CHICAGO — If the NFL wanted to get cute, it could launch an expansion team in London strictly on the backs of his 2017 draft picks. The returning quarterback is in a “good spot,” Jim Harbaugh says, if your idea of a “good spot” is paddling against the current at Yosemite Falls with a spork and a prayer.
The defense brings back one starter, the offense four. The Michigan Wolverines’ last six games feature five teams who bowled last season, including the reigning East Division champion (Penn State), reigning West champion (Wisconsin) and the rival for life (Ohio State).
So why does it feel like Captain Comeback has us right where he stinking wants us?
“I don’t know that we are [sleepers],” the Michigan coach said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. “I don’t know that it matters. It’s irrelevant.
“I don’t think we are. We’ve got the license and ability to be good, be tough to beat.”
On balance, the questions at McCormick Place weren’t all that dissimilar to the ones pitched toward Ohio State at this time a year ago. What about the oodles and oodles of pro talent out the door? How good are these kids, anyway? How far can you carry the flag with this many unknowns peppering the 2-deep?
Urban Meyer’s “rebuilding” team of 2016 put up 77 points on Bowling Green, 45 at Oklahoma, 62 against Nebraska, won 11 tilts and crashed the College Football Playoff. Yes, Penn State and Clemson happened, but still.
So this is the autumn that sets up to gauge, in Year 3, not so much Harbaugh the tactician, but Harbaugh the foundation-layer. Harbaugh the teacher, Harbaugh the delegator, Harbaugh the developer.
The Wolverines’ 2017 recruiting class wound up fifth nationally in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. The 2016 class was eighth. Whether the kids sink or swim remains to be seen, but the push off the edge of the pool is coming.
And it’s coming from the deep end.
‘I’m certainly sitting there like, ‘Why are they just automatically third?’ ‘
— FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt on the Wolverines
“This whole, ‘Well, they’ll probably take a step back.’ Really?” FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt said of the Wolverines. “OK. OK, go ahead. Roll the ball out there and let’s go play.
“Because they’re going to tackle well. They’re going to line up really well. They’re going to play really sound defense. All those young players, particularly on defense, rotated a lot, so it’s not like they’ve never played. They’ve got a quarterback back who’s being [pushed] by a really talented young player. They’ve got some running backs with both power and some quickness. The offensive line has the most coming back of any group on the team.
“So yeah, I’m certainly sitting there like, ‘Why are they just automatically third?’ Because they handled Penn State (49-10 win in 2016) a lot better than Ohio State did. Granted, Penn State was dealing with a lot of injuries during the course of that game, and I totally understand that. Michigan lost, what was it, three games last year by a combined five points? So all those people that just want to throw them out there as third, good luck.”
As an NFL or college coach, Harbaugh has never steered a squad to more losses Year 3 than in years 1 or 2. Then again, he’s never had to navigate two sets of Oregons or two sets of Seahawks, what with Ohio State and the Nittany Lions tag-teaming the squeeze at the top of the heap.
“They just lost so much,” Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith noted. “I don’t know that people are sleeping on Michigan by picking them third, but I think there’s a little wait-and-see with their youth and the holes that need to be filled.”
That said, Griffith digs signal caller Wilton Speight, even if we’re not entirely sure if Harbaugh shares that enthusiasm. And the fullback-turned-pundit loves freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones, the Maize & Blue’s go-to-wideout-in-waiting. It’s hard to argue that a roster with Chris Evans on one side of the ball and Don Brown pushing buttons for the other is destined to fall off the edge of the cliff, just like that.
“Jim wins,” Klatt warned. “I don’t care where it is. Or what level.”
“You look at that drop in talent and say, ‘There’s no way they’re going to be able to be as good,’ ” said Brady Quinn, Klatt’s FOX teammate. “I don’t know, man. That’s a heck of a coaching staff.
“And Harbaugh always seems to get the most out of his players wherever he’s at. [You’ve got defensive coordinator] Don Brown, they’ve got the right coaches to get the most out of their talent. And they’ve been able to recruit. I think you’ve got a top 5 recruiting class? So I think they’ll be OK.”
Although the line between ‘OK’ and ‘epic’ is a fine one. So are the margins, now that you mention it. The opener against Florida at Jerry World takes on more significance than usual given the overall narrative, in part because of the usual Big Ten-SEC thing; in part because of all those fresh faces; and in part because Michigan sports a less-than-stellar 5-6 mark vs. the S&P+ top 30 over the last two seasons. And a 2-4 record in top-30 tests away from Ann Arbor — 0-3 last autumn.
“They were there when we won nine straight games and everybody is high-fiving in the locker room after the game. And they were also there when we lost three out of our last four games,” Harbaugh said. “They know what it feels like. And they like the feeling of the high-fiving better than the other [one].
“And I feel like, OK, good, they’ve seen that. And maybe that’s going to motivate them even more, give them more reason to put all their talent and pour their whole heart into everything that they’re doing.”
Almost too easy.
“Yeah, it’s easy to put them in third,” Klatt said. Then he grinned. Slightly. Knowingly. “It’s not easy to make them third.”