Deflecting and distracting, Jim Harbaugh knows Michigan must find greater success

CHICAGO -- It's complicated with Jim Harbaugh. It always has been. As Michigan's coach, he's had all the maneuverability he lacked as an NFL quarterback.

Harbaugh held at least two lengthy press conferences Friday at the conclusion of 2019 Big Ten Media Days. He spent them ducking, dodging and failing to reveal himself or the psyche of his team.

That's the dichotomy of the man and his accomplishments. Through his first four seasons, he has failed to lead Michigan to a Big Ten title, but he has won at least 10 games in three of those seasons.

Since he arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Harbaugh has the ninth-best winning percentage in FBS. But no berths in the Big Ten championship game or the College Football Playoff, and no victories against rival Ohio State.

A man known for channeling Bo Schembechler as an offensive strategist has promised to join the spread RPO generation.

To do it, Harbaugh picked 35-year-old Josh Gattis, a former Alabama wide receivers coach. Michigan hasn't run a four-wide formation since 2017, according to SportsSource Analytics.

The ultimate Michigan Man lost two of his assistants to … Ohio State.

One of the richest, most celebrated coaches in the country has tied for one division title in his eight years as a major-college coach. That tie, of course, stinks like a piece of rotten meat. It came after the epic 63-39 beatdown at Ohio State last year that meant no division title, no Big Ten title and certainly no playoff.

"That was not our day, for sure," Harbaugh told CBS Sports on Friday.

Michigan linebacker Jordan Glasgow suggested the Wolverines were "emotionally drained" prior to the Buckeyes game after a 10-1 start that had Michigan chasing a playoff spot.

"People may have gotten into a comfortable position in the [football] facility," Glasgow added. "… It's a very long season. We put everything we have into every single game. That becomes tiring."

How that happens at a place where the incoming freshmen were in kindergarten the last time Michigan won a Big Ten title is hard to believe.

But there has to be some explanation. Michigan under Harbaugh has largely been a riddle. The Wolverines have won but not enough. To suggest Harbaugh is on the hot seat is ludicrous. The coach and his alma mater are still in love with each other.

But if Harbaugh's record vs. Ohio State drops to 0-5 this season, well, marriage counseling has to be considered. Especially when Urban Meyer is opening a new Columbus, Ohio, restaurant with its own "7-0 Room," marking the coach's success against Michigan.

"We've had a tremendous amount of success in terms of overall record," said Glasgow, a senior. "… When you have some failures, you tend to overlook some of the successes. I think some of the heat is unnecessary."

There is an if-not-now-when? feel to the season. Michigan is favored to win the league led by a senior quarterback (Shea Patterson) ready to get comfortable in a new RPO scheme.

"[First], I think that's where I would pick us," Harbaugh said.

Add to that, Ohio State is coming to Ann Arbor this season with a rookie coach (Ryan Day) and first-time starting quarterback (Justin Fields).

"We embrace the negative. We embrace the suck," Harbaugh added. "Let's take into account … what we can do to make that [Ohio State loss] not happen again. Ever."

But there's always that quirky side to Harbaugh, those distractions, those WTF moments. 

Out of nowhere Thursday, the coach said Michigan is "really close" to playing a team on "foreign soil." He did not elaborate.

What he absolutely didn't need to do was call out Meyer during a recent podcast.

"Controversy follows wherever he has been," Harbaugh said.

Meyer's daughter weighed in. (Just a guess but that Twitter wouldn't have been posted without at least Urban's tacit approval.)

"I don't think it was anything new. I don't think it was a bombshell," Harbaugh said of his comment.

That might be true, but as one media member said, is it worth it poking the bear with a stick?

"I'm not into making animal analogies," Harbaugh said.

Perhaps it's best to view the Harbaugh dichotomy through personnel groups. Running a spread RPO means a diverse attack out of multiple formations. Michigan has been in a four-receiver set only six times since the end of the 2016 season. That will have to change.

Under Harbaugh, Michigan has used a three-receiver set for the largest percentage of its plays (28.4 percent of the 3,593 plays). The so-called "11 personnel" -- one running back, one tight end, three wideouts -- has taken over both college and pro football.

According to Pro Football Focus, 11 personnel groupings grew 71 percent in the NFL from 2008-17. Broken down, that means 34 percent of offensive formations were in 11 personnel in 2008. That had grown to 58 percent through 2017.

Michigan reached a Harbaugh-era high in 2018 with 36 percent of the plays starting in 11 personnel. Only 16 percent of plays in the Harbaugh era have been "big plays" -- plays that gain at least 12 yards. Last year, the FBS average was right at 16 percent.

Not surprisingly, that means Michigan has been an average explosive team. The top two teams in big plays last season were Oklahoma (23.9 percent) and Alabama (22.2 percent). Both went to the CFP.

Michigan finished out of the top 50 in that category.

Forget analytics. Will a new offense be enough to carry Michigan back into the top four where the playoffs lie?

Distractions don't win championships. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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