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When Jim Harbaugh became the head football coach of the Michigan Wolverines in 2015, he was greeted in Ann Arbor with a hero’s welcome. Harbaugh came to Michigan fresh off of a four-year stint as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League where he compiled a record of 44-19-1 which included a Super Bowl berth and three consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances. Prior to Harbaugh having success with the 49ers, he had reversed the fortunes of the Stanford Cardinal which included an Orange Bowl victory to culminate the 2010 college football season as the Cardinal finished with a record of 12-1. And the impact that Harbaugh had with both Stanford as well as the Niners made him a hot commodity on the coaching scene.
Upon coming to Michigan, Harbaugh was expected to restore a Michigan program that was a national power which had fallen on hard times. In Michigan’s prior six seasons, they had three losing campaigns, while they have not been able to win the Big Ten Conference since 2003.
Harbaugh was able to immediately restore some order for the Wolverines as in his first season he led Michigan to 10 wins. The Wolverines would follow this up in 2016 by going 10-3 for the second consecutive year and they finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 2006. But as good as things have been for Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, there is a big storm cloud hanging over his head which is that school to the south.
You’d be hard pressed to find that many rivalries in college football which are more intense than the one that Michigan has with the Ohio State Buckeyes. Between Michigan and Ohio State, they have combined to win 77 Big Ten Championships which has also led to 34 Rose Bowl Game appearances. Michigan leads the all-time series 58-49-6, but this rivalry has recently been dominated by the Buckeyes.
Since 2001, Ohio State is 15-2 versus Michigan with the Wolverines not securing a victory since 2011, while they’ve failed to defeat the Buckeyes in Columbus since 2000.
For Harbaugh, he was supposed to be the guy that changed things around in this rivalry, but versus Ohio State he is 0-3, while he is only 1-2 versus the Michigan State Spartans, while losing both meetings in Ann Arbor versus the squad from East Lansing. And what this equates to is a Michigan team that is good, but not great which fairly or unfairly falls into the lap of Harbaugh.
The hype was immense for Harbaugh when he came to Michigan, and rightfully so due to his resume, but it is obvious that the complete turnaround in Ann Arbor won’t be as quick as it was initially anticipated to be. Harbuagh has brought in quality recruiting classes which is evident by the fact that Michigan consistently has had one of the top defenses under him. But that has not carried over to the offense which is supposed to be Harbaugh’s specialty.
The Wolverines are third in the nation this season in total defense, but this dominance has not carried over to their offense which is 101st in the nation in total offense. And these struggles on offense have shown up in the big games as in Michigan’s four losses this season they have combined to score 53 points.
Harbaugh has been deemed as a quarterback guru, but none of the three signal callers that he has used this season have been able to complete 60% of their respective passes. And combined, Michigan quarterbacks have only passed for 2,023 yards which is 112th in the nation as this is an issue that’ll continue to impede the progress of his team. This lack of having an impact player at quarterback is something that will continue to hurt Michigan as of their commits for next year, none of them are quarterbacks.
But even with that Michigan is 28-10 under Harbaugh, while they are 18-8 within the Big Ten. And Michigan can also take solace in knowing that the four teams that they lost to this season are a combined 41-7 with two of them in Ohio State and the Wisconsin Badgers set to meet for the Big Ten Championship this Saturday, while the other two in Penn State and Michigan State are in line to play in New Year’s Six Bowl Games.
However getting moral victories is not what Michigan football is all about which means that Harbaugh must find a way to consistently win the big games; especially when it comes to facing Ohio State.
The Big Ten Championship has been in place since 2011 and yet one of the conference’s premier football programs in Michigan has yet to make its way to Indianapolis. Harbaugh is still a revered and respected figure in Ann Arbor, but the honeymoon period appears to be over as another loss to the Buckeyes in 2018 will have the folks who follow the maize and blue beginning to question the direction in which their program is heading.
When Mark Dantonio became the head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans in 2007, he vowed to make his program a consistent contender in the Big Ten Conference. In Dantonio’s first season at Michigan State, he led the Spartans to their first bowl game in four years. Michigan State’s bowl appearance would be a signal of good things to come for the Spartans as they would rattle off nine consecutive trips to a bowl game. Included in that run for Michigan State was five seasons in which they won at least 11 games, three consecutive top ten finishes in the Associated Press Poll, a pair of Big Ten Championships, a Rose Bowl victory, and an appearance in the College Football Playoff. But Dantonio’s biggest accomplishment has been the dominance that his program has enjoyed over their in-state rivals in the Michigan Wolverines.
The Wolverines are considered to be one of college football’s blue blood programs and their dominance within the Big Ten over the years has typically come at the expense of Michigan State. But that has not been the case recently as following a 28-24 comeback victory by the Wolverines in 2007, Dantonio took exception to the post game comments of former Michigan running back Mike Hart who considered Michigan State to be Michigan’s “little brother”. Since then Michigan State has only lost twice to Michigan which included getting a 14-10 victory last month in Ann Arbor. Michigan has found out the hard way that it is no longer a formality that they’ll beat Michigan State as this a team that you’ll have to pack a lunch for in order to defeat. And packing that lunch isn’t a guarantee of getting a victory as the theme for this program under Dantonio has been “Spartan Tough”.
It was a rough go in 2016 for Michigan State as they finished 3-9 for their worst season since 1991. The Spartans were also only able to win one game within the Big Ten last season. But in typical Michigan State fashion they have bounced back in a big way this year.
The victory over Michigan last month signaled that the Spartans were back, while they helped to solidify that by upsetting the Penn State Nittany Lions at home this past Saturday. Michigan State’s conference record of 5-1 currently has them in first place in the Big Ten East, and with the Ohio State Buckeyes being upset this past Saturday at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Spartans control their own destiny in order to qualify for the conference championship game next month.
The toughness for the Spartans begins on defense as they are ranked 12th in the nation in the total defense. Sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie leads the team in tackles with 77, while as team Michigan State has been stingy on third down as opponents are only converting on 30.7% of their opportunities. Michigan State has also kept it close to the chest on offense as they are 63rd in the nation in total offense, but they have found a way to be sixth in time of possession as they know how to play keep away from their opponents.
Unlike Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State, Dantonio doesn’t consistently get the five-star recruits to come to East Lansing, but he does find players that will fit into his system which includes them doing whatever it takes in order to win.
So now as Michigan State is sitting on an overall record of 7-2, they control their own destiny in order to win the Big Ten for the third tine under Dantonio. A victory over Ohio State would put the Spartans in a good position to win the Big Ten East. And although that it won’t be easy, the Spartans won’t be intimidated by having to go to Columbus due to the fact that they’ve won their last two road games versus the Buckeyes.
In 2007, Dantonio got to work in order to make the Spartans a consistent contender, and he did the same following a disastrous 2016. After the Spartans poor campaign last year, it appeared that they were ready to concede power in the Big Ten East to Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. But Dantonio and his team have foiled the plans of the people who spoke prematurely of their demise.