Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has yet to win a Big Ten title with the Wolverines and has struggled against arch-rival Ohio State. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Football

Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: Is Jim Harbaugh’s seat at No. 11 Michigan heating up?

Struggling against Michigan's biggest rivals and still looking for his first Big Ten title, is the shine coming off Harbaugh's luster in Ann Arbor?

Posted July 17th, 2019

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We’re 43 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We continue with our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked first, second, eighth and 13th in our 2018 poll.

Our No. 11 team: Michigan

The Wolverines’ best-case scenario: Quarterback Shea Patterson blossoms in new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ spread scheme, which opens the door for Michigan to beat Ohio State and win a Big Ten title for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era. The Big Ten is winnable with a coaching change at Ohio State and a new quarterback at Penn State. Defensive coordinator Don Brown and his defense provide Michigan a chance once it reaches the College Football Playoff.

And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? The Wolverines don’t adjust well to a new offensive philosophy and let Ohio State continue their domination in this rivalry, which leads to more recruiting victories and a bigger talent gap for the Buckeyes. A lackluster season could spell real trouble for Harbaugh. The Wolverines continue to play second fiddle to their bitter rivals in Columbus despite the absence of Urban Meyer. Continued offensive woes send Harbaugh back to the NFL and Michigan back to the drawing board.

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Last year, Michigan was 12th in our preseason poll.

Inside the Wolverines

Coach: Jim Harbaugh (5th year, 38-14; 96-41 overall at San Diego, Stanford and Michigan)

2018:  10-3, 8-1 in the Big Ten (lost to Florida in the Peach Bowl).

Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense

Shoes to fill: RB Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 TDs); LB Devin Bush (led team in tackles, Big Ten defensive player of the year); DE Chase Winovich (3rd round, Patriots), TE Zach Gentry (5th round, Steelers), DL Rashan Gary (1st round, Packers)

Spring cleaning: Harbaugh showed a lack of awareness when he abandoned his fight against spread offenses and hired Gattis to implement a modern style in Ann Arbor. It remains to be seen how much Harbaugh will trust his new hire when times get tight. Will Harbaugh allow his offense early growing pains for future success, or will he take control and revert back to his comfort zone of power offense in big games?

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson (2) runs against Michigan State during the second half last October at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan won, 21-7. (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Shea Patterson (led team), 210-325-2,600 yards, 22 TDs, 7 INTs

RUSHING: Tru Wilson (3rd), 62-364-1; QB Shea Patterson (4th), 76-273-2QB Kellen Mond (2nd), 149-474-7; Jashaun Corbin (3rd), 61-346-1

RECEIVING: Nico Collins (1st), 38-632-6; Donovan Peoples-Jones (2nd), 47-612-8

TACKLES: LB Josh Ross (4th), 61

SACKS: LB Josh Uche (1st), 7.0

INTERCEPTIONS: DB Josh Metellus (T-1st), 3

Returning All-Big Ten (14)

Offense: RB Karan Higdon (1st team), OT Jon Runyan (1st), OG Ben Bredeson (2nd), QB Shea Patterson (3rd), WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (3rd), C Cesar Ruiz (3rd), OG Michael Onwenu (3rd), WR Nico Collins (hon. mention)

Defense: DB Lavert Hill (1st), DB Josh Metellus (2nd), LB Josh Ross (hon. mention), LB Josh Uche (hon. mention), LB Khaleke Hudson (hon. mention)

Special teams: P Will Hart (punter of the year)

FYI

An exciting offense?: It was the right year for Harbaugh to torch his pride and see if a spread offense can help Michigan reach championship heights. Patterson is a mobile quarterback who should thrive with more freedom. Wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins are real weapons. The running game is a concern, but the spread with a successful passing game should help Michigan find success on the ground.

Don Brown is back: The number of returning starters on defense matters less than the return of its defensive coordinator. Brown is a true maestro of defensive success and all he needs is for the offense to hold its end of the bargain for the Wolverines to compete for a conference championship and a berth into the playoff. The secondary is stout.

If not now, when?: Michigan is one of those programs judged on championships. Harbaugh has yet to deliver anything remotely close to the expected success fans placed upon him when hired. It’s now or never for him; the Big Ten is ripe for the picking. Ryan Day is now the head coach at Ohio State. Trace McSorley is no longer the quarterback at Penn State. If the Wolverines can’t win the division in 2019, will Harbaugh be back in 2020?

2018 national stat rankings

Scoring: 21st (35.2 ppg)

Total offense: 49th (419.5 ypg)

Passing: 79th (215.7 ypg)

Rushing: 30th (203.8 ypg)

Red zone offense: T-35th

Time of possession: 5th (34:18)

Scoring defense: 16th (19.4 ppg)

Total defense: 2nd (275.2 ypg)

Pass defense: 2nd (147.8 ypg)

Rush defense: 23rd (127.4 ypg)

Red zone defense: 128th

Turnover margin: T-35th

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 31Middle Tennessee St.
Sept. 7Army
Sept. 21at Wisconsin*W, 38-13
Sept. 28Rutgers*W, 42-7
Oct. 5Iowa*
Oct. 12at Illinois*
Oct. 19at Penn State*W, 42-7
Oct. 26Notre DameL, 24-17
Nov. 2at Maryland*W, 42-21
Nov. 16Michigan State*W, 21-7
Nov. 23at Indiana*W, 31-20
Nov. 30Ohio State*L, 62-39
* Big Ten game

The key game? Nov. 30, Ohio State. It’s hard to justify a $7.5 million salary while going 0-5 against the program you were hired to beat. Harbaugh risks moving to 0-6 against Ohio State if the Wolverines can’t stop the streak this season. The timing couldn’t be better with a home game against a Buckeyes team breaking in a new head coach and a new quarterback.

The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
20145-7 / 3-5— / —No bowl
201510-3 / 6-2— / 12thCitrus Bowl, W
201610-3 / 7-27th / 10thOrange Bowl, L
20178-5 / 5-411th / —Outback Bowl, L
201810-3 / 8-114th / 14thPeach Bowl, L
Total43-21 / 29-144 bowl games (1-3)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: A run to last year’s Big Ten title game has Northwestern wanting more

No. 21: Mike Leach hopes Clemson’s quarterback loss is Washington State’s gain

No. 20: With no proven quarterback, Wisconsin will ride the legs of Jonathan Taylor

No. 19: With Jarret Stidham in the NFL, Auburn must choose a freshman quarterback

No. 18: Army might end up throwing a real wrench into the CFP’s plans this year

No. 17: Iowa State hopes to keep its recent rise moving full steam ahead

No. 16: Central Florida is trying to overcome a pair of serious quarterback injuries

No. 15: Utah casts its eyes on winning the Pac-12 title this year

No. 14: Penn State’s baromoter? Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State (again)

No. 13: Defense may determine Washington’s chances at another Pac-12 title

No. 12: Texas A&M must navigate a scheduled peppered with heavyweights

No. 11: Michigan

Our Top 25, by conferences

5 schools:

Big Ten — No. 11 Michigan, No. 14 Penn State, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska

4 schools:

Pac-12 — No. 13 Washington, No. 15 Utah, No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford

2 schools:

SEC — No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 19 Auburn

1 school:

AAC — No. 16 Central Florida

Big 12 — No. 17 Iowa State

Independents — No. 18 Army

ACC — No. 23 Syracuse

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 10 team

Want a hint?

This SEC school began last season unranked but finished in the top 10 for the first time since 2012.

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