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Jim Harbaugh’s doing an excellent job at Michigan, whether you like it or not

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Two 10-win seasons is a hell of a rebuild, and a solid 2017 could set up a title run in 2018.

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh’s name has nearly reached Tim Tebow or Tiger Woods status. About once a month, it seems, he does something that is just noteworthy enough to blog about, and those blog posts get many hits. He sings opera, he gives the Pope a helmet, he complains about football factories, he screams for peanuts, he writes heartfelt words about Colin Kaepernick ... and that’s all since March.

Harbaugh knows how to retain attention. If you believe any publicity is good publicity, this is brilliant.

It also distracts us from whether he’s actually a good coach. He is a great coach. A reminder of his résumé to date:

  • With almost no experience, he took over as head coach of San Diego in 2004. After going 7-4 in his first season, he went 22-2 with two Pioneer League titles.
  • In 2007, he took on a massive rebuild at Stanford, inheriting a program that had gone 16-40 over the previous five seasons and ranked 94th in S&P+ in 2006. His Cardinal pulled one of the sport’s greatest upsets (24-23 over No. 2 USC) in 2007, reached a bowl in 2009, and went 12-1 and ranked sixth in S&P+ in 2010.
  • In 2011, he took the 49ers job. The Niners hadn’t had a winning season in nearly a decade. They went 13-3, 11-4-1, and 12-4 in his first three years, reaching the NFC championship three straight years and narrowly losing a Super Bowl.
  • In 2015, he took on a Michigan rebuild. The Wolverines had gone 20-18 over the previous three seasons and had only once ranked in the S&P+ top 20 since Lloyd Carr retired in 2007. In his first two years, they’ve gone 20-6 with two S&P+ top-five finishes.

That is absurd.

Harbaugh has done such a good job of raising the bar at Michigan that we’ve almost forgotten that this, this, and this happened not even three years ago. He’s pulled off such a comprehensive turnaround that back-to-back 10-3 records feels ... disappointing?

The 2015 Wolverines had a stunning defense for half the season but faded after a couple of injuries, allowing 6.3 points per game in their first six games and 28 per game in their next six.

The 2016 Wolverines were steadier (11.7 points per game in the first seven games, 16 in the next five) but suffered too many offensive glitches. They were 41st in Off. S&P+ and scored a combined 30 in regulation in their two regular season losses: an out-of-nowhere 14-13 loss to Iowa and an overtime loss at Ohio State.

September and October define the stakes, and November defines how a season will be remembered. At Michigan, Harbaugh is 16-2 before November 1 and 6-4 after. The last step in the building process is obvious.

It might be difficult, however, for UM to progress in 2017. The Wolverines must replace their leading rusher, four of their top five receiving targets, three all-conference offensive linemen, their top three defensive linemen, their best linebacker, and their top five defensive backs, including nickel back and Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers.

Harbaugh has been recruiting incredibly well — per the 247Sports Composite: sixth nationally in 2016, fifth in 2017 — and most new starters will be former four- or five-star recruits. But that’s so much turnover. S&P+ loves what Harbaugh has done but projects the Wolverines to fall to about 10th.

From a macro view, the rebuild is going well and leading to one hell of a 2018. From a narrative perspective, though, 2017 will be interesting. Michigan’s schedule features eight likely wins (84 percent win probability or higher) and four virtual tossups (between 41 and 55 percent). Two of those tossups (at Wisconsin, Ohio State) happen to be the last two.

It’s possible we’ll see another 9-1 or so start, followed by another couple of late-season losses.

Harbaugh has had an incredible career despite a list of almosts — almost took Stanford to the BCS title game, almost won the Super Bowl, almost got Michigan over the hump — and will likely win even bigger at UM, but that will probably have to wait another year.


2016 in review

2016 Michigan statistical profile.

Michigan’s late-2016 glitchiness had almost nothing in common with its late-2015 maladies. It’s funny how your offense trails off when your quarterback breaks his collarbone.

  • First 9 games (9-0): Avg. score: UM 48, Opp 11 | Avg. percentile performance: 95% (~top 5) | Avg. yards per play: UM 6.7, Opp 4.2 (plus-2.5) | Michigan passer rating: 158.2
  • Last 4 games (1-3): Avg. score: UM 23, Opp 22 | Avg. percentile performance: 71% (~top 35) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 4.3, UM 3.7 (minus-0.6) | Michigan passer rating: 94.5

Wilton Speight was already having a miserable game at Iowa when he got injured, but that’s a significant injury, and it happened at the worst possible time. UM got upset late by Iowa, then had to grind through a 20-10 win over Indiana with backup John O’Korn.

Speight played admirably against a top-10 Ohio State pass defense (23-for-36, 219 yards, two touchdowns, two costly picks, 122.2 rating), but the difference was obvious.

Michigan was up to eighth in Off. S&P+ heading into the Iowa game and finished 41st. That’s quite a drop in four games. And they still only lost three games by a combined five points.

The injury distracted us from just how good Speight was pre-Iowa. He was coming off of a 19-for-24 performance against Maryland in which he produced a 233.4 rating, and his season completion rate was 65 percent, with 15 touchdowns to three interceptions.

He produced those numbers with a receiving corps that no longer exists, but it’s worth a reminder that with a full-strength QB, Michigan was really good.


Offense

Michigan offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

When Harbaugh finds an assistant he likes, that guy becomes family. He might leave, but he’ll probably come back. Tim Drevno was the offensive coordinator at USD when Harbaugh arrived; to that point, he was a West Coast guy, a Fullerton State grad with stops at Montana State, UNLV, San Jose State, and Idaho. He followed Harbaugh to Stanford (tight ends coach, then OL coach), then San Francisco (OL coach), and after spending 2014 with USC, moved to Ann Arbor.

There was going to be slippage regardless of what happened to Speight’s collarbone; Michigan had obliterated lesser defenses but had struggled against Wisconsin and was already laboring against Iowa.

Still, we got a sustained glimpse of a fully activated Michigan attack. Before Iowa, the Wolverines were averaging 5.5 yards per carry (after: 3.1), with freshman Chris Evans nicely spelling go-to rusher De’Veon Smith.

After, with the passing game no longer a threat, opponents appeared to stack the box more, and everything slowed down.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Michigan vs Florida State
Chris Evans
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Evans and the run game will be key as the Wolverines break in new pieces on the outside. Evans’ 2016 production was propped up by blowouts — he had 19 carries for 265 yards (13.9 per carry) in combined 141-3 wins over Hawaii and Rutgers and 69 for 349 (5.1) against everyone else — but he appeared to seize the No. 1 spot this spring. And he’s got enough competition to push him; senior Ty Isaac and junior Karan Higdon combined to average 5.8 yards per carry last year, and four-star redshirt freshman Kareem Walker is coming along.

The loss of three excellent linemen (Erik Magnuson, Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden) and an injury to tackle Grant Newsome will hurt, but there’s a high bar for left tackle Mason Cole (all-conference in 2016), blue-chip sophomore Ben Bredeson, center Patrick Kugler, etc. Against lesser foes — between the season opener against Florida and the mid-November trip to Wisconsin, Michigan faces only one team projected higher than 44th in S&P+ — UM’s run game should bowl over opponents.

Against Florida, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, however, the Wolverines are going to have to pass a little. And that will require Speight developing rapport with new targets.

Speight’s security blankets (tight end Jake Butt and Smith) are gone. Tight ends Ian Bunting and Tyrone Wheatley look the part but combined to catch eight passes last year.

Junior Grant Perry is the only returning wideout who caught more than five balls last year, and while sophomores Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom got some reps (combined: 16 targets, 9 catches, 106 yards), the freshman class will almost certainly play a big role.

Donovan Peoples-Jones was the No. 1 receiver prospect in the country, and three other four-stars — Tarik Black (who might have outplayed Peoples-Jones in spring practice), Nico Collins, Oliver Martin — could see the field.

This could mean amazing things for 2018, when Speight is (presumably) a senior and nearly his entire offense returns. But for 2017, it probably means volatility.

Defense

Michigan defensive radar

Really, your belief in what Michigan is capable of in 2017 might come down to what you believe Don Brown’s floor is.

The defensive coordinator has long been a respected name but appears to have found another gear. His Boston College defense improved from 34th to second in Def. S&P+ in 2015, and his first Michigan defense improved from third to second.

Despite extreme turnover, history suggests the UM defense is still going to be stellar. If it is, and if the Wolverines can pass at least a little bit, they’ll have a chance to win in every game.

Even in a defense-friendly conference, one that featured six teams in the Def. S&P+ top 25, Michigan’s was the gold standard, nearly as good as anyone in big-play prevention and a step ahead in efficiency.

Michigan defensive efficiency & explosiveness

The Wolverines pulled this off by attacking and attacking some more. They were first in Adj. Sack Rate (second in both standard downs sack rate and passing downs sack rate) and third in stuff rate. You went backwards frequently against this defense. And despite losing ends Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley, tackles Ryan Glasgow and Matthew Godin, and linebacker Ben Gedeon, the front seven still boasts:

  • senior tackle Maurice Hurst (11.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks).
  • junior end Chase Winovich (nine TFLs, 5.5 sacks).
  • linebacker Mike McCray (13 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, eight passes defensed).
  • sophomore end Rashan Gary (five TFLs, one sack), the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2016 class.
  • countless other former star recruits, from junior tackles Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall, to sophomore linebacker Devin Bush, to the wow-level incoming freshmen: tackles Aubrey Solomon and James Hudson, ends Luiji Vilain and Deron Irving-Bey, linebackers Drew Singleton and Jordan Anthony, etc.

Brown can work with that. Michigan might have 2015’s depth problems again, but the starting seven will be fantastic.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State
Mike McCray
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

There’s more concern in the secondary. Peppers, corners Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis, and safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill, plus a great pass rush, pushed the Wolverines to No. 1 in Passing S&P+. But while the pass rush is still exciting, all five of those DBs (and yes, I’m insisting on calling Peppers a DB even though he was listed as a linebacker) are gone.

In all, seven departed DBs combined for 26 TFLs, 11 interceptions, and 36 breakups in 2016; the top six returnees combined for two, zero, and two, respectively. The leading returning tackler (safety Tyree Kinnel), made 12.5 stops with one TFL and no passes defensed.

There aren’t as many former star recruits in the pipeline either. Among returnees, Kinnel was a four-star recruit, as were sophomore corner Lavert Hill, junior converted receiver Drake Harris, and redshirt freshman David Long. Freshman corners Ambry Thomas and Benjamin St-Juste could be in the rotation from day one.

It’s not guaranteed that Florida can take advantage of freshman corners, but Penn State can. Aggression tends to look good on a Brown defense, but glitches could result in some huge plays.


Special Teams

Michigan has produced top-40 rankings in both of Harbaugh’s seasons, but he had Peppers for both of those campaigns. Without a No. 1 punt return efficiency ranking, the Wolverines would have ranked quite a bit worse than 39th. Peppers’ successor, be it Nate Johnson, Eddie McDoom, or someone else, will be expected to produce.

So, too, will freshman legs Quinn Nordin (place-kicking) and Will Hart (punting), the likely replacements for a solid Kenny Allen.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep vs. Florida 15 2.0 55%
9-Sep Cincinnati 75 24.6 92%
16-Sep Air Force 116 35.0 98%
23-Sep at Purdue 87 24.0 92%
7-Oct Michigan State 44 17.2 84%
14-Oct at Indiana 39 10.8 73%
21-Oct at Penn State 8 -4.1 41%
28-Oct Rutgers 92 29.6 96%
4-Nov Minnesota 47 18.0 85%
11-Nov at Maryland 72 18.8 86%
18-Nov at Wisconsin 11 -1.3 47%
25-Nov Ohio State 2 -3.7 42%
Projected S&P+ Rk 10
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 42 / 4
Projected wins 8.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 14.3 (10)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 4 / 19
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 7 / 4.8
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 34% (46%, 22%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 10.7 (-0.7)

Michigan has lost six games in two years, and five were by one possession each. The Wolverines’ three 2016 losses were by a combined five points. This team hasn’t been far from the promised land, and if it can overcome massive experience deficits at receiver and defensive back, it will again have a chance to make a big run.

Throughout the writing of this preview, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about 2018, when the Wolverines likely return Speight, Evans, every wideout, three to four offensive line starters, Gary at defensive end, nearly every linebacker, and every defensive back, plus probably another top-notch recruiting class.

You can’t take a “wait ‘til next year” approach when you’re still projected as a top-10 team, but if Michigan does lose a couple of late games and keep the “Never better than third in the Big Ten East!” meme alive, you should get your laughs in while you can. Because this program is probably a year away from ignition.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.