Monday, Sep 24, 2018
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David Briggs

Harbaugh needs to start winning as big as his words

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Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, left, greets Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh during a more congenial time between the pair.

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At what point must Jim Harbaugh start winning as big as his words?

For those scoring at home, it has been 395 days since Michigan beat a team with a winning record and one day since the top man in blue’s last red-herring tweet.

The latest daffy drama began with — what else? — a war on Bloomin’ Onions.

To make a nonstory short, one second-tier bowl sponsored by a chain restaurant (Outback) chose unranked Michigan over No. 16 Michigan State, thus sentencing the Spartans to a different second-tier bowl sponsored by a credit union (Holiday) and turning the chip on their shoulder into a millstone.

Greener-than-usual fans mounted a Twitter campaign to #boycottOutback. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio — who has won eight of his last 10 games against Michigan and two of three meetings against Harbaugh — pointed to the scoreboard.

“The records are what they are,” he said. “I’ll just continue to continue to focus on beating Michigan.”

Harbaugh could have left it there, but like another prominent figure who wears baseball caps with suits and has an itchy Twitter finger, he could not resist.

“Congrats on turning around a 3-9 team, plagued with off field issues,” he fired back, referring to the Spartans’ record last season. “Good for BIG to have him back.”

Boom!

As for the rest of us, we’ll keep patiently waiting for the return of Michigan.

OK, that is not fair.

The truth is Harbaugh has done a good job in Ann Arbor, his four losses this season a true disappointment only when stripped of context.

Yes, Urban Meyer won a national title in his third season at Ohio State, same as Nick Saban did at Alabama. But this was always going to be a challenging year in Ann Arbor. With one of the youngests team in the country — Michigan started 14 freshmen or sophomores — any doomsday reactions could best be compared to the day the bill arrives from a big credit card purchase.

You know the pain is coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Four losses on paper is one thing. Watching it unfold one third-down draw and overthrow after another is something else.

Big picture, Harbaugh overachieved in his first season at Michigan, came within a disputed spot of the playoffs in his second, and proved only that the Wolverines are one of the 127 programs — excluding Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State — not immune to rebuilding seasons in his third.

I love Harbaugh. He is great for college football. Great for the Big Ten. Great for Michigan.

But ...

It is time to put up.

His fun, eccentric swagger crossed the line into empty bluster this week, including his swipe at the repute of Michigan State, which dismissed four players charged with sexual assault over the offseason. It is neither wise to include such horrifying incidents in rivalry smack talk nor to cast stones.

Though the situations are not comparable, Michigan this year started receiver Grant Perry, who pled guilty in July to a felony count of resisting arrest and misdemeanor assault and battery. Two misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct charges were dropped.

As for more trivial on-field matters, who is Harbaugh to be squawking?

You know the numbers: 1-2 against Michigan State; 0-3 against Ohio State; seven straight losses to winning teams.

That has to change next season, the most important one of Harbaugh’s career.

For better or worse, I believe 2018 will tell us whether Michigan — a harder place to win than many powers — is a good program or on the brink of a consistently great one.

Don’t tell me about the schedule, which includes trips to Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Ohio State, all of which won at least nine games this year. Harbaugh will be in his fourth season with a cupboard full of his own promising recruits and empty excuses.

That includes at quarterback, his bailiwick but Michigan’s biggest glitch this season. Harbaugh needs to develop a top-end Big Ten passer, whether that’s redshirt freshman Brandon Peters — who showed promise before his injury at Wisconsin — freshman Dylan McCaffrey, or a transfer.

One strong possibility is Ole Miss sophomore Shea Patterson, a Toledo native and the former top-rated quarterback recruit in the nation. Patterson, who moved to Texas in fifth grade, starred in Oxford this fall but may be able to transfer without penalty after the NCAA hit the Rebels with heavy sanctions. He will reportedly visit Ann Arbor this weekend.

Patterson told me last year he grew up dreaming of playing at Michigan, where his dad, Sean, had season tickets.

Could he prove just the conquering hero Michigan needs? 

And, for that matter, will Harbaugh?

If he wants to keep talking a big game, time to start winning them. 

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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