ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In more than 45 years as a football player, coach and analyst, Gerry DiNardo has seen dramatic changes in the landscape of college football. He has seen, in particular, how it affects Michigan.
The Big Ten Network analyst has seen one change that has affected the Wolverines the most: Big Ten Conference realignment has placed it in one of the most competitive divisions in college football.
Winning the Big Ten East is a tremendous test because of the depth of the division. Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State pose a significant challenge for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, who are battling to regain relevancy.
“This is new ground for Michigan fans,” said DiNardo, a former coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. “The East Division has changed everything. The root of the challenge is the realigned Big Ten.”
Michigan and Ohio State were the Big Ten’s long-time juggernauts. The Wolverines and the Buckeyes outrecruited their conference counterparts, and the rivalry game on the final weekend of the regular season almost always became the de facto Big Ten championship game.
But that model, DiNardo explained, has changed dramatically. Penn State began Big Ten play in 1993, and the Big Ten added Nebraska in 2011 and split into two divisions (Leaders and Legends). Then the Big Ten realigned geographically in 2014 when it added Maryland and Rutgers. That placed Michigan in what many believe to be the toughest division in college football.
Michigan vs. Big Ten East heavyweights since 2015
|Season||Michigan State||Ohio State||Penn State|
Michigan now has to bully its way through Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State in order to be a legitimate contender for the Big Ten Championship and for the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines are a combined 3-6 against those three in Harbaugh’s three years at Michigan.
“The positive about Michigan right now, any coach would need more time than three years in the new model, to be successful,” DiNardo said. “And that’s the good news — that it isn’t as simple as it looks. Scott Frost will find the same thing at Nebraska. This is a different model than Michigan is used to, because it’s more competitive than ever.
“That’s how I view the challenge.”
Tinkering vs. overhaul
Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since 2004, when it split the title with Iowa. It finished just outside the College Football Playoff in 2016, the result of losses to Ohio State and Iowa.
Winning in the Big Ten East, however, isn’t a guarantee for any team. To remedy an 8-5 season — and a 14-year conference championship drought — Michigan will make changes. The Wolverines added wide receivers coach Dan Enos, tight ends coach Sherrone Moore and linebackers coach/special teams assistant Al Washington.
Michigan also will examine its coaching personnel, player personnel and schemes. It might even tinker with its recruiting strategy, even though this season has brought a new wrinkle to recruiting with the early signing period in December.
One thing you won’t see is a major coaching change. While a fringe element in the fan base has called for Harbaugh’s job, DiNardo doesn’t believe the fourth-year coach deserves an ultimatum.
“I think people have reason to be disappointed, regardless,” DiNardo said. “But I say temper that disappointment and put it under the category ‘this is tougher than it has ever been.’ ”
The disappointment following a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten East in 2017, combined Michigan’s loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, is understandable. Palpable, even.
But DiNardo brings up another point to factor into evaluating Michigan and Harbaugh.
“It’s reasonable to say he’s underachieved,” DiNardo said. “That’s a double-edged sword. Not because he’s doing something wrong, but because the competition right now is the best it’s ever been.”
Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify a quote from Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo.