Home CFB Is Jim Harbaugh really underachieving at Michigan?

Is Jim Harbaugh really underachieving at Michigan?

by Joshua Doering

The Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan hit a new low point on Halloween when the Wolverines lost to in-state rival Michigan State as 21.5-point favorites. Just a week earlier, Rutgers beat the Spartans for its first Big Ten win in 22 tries thanks in large part to seven Michigan State turnovers. 

The shocking defeat resulted in a fresh wave of criticism directed at Harbaugh and his coaching staff. Since taking the Michigan job in 2015, he has not been able to restore the winningest program in college football history to its former glory. However, the program is indisputably in a better place now than it was when Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor. 

110 Sports set out to determine whether Harbaugh is truly underachieving, and if so, to what extent. 

The context:

Harbaugh inherited a team that went 5-7 in Brady Hoke’s final season and had one 10-win season in eight years. There were two seasons with at least eight victories in the seven years Hoke and his predecessor Rich Rodriguez were in charge. Harbaugh came in and won 10 games in year one and year two, did it again in year four and has never won fewer than eight games in five seasons. The improvement was immediate and obvious. There just hasn’t been much growth since, which is one of the major sources of frustration with Harbaugh.  

Then there is his 3-8 record against Ohio State and Michigan State with zero victories in “The Game” and two losses to unranked Michigan State teams. And the 10 wins in 24 games against ranked opponents. A clear narrative has developed during Harbaugh’s tenure: The Wolverines dominate lesser opponents but can’t pick up enough big wins to get to the Big Ten title game. Unexpected losses like the one to Michigan State have been few and far between. 

The results:

One of the biggest challenges facing Harbaugh is the reality of the division he is in. Michigan is fourth in the conference in overall winning percentage and tied with Penn State for the third-best record in Big Ten play since he took over yet the Wolverines have never made a conference title game. The eastern division has won all five championships, three by Ohio State, one by Penn State and one by Michigan State. The only team in the Big Ten West with more success than the Wolverines (statistically speaking) is Wisconsin. 

Of course, nobody wants to hear about strength of schedule when talking about a program with a tradition like Michigan’s. Six different teams have played for a Big Ten title since 2015 and the Wolverines aren’t one of them. Harbaugh’s 1-4 record in bowl games doesn’t help his cause either. At the end of the day, he has 46 regular season wins and a Citrus Bowl victory to show for his five years in Ann Arbor. 

Cumulative team-by-team results from 2015 to 2019

Team Overall Record Big Ten Record Preseason  AP Top 25 Postseason AP Top 25 Bowl Games Championship Game Appearances Big Ten Titles
Illinois 20-41 (.328) 10-34 (.227) 1
Indiana 30-33 (.476) 15-29 (.341) 1 3
Iowa 47-19 (.712) 29-15 (.659) 2 5 5 1
Maryland 21-40 (.344) 10-34 (.227) 1
Michigan 47-18 (.723) 32-12 (.727) 4 4 5
Michigan State 39-26 (.600) 24-20 (.545) 4 2 4 1 1
Minnesota 38-26 (.594) 19-25 (.432) 1 4
Nebraska 28-34 (.452) 18-26 (.409) 1 2
Northwestern 39-26 (.600) 27-17 (.614) 3 4 1
Ohio State 61-7 (.897) 40-4 (.909) 5 5 5 3 3
Penn State 49-17 (.742) 32-12 (.727) 3 4 5 1 1
Purdue 22-40 (.355) 14-30 (.318) 2
Rutgers 13-47 (.217) 4-40 (.091)
Wisconsin 52-16 (.765) 34-10 (.773) 4 4 5 3

Recruiting: 

After Ohio State, a strong argument can be made Michigan has been the most successful Big Ten team when it comes to recruiting in the last five years. At the very least, the Wolverines are third behind Penn State. The Buckeyes are the only other team in the conference with multiple top-10 classes from 2015-2019. It is completely fair to conclude Harbaugh has not been able to maximize the talent at his disposal. Teams like Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State have had similar (and in some cases better) results with less gifted rosters. 

Cumulative recruiting statistics from 2015 to 2019

Team Average Recruiting Class Ranking Top-50 Classes Top-25 Classes Top-10 Classes 5-Star Recruits 4-Star Recruits
Illinois 54.8 2 0 0 0 7
Indiana 50.8 1 0 0 0 3
Iowa 45.4 4 0 0 1 6
Maryland 36.2 5 1 0 0 20
Michigan 16.0 5 4 3 5 59
Michigan State 28.0 5 2 0 0 23
Minnesota 50.2 3 0 0 0 1
Nebraska 23.8 5 3 0 0 27
Northwestern 53.2 1 0 0 0 2
Ohio State 5.8 5 5 4 13 74
Penn State 13.4 5 5 1 5 60
Purdue 59.2 1 1 0 0 5
Rutgers 56.6 1 0 0 0 5
Wisconsin 38.0 5 0 0 1 9

*Recruiting statistics based on 247 Sports’ composite rankings

The conclusion:

Honestly, it all depends on the perspective one takes. Michigan should be on the same level as Penn State based on talent, which is exactly where the Wolverines are. That being said, the Nittany Lions have a win over Ohio State and a conference championship. Harbaugh has neither. Were the Wolverines in the other division, they would probably have three appearances in the Big Ten Championship game instead of Wisconsin. 

But Michigan expects to compete for national championships on a regular basis and that simply hasn’t happened under Harbaugh. He was brought in to make the Wolverines elite again, not just rescue them from mediocrity. It’s difficult, and perhaps impossible, to argue he has done that. It is also worth noting that Nebraska and Maryland have brought in better recruiting classes on average than Wisconsin and have fewer wins combined than the Badgers do. There are plenty of teams that recruit well and fail to convert the talent into wins. On the other side of the equation are the Iowas and Michigan States of the world, who have played for (and in MSU’s case won) Big Ten titles with less-heralded recruits. 

Whether Harbaugh has underachieved or not really boils down to what realistic expectations at Michigan are. It’s not like the Wolverines only started losing to the Buckeyes when he showed up. The Michigan faithful expects more based on what’s been expected historically, though plenty of traditional powers are not what they used to be right now. Just look at Texas and USC. Harbaugh certainly hasn’t exceeded expectations, but the question remains: Would replacing him make the situation any better? The lack of a definitive answer in either direction points to just how complex of a question it is. 

Photo by Maize & Blue Nation / Flickr

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