Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, for all intents and purposes, has been a success. He is 25-7 at his alma mater, good enough for a .781 winning percentage. By comparison, Michigan went 55-46 (.545) in the eight seasons prior to Harbaugh’s arrival.
There’s just one problem: Harbaugh is 1-4 against Ohio State and Michigan State, with the one win coming last season in East Lansing – when Sparty finished 3-9.
With No. 19 Michigan (5-1) traveling to Happy Valley to take on No. 2 Penn State (6-0) this Saturday, is Harbaugh’s record in rivalry games a problem?
“I don’t think this would necessarily be considered one of their rivalry games. To me, it’s Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State – and Jim Harbaugh has only won one of those games,” Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “I do think that that’s an issue. I don’t know that it necessarily applies to this one, but it certainly applied a couple weeks ago when they lost to the Spartans. It’s applied in their games against Ohio State. This was the issue with Brady Hoke – well, among many issues. Obviously it just kind of went off the rails at the end, but he went 4-8 against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State combined. You just have to beat those programs – not only because they’re your rivals, but because those are the other elite teams. That’s who Michigan kind of measures themselves against.”
Michigan has lost 14 straight road games against ranked teams. In fact, Michigan hasn’t beaten a ranked team on the road since 2006.
“If you look through the power conferences, the only teams that have gone longer without a win over a ranked team on the road are Colorado and Purdue,” Revsine said. “What’s really amazing about that was in the 10 years prior to that – from 1996 to 2006 – they won 15 road games against ranked teams. They haven’t won one since 2006, and they won 15 in the decade prior to that. It just gives you a sense of kind of what’s happened to this program.”
To be fair, Harbaugh’s 1-4 rivalry record could easily be 4-1. The Wolverines’ 2015 loss to Michigan State was one of the craziest you’ll ever see, they could have beaten Ohio State in 2016, and the 2017 loss to Michigan State went down to the wire. Combined margin of defeat in those three games: Eleven points.
“Look, it’s the winningest program in college football history,” Revsine said. “They’re good. They’re close. Jim Harbaugh has certainly improved this team and gotten them better. They were basically an inch away from beating Ohio State and winning the East last year, so it’s not like they’re that far off. But I think Michigan fans are just at the point mentally where they want to see this team start winning those games. The early returns this year aren’t great with the loss to Michigan State, and now this one looms large tomorrow.”
Michigan enters as a 9.5-point underdog – despite beating Penn State 49-10 a season ago. As Revsine points out, though, that might not have been a fair fight. Penn State played without its top three linebackers, its fourth linebacker was ejected for targeting, and its fifth linebacker got hurt. Thus, the Nittany Lions were playing with their Nos. 6-8 linebackers.
The result? Michigan rushing 49 times for 326 yards and six touchdowns.
“Michigan just ran all over them,” Revsine said. “Michigan was better last year. They were a far more dynamic offensive team. I do think it’s fair to point out that Michigan had the most players drafted of any school in the country. They had 11 players go to the NFL Draft. They brought back one defensive starter – although the defense has still been great. So this is a team that you would expect to be rebuilding this year. So I’m not surprised that Michigan is not quite as good as they were a year ago. Last year was their window, I think, to have a really good year, and then I think next year will be a window as well because they’re going to be a veteran and experienced team.”
But next year is next year. Michigan fans want wins. Now.
“I kind of always thought that they’d be a shade behind this year, but they’ve really dropped off offensively,” Revsine said. “They’re still fabulous on defense. To me, it’s as exciting a defense as there is to watch in the country. Don Brown is a master with the blitz and keeping teams off-balanced. It’s still a great defensive team. They just can’t figure it out at quarterback. They’ve got an injury to Wilton Speight, John O’Korn hasn’t been great, the offensive line is underwhelming, they don’t have a dominant tailback. So there’s just a lot of things on the offensive side that give you pause with Michigan.”
Saturday’s kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. ET.