Jim Harbaugh’s return to the University of Michigan has yielded almost everything BIG10 observers thought it might. His eventful, and still embryonic, spell in Ann Arbor has seen the Michigan brand rebuilt, and consecutive 10-win seasons logged in the books. The former San Francisco 49ers Head Coach has injected his alma mater with zeal that was so sorely lacking during the dismal Brady Hoke years, and there is now a distinct, if unfamiliar, feeling of optimism surrounding the Big House. All things considered, it would be folly to claim that the Wolverine’s haven’t restored their status as one of college football’s true “Blue-Blood” national powers.
The reversal in Michigan’s fortunes notwithstanding, Harbaugh will this year face a level of expectation eclipsing anything we saw in his first two years on the job. Back-to-back Top 5 recruiting classes have rendered excuses unacceptable, and Year Three is typically when the best college coaches find the right formula. Moreover, after missing last season’s playoffs following a double-overtime epic against Ohio State, Michigan fans sense they’re close to getting over the line. Harbaugh’s grace-period is well and truly over, and Big Blue now expects. Anything short of an invite to a “New Year’s 6” Bowl Game will be considered disappointing, if not disasterous.
But despite Harbaugh’s success in Ann Arbor, the expectations faced by this year’s Wolverines ignore the broader landscape of college football. Michigan find themselves in what is by far the most loaded division in the country. Playing alongside Ohio State, Penn State, and dare I say Michigan State in-division, Michigan’s path to the College Football Playoff is as treacherous as they come.
After being decimated by the 2015 NFL Draft, Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes are back, and keen to avenge their shutout humiliation to eventual-National Champions, Clemson, in last year’s playoffs. Meyer has recruited exceptionally well, and alongside Florida State, the Buckeyes are widely considered to be the principal threat to the perennially-formidable Alabama Crimson Tide. What’s more, following last year’s phenomenal Rose Bowl game with USC, James Franklin’s free-wheeling Penn State look to have come of age, and stand as one of the teams to beat – nationally. And we haven’t even mentioned Wisconsin. The Badgers look set to run roughshod over the BIG10 West, and Paul Cryst’s ball club will almost certainly book a place in the conference Championship Game. It will be an awkward, and very-loseable, match-up for whoever emerges from the East.
The challenge facing Harbaugh is thus formidable — and odds-makers seem to agree. As we prepare to enter the 2017 season, Michigan stand as 6/1 outsiders to win the BIG10, compared with 5/1 Penn State, 3/1 Wisconsin, and the near-evens Buckeyes (all odds, Grosvenor Sportsbook). On the national stage, things looks slightly better for the Wolverines. With odds of 14/1 to win the National Championship, Michigan sit among an elite pack of contenders, including LSU and Louisville. So within Michigan’s odds lies a revealing message: The Wolverines might be good, and possibly even good enough to contend for a Championship, but the task of getting out of the conference will likely be too much for Harbaugh’s men.
Drop Michigan into, say, the Big 12, and, sure, they would have a navigable path to the final four. Pound-for-pound, Michigan is one of the most talented teams in the country, capable of beating anyone on their day. But the BIG10 schedule is simply a minefield — it’s what the SEC West used to be, only with better coaching. The Wolverines have to go to Penn State and Wisconsin before facing their archrival Buckeyes at home — and let’s be honest, it’s easy to envision at least two losses in that handful of games. And even if they can come away with just a single loss, a war-weary Michigan will likely have to revisit an energetic and comparatively-healthy Wisconsin for the BIG10 title. Potential losses abound.
It’s not, however, all doom and gloom. A signature Week 1 win against Florida would do much to put Michigan’s rivals on notice (it would also likely shorten the odds significantly), and if the BIG10 turns into the fratricidal bloodbath most of us expect, then two losses might not be deemed fatal in the eyes of the playoff committee. But the harsh truth for Michigan fans is that their window for a National Championship is only slightly ajar. Their principal conference rivals are all improving, and we can see Blue-Bloods like USC and Florida State rising up the rankings. The top of College Football is simply getting stronger, meaning that there’s less room for error. Sadly for Michigan, the BIG10 East is a division in which error is unavoidable.