Jim Harbaugh was hired prior to the 2015 season to bring one thing to Ann Arbor, Michigan -- a national championship. After four seasons at the helm of Michigan, that seems more like a fantasy than a certainty.
Harbaugh has not won the Big Ten East, nor has he topped bitter rival Ohio State thus far during his tenure. The last time out against the Buckeyes, the Wolverines got smoked 62-39 in what served as the Big Ten East title game. At a salary of $7.5 million per year -- third highest in the country among head coaches -- that simply won't cut it.
The door in the Big Ten is more open than it has been during any other time of his tenure, which makes this the most pressure-packed season that he has faced as a college football coach. After all, Ryan Day replaced Urban Meyer at Ohio State, the Buckeyes are counting on transfer quarterback Justin Fields after Fields couldn't unseat Jake Fromm at Georgia, Penn State is without quarterback Trace McSorley, and the Big Ten West still lacks a true power.
If Harbaugh doesn't win the division and enter championship Saturday with a College Football Playoff appearance within reach, it will time to start wondering if the program has hit its ceiling. It seems that he knows it, too.
Harbaugh hired Josh Gattis away from Alabama to run his offense. Gattis, a first-time offensive coordinator, will employ his new-school "speed in space" scheme that will utilize the many weapons on his side of the ball in a variety of ways. Quarterback Shea Patterson gets back a talented group of receivers including Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, and he should get Tarik Black back after an injury derailed his 2018 season. Losing running back Karan Higdon to the pros and Chris Evans to a suspension will hurt, but Christian Turner and Tru Wilson have earned the praise of Gattis during the offseason.
Gattis' presence is what speaks volumes here. Harbaugh has made a concerted effort to develop an offense outside of his own comfort zone after that speed and space that other teams thrive with has cost him a chance at the CFP. If Harbaugh pulls a Les Miles circa 2015, inserts himself into the game plan too much and changes the philosophy he hired Gattis to implement, he will be following the same path that got Miles fired by LSU in the middle of the 2016 season.
Stubbornness doesn't work in today's day and age of college football. You have to win in ways that may make you uncomfortable.
Take Nick Saban, for example. He is firmly against up-tempo offenses and has relentlessly fought to limit the impact of run-pass options (specifically, complaining about linemen who get too far downfield). When he hired Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator at Alabama in 2014, Saban decided to swallow his pride and incorporate the offense he was specifically fighting against. Harbaugh has to do the same thing.
Defensively, the Wolverines should be fine. Don Brown is firmly entrenched at defensive coordinator, and despite losses of several key stars, Brown has proven throughout his career that he's one of the best in the business.
Because of that, it shouldn't be hard for Harbaugh to take the next step with the door wide open. He made the Gattis hire specifically for that. But if it doesn't work out, it'll be time for Michigan fans -- and its administration -- to recognize that they aren't getting enough bang for their buck. More than $7.5 million of them, in fact.