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The many narratives Jim Harbaugh could kill by beating Ohio State

Michigan can take a step toward the Playoff and push back on a lot of notions about things it can’t do.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State hosts Michigan Saturday in 2018’s Game of the Century of the Year. (It had looked like Alabama-LSU would take that mantle. It did not live up to it.)

Both were in varying degrees of trouble against lesser teams in Week 12, with Ohio State needing so much luck to beat Maryland in overtime and Michigan messing around for a while before pulling away from Indiana. But both won, and this game’s as big as ever.

Like every Michigan-Ohio State meeting, this one has enough subtext to fill a book. The winner wins the Big Ten East (as is typical) and will be heavily favored in the conference title game (ditto), where a Playoff berth will be within reach (same). It’s a massive even without its many interpersonal subplots, like the Wolverines visiting Columbus for the first time since The Spot and the first time since Urban Meyer maybe taunted Jim Harbaugh via milk.

Everyone involved has a great opportunity. But Michigan has lots of opportunities. A win at the Horseshoe would extinguish a lot of popular narratives about Jim Harbaugh’s program, or at least go a long way toward it.

Narrative: Michigan (and Harbaugh) can’t beat Ohio State

I feel like I’m pushing the contextual limits of the word “narrative” here, because it’s often used to describe conventional wisdom the user doesn’t think is grounded in reality.

Well, this one is absolutely grounded in reality. Michigan’s lost 13 of 14 in this series, which has come to resemble a “rivalry” between a grizzly bear and a salmon. Ohio State’s six wins in a row cover Harbaugh’s three-plus-year tenure. The narrative here is true: Ohio State has claimed total and complete ownership of Michigan over the years.

One game wouldn’t erase all that history, but it would remove the word “can’t” from the equation for this era of Michigan football.

Narrative: Michigan can’t win big games on the road.

This one took a bit of a hit earlier this year. Michigan had lost 17 road games in a row against ranked teams, a run that started at Troy Smith’s Ohio State in 2006 and ran until a win at Michigan State a few weeks ago. Beating MSU, despite a lot of stars seeming to align for a stupid Spartan upset, was a big deal.

That’s not the same as winning a game like this one, though. Michigan State might well not even finish the season ranked. No one ever knows if the Spartans are great or terrible, probably least of all the Spartans themselves. This would be the road win to fully put to bed any notion that Harbaugh’s Wolverines can’t come through in tough environments.

Narrative: Harbaugh can’t even finish in the top two in his division.

Michigan’s Big Ten East finishes under Harbaugh so far: third, third, and fourth, just a small notch above the division’s Indianas and Marylands.

This is mainly a funny thing to point out on the internet, because it’s not like finishing in second instead of third would do anything at all to placate Michigan fans.

Good news: This one gets dealt with win or lose. Michigan can’t finish worse than second in the East. The bad news: No Michigan fans will think that’s a cool consolation.

Narrative: Harbaugh’s just not a big-game coach, period.

It’s persisted in some corners, because Harbaugh’s never won The Game at Michigan and didn’t win The Big Game for the 49ers. You can say he made it to a Super Bowl, and your anti-Harbaugh friend will tell you he lost that Super Bowl to his brother and should’ve told Alex Smith not to try Richard Sherman in the end zone that one time in Seattle.

Only four active FBS head coaches have ever won a national title, so saddling anyone who hasn’t as a big-game loser isn’t fair. Harbaugh’s Stanford also beat the snot out of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2010 season, and that was reasonably big.

But this would be Harbaugh’s biggest win as a college coach, and arguably his biggest win at any level, depending on your view of his NFC Championship win over the Falcons in 2012.

Narrative: Harbaugh can’t win rivalry games.

This tag has little to support it beyond three losses to Ohio State. He’s had his teams plenty competitive against Michigan State and Penn State and would’ve beaten OSU in 2016 if officials had ruled J.T. Barrett down a centimeter short of where they did on a fourth down.

Harbaugh’s Stanford beat USC three out of four times, including making Pete Carroll furious during one of the biggest upsets ever. While he was in Palo Alto, Harbaugh also beat Notre Dame and Cal two times apiece out of four. He did lose to Carroll’s Seahawks in the Sherman/Michael Crabtree game in January 2014, and maybe that’s stuck a bit, because it’s one of the most remembered NFL games of this decade.

These sentiments have attached themselves to Harbaugh to varying degrees, with varying levels of fairness. This is his chance to blow away all of them.

Or they could persist for another year, and maybe for eternity. Because if the Wolverines can’t beat this drab-looking Buckeyes team, when can Michigan win? We’ll see.