Of course, it is okay to be critical of Michigan's 8-4 season if you wish. It was, afterall, a season that saw them lose to both rivals again while only getting one win over a bowl eligible team (Purdue). Every team deserves the feedback in college football. As a fan, we want all these young men to improve themselves on and off the field. That's what it is all about and criticism can be helpful throughout the process. However, when reviewing the last 13 games of the Wolverines' schedule, one needs to make sure that nothing is taken out of context. In other words, there needs to be an understanding of the big picture here in regards to what Harbaugh is attempting to build at Michigan.
Elite programs are not built overnight. Just ask Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. That guy has been trying to build one in East Lansing for the last decade. Sure he has beaten the Wolverines regularly since his arrival in 2007, but as the rest of the nation will tell you, including coach Harbaugh himself, beating Michigan is really nothing to brag about. Michigan just hasn't been very good. They are definitely not an elite. So beat them all you want. It really hasn't proven anything for anybody as of late. Luckily for Dantonio, that's all he really needs to do in order to keep his job.
It's no secret that Harbaugh has a big job at Michigan. It's bigger than the job at MSU. The expectations are much greater in Ann Arbor than they are in East Lansing. The Spartans can keep losing the big games against the elite competition as long as they beat the Wolverines three out of four years. On the flip side, Michigan is expected to eventually compete for national titles and not just rivalry wins against State. Granted, they haven't really done much of either one in the last 20 years, but that's where it's intended to go. And that is where it needs to be for the second highest paid coach in college football.
This is the part where we talk about context and perspective:
You see, despite what any naysayers will tell you, Michigan is right on track towards building itself back up to be an elite program. The signs are all there. Harbaugh exceeded expectation in his first season (2015). That year they won nine games and capped it off with a thrashing of Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Without him, Michigan was a seven win team at best. The following year, they were right about where they should have been with another 10-3 record, losing all three games on the road by a total of five points and being just one bad spot away from a Big Ten Championship and a spot in the playoff. The leadership on the team was led by a strong group of Brady Hoke's best recruits that had adapted well to Harbaugh's style. They competed hard every game and it came right down to the wire with two of the nation's best programs in Ohio State and Florida State. They just weren't able to get over the hump, mostly due to some issues at quarterback. The biggest issue on the team overall was a lack of depth. If somebody went down with an injury in the starting lineup there weren't many options on the roster to fill the spot, especially at quarterback. This past season, as we all know, saw the Wolverines as one of the youngest teams in the FBS and they just came short of getting over the 8.5 wins that Vegas predicted.
So, here were are now. Disappointed. Annoyed. Perhaps a litter nervous about what 2018 might hold. But there is still a lot of hope. And the nights are always darkest right before the dawn. Big things could be on the horizon. Why? Well, I will give you three good reasons why:
- Experienced Roster - Overall, Michigan will be returning 20 players with extensive starting experience. 10 on offense and 10 on defense, with another 15 or 16 other players that got a lot of playing time in 2017 as freshmen and sophomores. These guys will be veterans, and there should be some real leaders that emerge from the group. Hopefully, they will learn from this season and improve over course of the offseason.
- Emerging Stars - Every great team needs some guys they can look to when a big play is needed. Several young Michigan players started looking like those types of stars in 2017, and many observers see them as players to watch in 2018. Aubrey Soloman looks poised to pick up where Mo' Hurst left off at defensive tackle while Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are already considered legit players in the B1G; Devin Bush Jr. and Khaleke Hudson will be two of the best linebackers in the conference; Lavert Hill and David Long are a shutdown tandem at corner; Cesar Ruiz and Ben Bredeson could both be the next great interior linemen at Michigan; Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black look like a deadly duo out at receiver; Ben Mason might just be the stud Harbaugh needs at fullback.
- Real Talent at Quarterback - Let's get it straight: the level of talent at the quarterback position has been poor over the course of the last 10 years, and the results on the field have been poor as a result. Jake Rudock and Denard Robinson were the only two signs of hope Wolverine Nation has had at the most important position on the team. Thankfully, because of Harbaugh's efforts, Michigan now has three of the best passing prospects to come out of the 2016 and '17 recruiting cycles. That is huge. And it should start to pay dividends this fall.