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College

As a deep freeze envelops the nation, the temperature rises on Jim Harbaugh

  • Outback-Bowl-Football-12

    Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh walks on the sideline in a football game against Maryland in College Park, Md.

    AP

  • Outback-Bowl-Football-13

    Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh looks for a holding during the second half of the Outback Bowl.

    AP

TAMPA — What would you buy if you had $9.3 million?

Maybe a home in Southern California, a private jet, or perhaps an island in the Caribbean? All three could be purchased with that chunk of change.

Michigan spent $9.3 million on head coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton in 2017. It netted the Wolverines eight wins — none of substance — and one of the program’s worst offenses in recent memory.

The stats are bleak and for mature audiences only. UM threw nine touchdown passes this season, the lowest total since 1975, when the Wolverines only attempted 125 passes all year. They averaged only 349 yards per game, Michigan’s second-fewest total in the past decade.

Outback-Bowl-Football-13

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh looks for a holding during the second half of the Outback Bowl.

AP Enlarge

Monday’s Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, a game Michigan led 19-3 late in the third quarter only to lose 26-19, provided an appropriate punctuation mark on a dismal season. It was a five-turnover debacle, a coup de grace in a year filled with doom and gloom.

“I just feel that this loss will push us into next year and will give us more of an edge,” sophomore linebacker Khaleke Hudson said. “It’ll light a fire under our butts going into next year.”

Where — and how — did it all go so wrong for Michigan? The answers are many, vast, and arduous.

It’s true Michigan had an abundance of youth and an injury bug in 2017, but the excuses are becoming exhausting. Since 2000, Bob Stoops, Larry Coker, Jim Tressel, Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer (twice), Les Miles, Nick Saban (twice), and Gene Chizik all won national championships in one of their first three seasons. Georgia’s Kirby Smart could be added to that list next week.

For this to be the tone after Harbaugh’s third season is surprising to many. He was hailed as a conquering hero when the former Michigan quarterback was welcomed back to Ann Arbor in December, 2014. Instant results were expected for one of college football’s proudest programs, which was in the midst of its dark ages.

Consecutive 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2016 appeared to be evidence Harbaugh, who won big at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, would put Michigan on a path to greatness. But the offensive ineptitude in 2017, a wholly dereliction, left UM fans and college football observers scratching their heads and raising their voices.

Harbaugh’s been criticized regularly by ESPN broadcaster Paul Finebaum and former Michigan receiver Amani Toomer. Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, who played at Ohio State, joined the growing chorus after the Outback Bowl, tweeting, “Harbaugh is the most overrated coach in football. No creativity after a month of practice.”

There are more alarming numbers: Michigan is 9-8 in its past 17 games, it was outscored 78-26 during the second half of its five losses this season, and the Wolverines are just 4-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Harbaugh.

“I always think that just making the play when you’ve got the other team down, a chance to grow your lead, take advantage of those things,” Harbaugh said Monday. “But we weren’t able to do that.

Quarterback Shea Patterson’s arrival could be the spark Michigan desperately needs. The roster is filled with talented players, maybe a dynamic difference-making quarterback will prove to be the overriding missing piece. Still, the offseason, which comes on the heels of a three-game losing streak, will be critical for Harbaugh — and filled with scrutiny.

It’s not only the quarterback position that’s facing wholesale changes. Michigan’s offensive line was dreadful again, and the receiving corps is bereft of playmakers. The play-calling also felt suspect, beginning in Arlington, Texas, against Florida.

South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw delivered a damning statement about the Wolverines after the Outback Bowl.

“You could tell their whole body language changed,” he said. “Just the speed they were playing at, the power. At the beginning, they were coming off the ball pretty good. Toward the end, it really wasn’t. I could tell they were giving up.”

Quitting will not accompany Harbaugh’s biography. But 11 losses in 39 games at UM, with nary a win of any significance, undoubtedly is equal parts exasperating and motivating.

“To come back as football coach at the University of Michigan, I have to tell you that I have thought about that, dreamed about that since the time I was a young lad — 9, 10 years old,” Harbaugh said at his introductory press conference. “Throughout my adult life, [I’ve] dreamed about coaching at Michigan, and now it’s time to live that.

“I have no other words to really describe how that feels except to tell you I have great excitement about the challenge of serving the University of Michigan as your football coach.”

Exactly 1,100 days later, the challenge of building Michigan into a national champion remains daunting yet attainable.

“It gets old after a while, just saying, ‘Oh we’re going to get better,’” junior defensive end Chase Winovich said. “At the end of the day, you have two options: you can get worse or you can get better.”

Contact Kyle Rowland at: krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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