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Questions surround future of Michigan football after worst loss of Jim Harbaugh era

Michigan bullied by Michigan State as three-touchdown favorite

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – What a difference one week makes in college football.

Last weekend, Michigan was coming off a blowout road win against a top 25 team and vaulted to No. 13 in the nation. Meanwhile, Michigan State lost to Big Ten bottom feeder Rutgers in East Lansing.

Seven days later, the Wolverines not only lost to their in-state rival as a three-touchdown favorite, they were the clearly inferior team for 60 straight minutes.

Nobody outside the Spartan locker room expected Michigan State to beat Michigan, but from the moment the opening whistle blew Saturday, it was Rocky Lombardi who embarrassed the Michigan secondary. It was Antjuan Simmons living in the Michigan backfield. It was the Wolverines who couldn’t hold up at either line of scrimmage.

Chris Jackson #12 of the Michigan State Spartans tackles A.J. Henning #3 of the Michigan Wolverines runs the ball during the first quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Chris Jackson #12 of the Michigan State Spartans tackles A.J. Henning #3 of the Michigan Wolverines runs the ball during the first quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

Coming into the 2020 season, there were plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan. He hasn’t beaten Ohio State. He’s struggled in bowl games. The team has struggled to compete in big road games.

But Harbaugh had never lost a game as a comfortable favorite. Since the start of 2015, when Michigan is supposed to win, it does. That’s always been a lock.

Until Saturday.

Now that he no longer has that to fall back on, the questions are starting to pile up. What is the direction of this program? Will it ever get over the hump? Is Harbaugh the right guy for the job?

There’s no doubt Harbaugh has elevated Michigan football from laughingstock to competitive. But can he take the next step from competitive to champion?

Michigan State always gets up for the Michigan game. That’s clearly not going to change under Mel Tucker. But Harbaugh is playing with a much more talented roster. So what happened?

It’s the way Michigan lost that’s much more damning than the actual loss itself.

Michigan State was perfectly prepared to expose Michigan’s weaknesses. Michigan wasn’t prepared to do the same to MSU. Lombardi knew he could attack Michigan’s cornerbacks, and even after it worked time after time, Don Brown and the Wolverines couldn’t figure out a way to adjust.

Dominique Long #9 of the Michigan State Spartans misses a tackle on Joe Milton #5 of the Michigan Wolverines during the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Dominique Long #9 of the Michigan State Spartans misses a tackle on Joe Milton #5 of the Michigan Wolverines during the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

On offense, the line got bullied and the wide receivers were extremely undisciplined. Joe Milton missed some throws down the field, but dropped passes and the complete evaporation of his running game stacked the deck against him.

Did Michigan State play an almost perfect game? Yes. Would Michigan have won anyway if it had done the same? Probably, but we’ll never know.

There was no fight in the team wearing Maize and Blue this weekend. Whether that’s because they heard about how great they are all week or because they didn’t take MSU seriously is beside the point. Either way, that lack of motivation and preparation falls squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff.

And that coaching staff is led, and built, by Harbaugh.

One loss isn’t enough to tear down everything Harbaugh has built over six seasons, but it makes his other shortcomings much less forgivable.

Losing to an Ohio State team that’s on an elite decades-long run can be explained. Falling short against teams like Alabama, Wisconsin and Penn State on occasion is inevitable.

But getting dominated at home by a less talented team and refusing to punch back? That’s cause for deeper concern than how far Michigan falls in the rankings. It casts doubt on the very foundation on which this program is being built.

“If not Jim Harbaugh, then who?” is a reasonable question. But after a performance like that, it’s worth wondering if we’re one step closer to finding out the answer.


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