Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh has a history of slipping into bunker mode from time to time at the start of a season. It might be wise for Wolverine fans to follow suit as the program embarks on what could be a long, uncomfortable offseason.
On the heels of a disappointing finish to an 8-5 season, patience is evaporating quickly in Ann Arbor. The “wait until next year” crowd is dwindling. Michigan, which collapsed in the fourth quarter of an Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina earlier this week, has slid back to the middle of the pack in a league with an upper tier full of teams that don’t look to be going away anytime soon. The operative word for the next seven or eight months is a scary one in college football circles: uncertainty.
It would be wrong to call 2018 a “do or die” year for Harbaugh and his football team. What would the “die” in that trope really mean here?
A new coaching regime? Absolutely not; Harbaugh remains as good of a cultural fit as his alma mater could hope for and has a football mind coveted at every level of the game. So does that mean it’s time for a reality check about Michigan’s ability to compete for championships? That doesn’t seem right, either. The school has the resources, interest and recruiting prowess to remain among the programs that cycle through national championship contention runs.
The uneasiness ahead of Michigan comes from trying to fill in the blank after that “or.” Do or ... what? Insert a giant Joey Bosa sack celebration shrug here. The Wolverines ought to remember what that looks like.
Some of the same issues that existed when the older Bosa helped beat Michigan in Harbaugh’s first season have yet to be solved. None is bigger than the team’s inability to finish.
In the past two years, Michigan has a losing record in games played after Halloween. The Wolverines are 4-6 in November and bowl season during that time, and in all six of those losses they held a second-half lead. The first season of those late-game losses (three of them by a total of five points) may have seemed like a reason to believe that Harbaugh and the Wolverines were ever so close to breaking through. A repeat this year had the opposite effect. So, what’s the problem?
“Yeah, one thing, it's being able to just kind of sustain the momentum,” Harbaugh told reporters immediately after Monday’s loss to South Carolina. “Keep the momentum and then get the knockout punch. That would be what my thought would be right now.”
The problem may be simple. The solution is not. Losing late -- in seasons and in games -- usually causes the arrow of blame to land on a team’s strength and conditioning. The Wolverines hired a new strength coach last month, but that’s much too simplistic to be heralded as a fix for their issues. Other changes may be on the way.
Michigan’s offense this season bumbled and fumbled away victories (outscored 37-0 in the fourth quarters of their five losses) for a myriad of reasons that could fall on a myriad of shoulders. Playcalling, quarterbacks, insufficient blocking, youth and more have taken their share of criticism. One new player -- like quarterback Shea Patterson, who provides his own layer of uncertainty while waiting for an NCAA wavier to play in 2018 -- or one new coach won't solve all those woes.
What’s that mean moving forward? More uncertainty, which may be the least favorite word for a sports fan. The good team with an optimistic future gives its fan a chance to beat his chest while waiting for a new season. The fan of a decidedly bad team at least gets to commiserate and complain about the need for wholesale change. Michigan this year appears to be stuck in an awkward in between.
Any bold proclamations about the future of Michigan football -- good or bad -- in the coming offseason are worthy of skepticism. And anyone claiming to know what 2018 means for the capital-B Big Picture for the Wolverines is selling a bill of goods.
Of course, that won’t stop the opinions from coming, which brings us back to that bunker, Michigan fans. It’s going to be an uncomfortable, uncertain offseason for you. Best to hunker down now.