ANN ARBOR, Mich. – This has been the weirdest build up to a Michigan football season I can ever remember.
Michigan will kick off the 2021 season in just nine days at the Big House against Western Michigan. Usually, the excitement in and around the program would be nearing a crescendo right now -- especially, you would think, after a year of canceled games and empty stadiums.
Instead, the vibe is much more reserved. Fans are excited to get back to Michigan Stadium, yes, but what will they see once they’re inside?
The last time we saw the Wolverines, they were getting bullied by an 0-5 team. Losing at home to an in-state rival. Playing punching bag for Indiana and Wisconsin.
Say what you want about Jim Harbaugh, but before 2020, all of his Michigan teams fell somewhere between respectable and title contender.
Now, we don’t know where this program is headed.
What was 2020?
What do we make of the 2020 season?
Are we supposed to throw it out because of all the obvious variables? My counter would be: Why were other teams able to stay afloat while Michigan couldn’t?
After the Minnesota game, Michigan looked like a contender. But just seven days later, on their home turf, the Wolverines got embarrassed by a Michigan State team that lost to Rutgers by 11 points.
There was no fight the following two weeks, either. Sure, Indiana and Wisconsin were formidable, but Michigan didn’t even belong on the same field as them, and that’s a problem.
The fact that a triple overtime win over Rutgers felt like the high point of the season says a lot, too.
Because of the pandemic and how it affected both the preseason and the season itself, there’s some hope that Michigan’s 2-4 record was a fluke. But it’s hard to get the memory of last year’s team out of my head, and that image is not flattering.
Nobody thought Michigan football would be in this state by the seventh year of Harbaugh’s reign. The most dangerous part is how foggy the future has become.
Will Harbaugh be the coach in Ann Arbor beyond 2021? The contract adjustments from this offseason made it cheaper for Michigan to part ways with him -- not exactly a vote of confidence from decision makers.
These questions will inevitably hang over the Wolverines this season, especially if they struggle.
Perhaps the greatest source of uncertainty heading into the season comes from a new-look coaching staff.
Don Brown is out as defensive coordinator after last year’s abomination, but will that be enough to fix what looked like the worst Michigan defense since the Greg Robinson era?
New defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald comes with a pair of new position coaches in Ron Bellamy (safeties) and Steve Clinkscale (defensive backs). These are all bright football minds, but will the sum of the parts be enough to build an elite defense?
Mike Hart returns with the fanfare befitting a former Michigan legend, but can he handle a crowded running backs room? How will Matt Weiss do with the quarterbacks?
Recruiting extraordinaire Sherrone Moore is in charge of the offensive line and will team with Josh Gattis to manage the offense. There’s just as much uncertainty in that sentence as there is potential.
Finally, in a new scheme, can Shaun Nua get some production out of a defensive line room stocked with plenty of pass rushing talent?
Harbaugh usually has to fill one or two spots on his coaching staff, but this year, he’s got six new coaches and a new recruiting director. He even had a position coach (Maurice Linguist) accept a job at Michigan and then leave shortly afterward for a head coaching gig.
The staff has been a revolving door this offseason, and nobody knows how all these pieces will ultimately fit together.
Is Cade McNamara good? I don’t care what anyone outside the program says, they definitely do not know the answer.
Just last offseason, fans were crowning Joe Milton the next great Michigan quarterback. He lost the starting job within four games.
McNamara looked excellent in Michigan’s win over Rutgers, completing 27 of 36 attempts for 260 yards and four touchdowns. None of his 71 passes were intercepted last season, and the numbers were solid across the board.
But I’m going to bring up a name that makes people really angry: John O’Korn.
Remember when O’Korn got the call against Purdue in 2017 after Wilton Speight’s injury? He completed 18 of 26 pass attempts for 270 yards. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Granted, O’Korn only had one touchdown pass, but he didn’t get three overtime drives from the 25-yard line, either.
The point is: Michigan has had plenty of flash-in-the-pan quarterback success stories. Milton. O’Korn. Brandon Peters. The list goes on.
Unfortunately, McNamara didn’t get a chance to validate his strong performance at Rutgers. He suffered an injury the very next week, and then the rest of the season was canceled.
In one way or another, quarterback has been a problem for Michigan since Denard Robinson. Maybe McNamara is the one to change that, but he has to show it first.
Ohio State and the entire schedule
The No. 1 cause of apathy in the Michigan fan base resides in Columbus, Ohio.
The season hasn’t even started yet, and Michigan fans already know there’s no chance to beat Ohio State. The gap between the two programs has reached “runaway train” level. Ohio State is at a point where on-field success breeds elite recruiting, which breeds on-field success, which breeds elite recruiting, and so on.
Ohio State is a football factory that essentially runs itself. That, combined with the mental block on Michigan’s end, has created what feels like a uniquely un-winnable college football game.
No other matchup in the sport feels like more of a lock than Michigan losing to Ohio State. Even when Michigan outplayed Ohio State in 2016, the ball bounced the Buckeyes’ way. When the Wolverines went into Columbus with what seemed to be the better team in 2018, the result was a bloodbath.
It’s not just Ohio State, though. Michigan has never won as an underdog during the Harbaugh era. Look at this year’s schedule -- who would pick Michigan to win at Wisconsin? Or at Penn State? Sure, upsets happen all the time, but not for Michigan.
It’s been so long since Michigan pulled off a surprising win, especially on the road. That causes many -- myself included -- to look at this year’s schedule and count at least three games as losses, right off the bat.
Three losses means no College Football Playoff, no Big Ten title and no national relevance. For a program that’s supposed to be competing at those levels, it takes some wind out of the sails.
Chance for redemption
Harbaugh and Michigan have a chance to assuage these concerns and get the hype train rolling with a hot start to the season. The first four games are at home, including a date with No. 20 Washington in week two.
There’s certainly a scenario in which the Wolverines return to their yearly top 20 form. Harbaugh has continued to recruit at a high level, and his coaches have deserving pedigrees. They just need to find the right formula and put it all together.
Many of us have to see it to believe it.