With college football’s national championship game in the rearview mirror, thoughts across the country turn to next season. From Piscataway to Pullman, programs are reflecting on the season that was and looking ahead to the next. In Ann Arbor, that introspection is a little deeper than in most places. For at Michigan, it’s not as much, “What went wrong?” as it is, “Where to go from here?”
It’s almost hard to believe that just over a month ago, Michigan was considered one of the top teams in the country. Led by what was billed as the nation’s best defense, the Wolverines appeared to be on their way to earning a spot in the college football playoff. But it all came crashing down, as it usually does, against Ohio State. Michigan’s malaise continued in a disheartening loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl. When the dust settled, the Wolverines surrendered more than 100 points and nearly 1,000 yards of total offense over their final two games. To borrow a phrase from Michigan’s Chase Winovich, the first three months of the season, Michigan’s fabled “Revenge Tour,” now seems like a mirage.
Such an ending is nothing new to Michigan or its fans. Michigan ended last season with losses to Ohio State and its bowl opponent. And the season before that. But this year, Michigan’s finish hit harder, the disappointment weighed heavier. That’s because this was year was supposed to be different. This year was supposed to be special. Michigan had its defense, had its quarterback. Yet the results were all-too-familiar. Déjà vu all over again, you might say.
This year marked Jim Harbaugh’s fourth year leading the Wolverines, and with a larger sample size, realities become apparent. None are more apparent than this: Michigan’s late season performance (much like its early season performance) befits its construction. Harbaugh’s Wolverines have been built to do exactly what they’re doing: Overpower teams with lesser talent and those that don’t match up well against the Wolverines. For those teams without the most elite athletes or elite schemes, Michigan’s physical, “grind it out” style works. The “body blows” of running the ball into a stacked line eventually do take their toll against overmatched teams. Predictably so, Michigan steamrolled much of its schedule. In its ten wins, Michigan outscored its opponents by nearly four touchdowns a game and beat Nebraska, Wisconsin and Penn State, all good teams, by 46, 25 and 35 points respectively. It created an awfully convincing mirage.
For those teams with the most elite athletes and with elite schemes, however, Michigan proved no match. Michigan’s “grind-it-out” style simply isn’t enough in today’s game. At least not against elite teams. Especially when Michigan’s defense, the bedrock of the team, is routinely exposed by teams not content to simply “grind it out.” After four seasons, this is Harbaugh’s Michigan. And barring any changes, and significant changes at that, this is the team Michigan will continue to be: A very good, but not great team that will struggle against elite teams.
That being the case, in many respects, this is Harbaugh’s most important offseason since he arrived in Ann Arbor four years ago. Harbaugh has re-stocked the cupboard, instilled a toughness that had been missing, instilled his system. But he’s topped out with his system. And whether he’s able to change, able to adapt, not only holds the key to next season, but Michigan’s future.
There are signs that Harbaugh, if not embracing change, has at least accepted the necessity of it. After the Peach Bowl loss, Harbaugh said he didn’t anticipate any staff changes, a statement that landed like a lead balloon in Ann Arbor. However, he’s apparently had a change of heart since then. In perhaps the most welcome news out of Ann Arbor since super-recruit Dax Hill returned to the fold, Michigan introduced a new offensive coordinator last week with the hiring former Alabama co-offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. There’s no telling whether Gattis will be successful in his new role, or whether his hire will result in any real fundamental changes to the Michigan offense, but the fact that Harbaugh is bringing in new blood is an encouraging sign for Michigan fans.
But offense is only half the story, because Michigan needs to show flexibility on defense, as well. It’s ironic that to take that next step, Michigan’s offense needs to show more explosion, more aggressive play, and its defense needs to show more patience, more prudence at times. But most importantly, both sides of the ball need to display the ability to adjust to the foe facing them – something each has had difficulty doing, particularly the defense.
A week before playing Ohio State, Indiana exploited the middle of defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense, rolling up nearly 400 yards of total offense. Brown and the Wolverines saw little need to adjust their scheme, and the Buckeyes torched Michigan a week later, using many of same the tactics. When you have the nation’s best defense (statistically, at least), it’s understandable that you’d be resistant to change. However, as many have colorfully put it, there are times you need more than just a fastball. Is Brown capable of adapting, of adding an off-speed pitch to his repertoire? He will have to if the Wolverines hope the be the type of team they thought they were for most of the season.
So for Michigan, the question is: Do the hires of Gattis and new defensive coach Anthony Campanile simply reflect a change in faces? Or do the hires portend a change in the direction of the program? If Michigan wants to take the next step, and end its practice of finishing the season on a down note, it will have to be the latter.