will tell if Harbaugh’s sizzling style will lead to desperately wanted championships for college football’s winningest program.
With only one returning starter on defense and three positions on offense with starters coming back, Harbaugh could have a hard time leading Michigan to its first Big Ten title since 2004. The program’s first national title since 1997 seems a far longer shot.
The Wolverines started 9-0 last year and lost three of the last four games. How much has that driven Harbaugh and his players?
“I hope a lot,” he said. “Maybe that will motivate us to put more into it. Coach better. Play better. Train harder. Put more of our heart into each and every one of those ballgames.”
Michigan’s Big Ten title drought is its longest since going from 1950 to 1964 without one, and Rashan Gary said he’s reminded of that fact regularly.
“In the defense room, we got a chain and every team that wins a Big Ten title signs off on the chain,” the defensive end said. “It’s been a long time. Every time you walk into the meeting room, you look to your left and that’s something you look at. That’s something that always makes us hungry.”
Here are some things to watch at Michigan, which opens the season Saturday against Florida in Dallas:
Harbaugh has insisted the quarterback competition is a “dead heat,” with returning starter Wilton Speight, redshirt freshman Brandon Peters and fifth-year senior John O’Korn vying to take the first snap against the Gators. Speight seems like the QB to beat, coming off an 11-start season in which he completed 62 percent of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
TIME TO SHINE
Gary came to campus as one of the top recruits in the country last year. He didn’t make an instant impact. Gary averaged a little more than two tackles a game and his only sack was on Sept. 10 against Central Florida. The 6-foot-5, 286-pound Gary is leaner this year, losing about 10 pounds and dropping his body fat from “20-something,” to 14 percent by cutting back to one or two servings of ice cream per week. Defensive coordinator Don Brown, a college coach since 1982, said Gary is the best defensive end he has ever seen.
Michigan’s top running back (De’Veon Smith), receivers (Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson) and tight end (Jake Butt) are all gone. Chris Evans, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac will likely get a chance to show what they can do out of the backfield. Speedy sophomore Eddie McDoom, a running and receiving threat last year, along with highly touted freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones will have an opportunity to play significant roles at receiver. Harbaugh likes to play a lot of tight ends and players such as Ian Bunting and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. will get a chance to block and catch at a pivotal position for the team.
Florida starts things off with a bang. Michigan does host its rivals, Michigan State on Oct. 7 and Ohio State on Nov. 25. The Wolverines have potentially challenging road games at Penn State on Oct. 21 and Wisconsin on Nov. 18.
If Harbaugh can’t help the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes, it will be difficult for anyone to view the season as a success because the storied rivalry has become a lopsided series with Ohio State winning 12 of the last 13 matchups and five straight. Michigan may have to brace itself for a step back in Year 3 under Harbaugh, falling to 9-3.