ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan has been good, not great, under coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh's sixth season in charge of college football's winningest program is expected to follow its recent form.
The Wolverines are No. 19 in The Associated Press college poll, way behind rival and sixth-ranked Ohio State. Michigan is also going into the season trailing No. 9 Penn State and No. 16 Wisconsin, two teams that are scheduled to play at the Big House during the Big Ten's shortened season.
Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye said the team is under the radar and has taken a lot of punches from people.
“Going into the year, people usually say, `Oh, Michigan’s just a decent team,'" Paye said. “But this year, we’re trying to be different.”
Paye acknowledged the outside perspective is shaped by fact that the Wolverines are coming off a four-loss season and have lost four straight bowl games.
“Even our fifth-years, we don’t have rings," he said. “Bowl games, championships — we don’t have nothing. We’re all hungry."
Michigan has not won a Big Ten title since 2004, enduring its longest run without a conference championship in Big Ten history.
Losing a record eight straight to the Buckeyes, and 15 of 16 games in the rivalry, has a lot to do with that drought.
“We get ready to play against them every day," Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said. “We’re running plays, we’re seeing concepts — and we’ve got a lot of work to do."
WHAT’S THE DEAL
Three months ago, Harbaugh said he was closing in on a contract extension in February before the COVID-19 pandemic became a top priority for all involved in the discussions.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel has said more than once that he wants Harbaugh to lead the Wolverines until he chooses to retire from coaching.
Heading into his sixth season, though, Harbaugh has just two years left on a deal that pays him about $7 million per season. He is 47-18 overall with the Wolverines and 32-12 in the Big Ten.
Michigan returns five players starters on offense. Leading rushers, Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins, return after combining to run for 1,348 yards and 15 touchdowns. Chris Evans, who has 1,722 yards rushing in his career, was reinstated after being away from the program for all of last season because of academic issues.
Ronnie Bell, who had a team-high 48 receptions last season, leads an inexperienced receiving corps.
“Expectations are really high for Ronnie Bell," Harbaugh said. “He’s a real gamer."
Offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield decided to come back to school after announcing he was leaving in August when the Big Ten postponed its fall football season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Paye leads a defense, with five starters back, along with fellow defensive linemen Aidan Hutchinson.
Defensive back Daxton Hill, one of the nation’s top recruits two years ago, has impressed Harbaugh in recent practices.
“Dax might be our most talented player on the team, arguably,” he said.
Joe Milton did enough to win the job at quarterback that Dylan McCaffrey, brother Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, chose not to come back to the program for a fourth year.
The 6-foot-5, 243-pound Milton played sparingly as a backup the previous two seasons. He has always had a strong arm and has developed throwing with touch.
“Sometimes the issue has been in the past of whether or not those receivers could catch it that fast," offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said, entering his second season calling plays for Harbaugh.
Michigan missed out on having potentially the best group of receivers in the country because Nico Collins left the program to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft, Donovan Peoples-Jones skipped his senior season to go pro and Tarik Black transferred to Texas. The offensive line is missing four starters, all of whom were drafted.
On defense, standout linebackers Josh Uche and Khaleke Hudson will be difficult to replace.
Michigan opens the season Oct. 24 at No. 24 Minnesota. The Wolverines host rival Michigan State and its new coach, Mel Tucker, in their second game.
The toughest part of the schedule seems to be hosting the Nittany Lions on Nov. 14 and the Badgers two weeks later.
Harbaugh's season hinges, as always, on how he fares against Ohio State. His shot to get an elusive win in the lopsided series is Dec. 12 at the Horseshoe.