ANN ARBOR, Mich. - It's been a difficult week for the Michigan football program after a 10-game winning streak came to a halt with a seventh straight loss to Ohio State.
The Wolverines had climbed to No. 4 in the College Football Playoff poll and were favored to win the Big Ten. Everything was looking up for Jim Harbaugh's team until it ran into a buzz saw in Columbus.
Ohio State put on a clinic, dropping 62 points on a team that still has the No. 1 total defense in the country. Michigan now has one win in the last 15 years against its most hated rival.
Last weekend's loss caused many Michigan fans to question the direction of the program. Why can't Harbaugh beat Ohio State? Why hasn't Michigan been to the playoff? When will the Big Ten championship return to Ann Arbor?
Some criticism of Harbaugh is warranted. He was brought to Michigan to win championships, and so far, this co-Big Ten East Division title is all the school has to show for his tenure.
But as is always the case in college sports, perspective is important.
When Harbaugh took over four seasons ago, Michigan wasn't in a good place. Brady Hoke's teams got worse every single year, capped by a 5-7 season with losses to Minnesota, Maryland and Rutgers.
Yes, Michigan lost to Rutgers.
It was the third time in seven seasons that Michigan missed a bowl game and the sixth time it finished with eight or fewer wins. The Wolverines were essentially what Minnesota is right now, with one Sugar Bowl appearance sprinkled in.
The popular narrative is that Hoke at least left Harbaugh with a roster loaded from elite recruiting classes. That's only half true. Hoke had the No. 6 class in 2012 and the No. 4 class in 2013, but he also had the No. 30 class in 2011 and the No. 20 class in 2014. Harbaugh also landed the No. 37 class in 2015 after taking over late in the process.
Ohio State's recruiting class ranks during that span: No. 6 in 2011, No. 5 in 2012, No. 2 in 2013, No. 3 in 2014 and No. 7 in 2015.
It's not shocking the Buckeyes have dominated "The Game."
Since arriving in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh has compiled a 38-13 record. His worst season was equivalent to Michigan's second-best record from 2008-2014, and three of his four years have ended with double digit wins.
Michigan had three seasons of double-digit wins in the 11 years before Harbaugh, so this level of success in four years shouldn't be taken for granted.
No, Harbaugh hasn't accomplished his ultimate goals at Michigan, but the program is obviously heading in the right direction.
So, where exactly does Michigan rank in the current college football landscape? Let's take a look at the national picture since 2015, when Harbaugh returned.
There are three dynasties in college football that have separated themselves from the rest of the country: Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
Alabama and Clemson are the only teams with more than 50 wins in the last four years, and they've also combined for the last three national titles. Since 2011, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have won six of the seven national championships.
Ohio State has had a top 10 recruiting class every year since 2011, but Alabama is on another level. The Crimson Tide landed the No. 1 class nationally for seven straight years before settling for the No. 5 class last season.
Clemson doesn't have quite the same recruiting acumen, but it's been in the top 20 every year since 2011, and the on-field results speak volumes. The Tigers have won the last three ACC titles, gone to the playoff all three seasons and won a national championship.
I would rank the top three programs in college football right now in this order: Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
College football's second tier is much larger, and it has teams that are knocking on the door of the elite group and others that have seemingly backed their way in.
Oklahoma at No. 4
Oklahoma, for example, is close to the top tier. It has 45 wins in the last four seasons -- fourth in the country -- and won the last three Big 12 titles. No, the Big 12 isn't an extremely tough conference in recent years, but Oklahoma has been dominant.
The Sooners have been to the College Football Playoff twice and lost both games. It feels safe to rank Oklahoma has the No. 4 program in the country.
This is where Michigan joins the debate. Harbaugh's 38 wins over the last four seasons is tied for seventh in the nation behind the teams mentioned above, Georgia and Wisconsin.
Wisconsin and Georgia have gotten the benefit of playing in weaker divisions than Michigan. The Big Ten East has three teams in the top seven win totals over the last four years, and four teams in the top 25. The Big Ten West Northwestern at No. 14, and the SEC East has Florida tied with Michigan State and others at No. 21.
Since the Wolverines have won two of three from Wisconsin and the Badgers are currently just 7-5, I'll give the edge to Michigan, even though Wisconsin has three more wins over the last four years. If Michigan and Wisconsin switched divisions, the roles would likely be reversed.
Georgia at No. 5
Georgia, on the other hand, is a very interesting comparison. Michigan and Georgia are alike in many ways, though the Bulldogs have a much easier road to their conference title game.
The similarity between Michigan and Georgia is that they both have one of the elite teams blocking their paths to the College Football Playoff. The difference is Alabama is in the opposite division, and the one year Georgia made the playoff it didn't have to play the Crimson Tide in the regular season.
If Michigan didn't have to play Ohio State to win a Big Ten title, it would have played in the playoff in 2016 and 2018.
Both teams have had an 8-5 season and a 10-3 season. If Georgia loses to Alabama this season, it will essentially have an exact replica of Michigan's resume: two losses to the two best teams on its schedule and dominance against everyone else.
It's clearly been more difficult to win games in the Big Ten East than in the SEC East the last four years, so that accounts for Georgia having four more wins that Michigan over that span.
Georgia, however, won an SEC title, played in a national championship game and won huge games against Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Auburn last season. Michigan has had two opportunities to beat Ohio State to win conference titles and go to the playoff, and it has lost both times. That is ultimately the difference.
Other former CFP teams
There are four other teams that have participated in the College Football Playoff: Oregon, Florida State, Michigan State and Washington.
While Michigan State has an interesting argument because it's 2-2 against Michigan head-to-head in the Harbaugh era and has a Big Ten championship, it's difficult to put the Spartans ahead with six fewer wins the last four years and two years worse than Michigan's worst season -- a 3-9 campaign in 2016 and a 7-5 record this season.
Florida State beat Michigan head-to-head in 2016 and made the playoff five years ago, but the Seminoles have slipped recently, going 7-6 last season and 5-7 this year.
Washington is tied with Michigan with 38 wins, but the Pac-12 is much weaker than the Big Ten, and Washington has only had one really good year -- the 2016 campaign that ended in a playoff loss to Alabama.
Notre Dame at No. 6
One team that deserves consideration is Notre Dame, which went 12-0 this season and is headed to its first College Football Playoff. Not only did Notre Dame beat Michigan this season, it's had three double-digit win seasons in the last four years.
The blemish, obviously, is the 2016 season that saw the Fighting Irish go 4-8.
These two programs are neck and neck, and the head-to-head matchup shouldn't be the end-all be-all because great programs win at home.
But for now, I'll give the No. 6 spot to Notre Dame because it's currently undefeated and heading to the playoff. The 2016 season certainly seems like an outlier.
Michigan at No. 7
As of right now, Michigan is squarely in the conversation for the No. 7 program in the country over the last four years.
Big Ten rivals Wisconsin and Penn State are in the discussion, as is Washington. It could be argued Michigan is as low as 10th or as high as fifth.
Harbaugh has brought consistency to the Michigan football program, and he's been one game away from reaching the Big Ten Championship Game twice in four years.
Michigan still needs to actually beat Ohio State and put some hardware in Schembechler Hall, but the reality of college football is that very few teams have actually accomplished more than Michigan since 2015.
Here are the teams that have won Power Five conference titles since 2015: Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Stanford, Washington, Southern Cal, Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Oklahoma.
Have Michigan State, Penn State, Stanford, Washington and USC been better than Michigan over the last four years? There's certainly a debate, but I wouldn't rank them higher.
If Michigan can win a Big Ten title and get into the playoff, it will be firmly in the discussion with Oklahoma, Georgia and Notre Dame. For now, Harbaugh has to settle for the bottom half of the second tier.
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