The Wolverine

September 2019

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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SEPTEMBER 2019 THE WOLVERINE 73 J im Harbaugh cannot win "big games." That is the narrative that the Michigan head coach's biggest detractors have shoved down our throats. They will cite "1-9." It is one of their favorite stats. It represents Harbaugh's record against Associ- ated Press (AP) top-10 opponents at the time of the game during his tenure at U-M. It represents to them that, when the lights are brightest and the pressure is heaviest, Har- baugh cannot win. But it ignores the truth: Harbaugh can beat excellent teams. He just hasn't beaten Ohio State. It ignores the fact that the criteria for a "big game" has been altered to fit the narrative of Harbaugh's heck- lers. In their minds, a "big game" is conveniently defined as a game against an AP top-10 opponent. It does not include games against teams ranked between 11th and 15th in the AP poll, against which Harbaugh is 3-1. It does not include games against teams ranked be- tween 16th and 25th in the AP poll, against which Harbaugh is 4-0. How arbitrary that Harbaugh's 7-1 record against teams between 11th and 25th is suddenly no longer a "big game." That is what happened last sea- son. Midway through, the Wolver- ines entered a three-game stretch against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. At the time of each game, all three opponents were ranked in the AP top 25 with both the Badgers (No. 15) and Nittany Lions (No. 14) in the top 15, and Michigan won the games by a com- bined score of 101-27. It was a dominant display in marquee showdowns, and those wins should have silenced the "big game" question once and for all. But they didn't. Instead, after each of those wins, Michigan's opponents were discounted for not being that talented, and that has been the pat- tern. The Wolverines have been punished for beating some excellent foes so thoroughly that those oppo- nents slide down the various polls. It also ignores that Michigan has also been punished for beating great competition early in the year before they had a chance to rise in the polls. In back-to-back weeks in September 2016, Michigan beat Col- orado 45-28 and pummeled Penn State 49-10. Neither were ranked at the time of the losses. Yet Penn State finished the season as the Big Ten champion and No. 7 in the final AP poll, and Colorado finished the season as the Pac-12 runner-up and No. 17 in the final AP poll. But because PSU was not ranked when it lost to Michigan, the Nittany Lions excluded from the "1-9" stat. It also ignores the context of Har- baugh's nine losses against foes rated in the AP top 10 at the time of the game. Two of those losses were to Florida State and Florida in non- playoff bowl games after dispiriting losses to Ohio State with a Big Ten East championship on the line. Another pair of those defeats were to Penn State and Wisconsin in 2017 with quarterback John O'Korn, who would be demoted to third string, playing in pivotal moments due to injuries. One of those losses was the bobbled punt snap to Michigan State in 2015, one of the flukiest end- ings of all time. The four remaining losses? All to Ohio State. That is why it does not feel like Harbaugh has a "big game" prob- lem. Harbaugh has not been the best in "big games" by any definition, but he has not been nearly as bad as "1-9" may suggest. Instead, it feels more like Har- baugh has an Ohio State problem. The Buckeyes are Michigan's big- gest rival, and losses to OSU have prevented U-M from reaching its pinnacle. The Wolverines were an inch away from winning in 2016, and losses in 2016 and 2018 prohib- ited them from going to the Big Ten Championship Game as a big favor- ite against teams they had already beaten. Even in 2017, Harbaugh called an exceptional game that O'Korn did not execute. If Michigan had won one of those rivalry contests, no one would say Harbaugh cannot win a big game, whereas edging Florida State in the Orange Bowl in 2016 would not have changed the narrative. Therefore, even though week one is around the corner, all eyes are al- ready on "The Game" in November. Those focused there are overlooking the fact that Michigan will face five teams projected to be in the S&P+ top 25 before the Buckeyes come to Ann Arbor (Iowa, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Penn State and Wis- consin). They are looking past those games because it will not matter to them if Michigan wins — the only thing that will matter is if the Wol- verines beat Ohio State. Because it is the last thing that Harbaugh has not yet done, and if he can do it, it will lead to champi- onships. And no one will wonder if Har- baugh can win "big games" again. ❑ INSIDE THE NUMBERS   DREW HALLETT Time To Change The Narrative One of the biggest talking points about Jim Harbaugh is his 1-9 record against Associated Press top-10 opponents at the time of the game, but it ignores the truth. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett.

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