The 2015-’16 college football season unofficially began on Saturday when ESPN’s “College GameDay” was live from Fort Worth, Texas for the primetime game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Wisconsin Badgers. Throughout the three hour telecast, the crew dissected games that were slated for Saturday, as well as recapped games that had taken place earlier in the week.
Among those was Thursday night’s game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Utah Utes, which also happened to be head coach Jim Harbaugh‘s first game coaching at his alma matter. It was one of the most highly anticipated games in Michigan football history, let alone recent college football history, given the rich tradition of Michigan football and the outstanding track record of Harbaugh’s coaching skills.
Michigan lost its season opener to Utah, 24-17. The game was tightly contested for much of the night, but it was easy to point out some fundamental mistakes on the part of Michigan and some first time jitters for the players and probably with coach Harbaugh a bit as well. The cast of stars on the popular Emmy Award-winning sports pregame show quickly took note of the game, the highs and lows, and in the end, gave Jim Harbaugh a “free pass” for not only the first game, but for much of the season:
“He inherited what he has,” Kirk Herbstreit said. “Jim Harbaugh needs 2-3 years to recruit his personnel to run his scheme. He has what he has to work with. They have not been able to control the line of scrimmage since 2007 when Mike Hart played there. Think about Michigan football, eight years trying to get better up front. Everyone wants to point the finger at the quarterback. They don’t have a lot of dynamic playmakers at receiver right now. The quarterback is going to have to manage the game and find ways to win.”
Kirk Herbstreit pointed out that the three interceptions thrown by Michigan starting quarterback Jake Rudock were not entirely his fault, saying:
“In commutation with his receivers. They weren’t all interceptions that were on him.”
The trio of analysts, including for Heisman Trophy winner and former Michigan standout Desmond Howard, also did make note of one throw that could have changed the course of the game:
“That’s the one you have to hit,” Desmond Howard said. “I was more concerned with that throw than the interceptions. We didn’t expect that from Rudock, for him to go in there and play the way he did. But you look at the situation that’s in Ann Arbor right now and I always tell players, the only thing a coach can do for you — a head coach or coordinator, offense or defense — is to put you in the position to succeed. At that point, it’s up to you to execute. Now, as a player, looking back at Michigan, I’m like, OK, if he had guys who could make these plays — don’t forget this is a team he inherited. He’s going out there recruiting guys to fit his system, guys he thinks will be able to make these plays.”
From 2007-’10, Harbaugh coached the Stanford Cardinal football program. In his first two seasons, he went a combined 9-15. He went 20-6 in the latter two years of his tenure there, including 12-1 in 2010 and a 40-12 victory in the Orange Bowl. He posted back-to-back 11-win seasons at the University of San Diego in 2005 and ’06. So not only does he have a history of winning games at the college level, but he has shown he can turn programs around and make them prominent.
I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that coaching the winningest Division-1 football program is a different animal. Ann Arbor finally has the guy they have cherished for so long to coach their football team, so there are no more excuses. However, I have no doubt that Jim Harbaugh will have that program up and running and vying for a top spot in the Big Ten, possibly even the country, within two or three seasons.
But for 2015, this is a season for him to work with what he has and implement his coaching style. He alone will make them a 7- to 9-win team, he has that effect. To see what looks like the maize and blue turning the corner and slowly gaining recognition once again is not only good for the Big Ten but good for all of college football. It is important for all of us to understand that it will take time, and said time will pay off.