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Big Ten Media Days Recap - Part I: Michigan Can’t Escape Ohio State

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Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Wolverines players can’t escape their rival at the Big Ten Media Days 2019.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days

Big Ten Media Days: Part I

The phrase “hope springs eternal” describes the Big Ten Media Days rather well. Every team, from Rutgers to Ohio State, is excited about the upcoming season. Every team is working harder and seeing more gains in the weight room. Every team comes into the season with more experience and better senior leadership. Enthusiasm abounds. That being the case, it’s wise to take what’s said during the two-day event with a grain of salt. Or maybe two.

But that’s not to say that there can’t be any interesting takeaways. With respect to Michigan, what stood out more than anything was that two questions, in various forms, were asked of head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan players as often as they were. In fact, variants of these two questions were so common, they may have been asked more than all other questions combined. The first of those questions might not surprise.

What will it take for Michigan to finally beat Ohio State?

Michigan is always asked about Ohio State and vice versa. New Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and his players described the rivalry at length, including referencing a drill they run that’s called, not surprisingly, “The Team Up North” drill. Michigan’s Media Days representatives have similarly been asked about Ohio State just as frequently over the years. This year, however, was different. The line of questioning was much more intense than in past years, both in tenor and timing. And it’s not difficult to understand why.

Last year, for all intents and purposes, it looked to be Michigan’s year. The Wolverines had the nation’s top ranked defense. Had their quarterback. Over a ten-game winning streak, Michigan was playing as well as any team in the country. Ohio State for its part, was struggling, losing to Purdue and needing overtime and a botched two-point conversion to get past Maryland. Everything seemed to be lining up for Harbaugh and the Wolverines to break their losing streak against the Buckeyes. Yet the Buckeyes blitzed the Wolverines. Again. So after that game, after that season, you’d be forgiven for asking, “If not this year, when?” Many of those in attendance asked just that question.

Michigan players Ben Bredeson, Khaleke Hudson and the latest Glasgow Brother, Jordan, all made the trip to Chicago, and if they tired of answering questions about Ohio State, it didn’t show. All stuck to the script, essentially saying that their approach to Ohio State hasn’t changed and that they’re not looking ahead, but rather taking the season a game at a time. Bredesen, however, did acknowledge that, “We know our schedule and we know who’s at the end of it.”

The idea that Harbaugh has taken the Wolverines as far as he can in their current state led to a related question, did Michigan bring in new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis in response to last year’s thrashing in Columbus? Or, to put it another way, was hiring Gattis an admission that Michigan had to make fundamental changes to its program to compete with the Buckeyes?

That would be fine, by the way, if that was the case. There’s no sin in admitting the need for change, the need to evolve. According to Harbaugh, however, that wasn’t the case. Rather, Harbaugh explained that he had long had his eye on Gattis, back to Gattis’ days coaching at Western Michigan, and when it became clear that Gattis was available, Harbaugh wasted no time in acting. When asked about the “Pro Spread” scheme that Gattis is expected to run, Harbaugh similarly said that offense wasn’t chosen in response to anything that happened last season, but that Gattis’ offense, “is a perfect fit for Patterson’s skill set.” Ditto for next year’s starter-in-waiting, Dylan McCaffrey.

But bringing in a new offensive coordinator with a new offensive scheme is one thing, allowing him to run the offense is another. Will Harbaugh, someone who’s always been involved in his teams’ offenses, cede control to his young offensive coordinator? As I wrote Monday in Monday’s Cocktail Party Preview, “A change in coaching personnel means little if it doesn’t bring with it a change in coaching philosophy. So the key question for Michigan is, will the hire of Gattis result in a more wide-open offense? Or will it simply result in someone else calling the same plays?”

Will Harbaugh really give Gattis free reign? That was an even greater point of curiosity among the media. But more on that tomorrow.