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UM football story lines: The heat is on Jim Harbaugh in season seven


It has been two years since the last Big Ten Media Days, and college football has changed dramatically from athletes becoming more vocal about social issues to now being able to profit off their name, image and likeness. Then there’s the NCAA, fresh off an enormous defeat at the Supreme Court level, openly suggesting it may be time to think about shifting governance power to conferences, and a playoff expansion proposal made last month is now being considered.

That’s a lot to digest. Sixteen months ago campuses shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Big Ten eventually played a limited non-conference football schedule last fall.

Michigan went 2-4 and canceled its final three games because of an outbreak. Since then Jim Harbaugh, entering his seventh season, signed a contract extension worth roughly half his previous salary, brimming with performance bonuses, and also a light buyout which gives Michigan flexibility. Harbaugh revamped his staff, particularly on the defensive side, hired Mike Macdonald as defensive coordinator, after firing Don Brown, and replaced all but defensive line coach Shaun Nua. It is a young staff that now includes former Michigan players Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy and emphasizes recruiting, especially locally.

Harbaugh will attend Big Ten Media Days, a two-day event which opens Thursday when Michigan will be among the seven schools featured. Three players — Aidan Hutchinson, Hassan Haskins and Josh Ross — will also be made available for interviews.

There are plenty of Michigan story lines heading into media days, and here might be a few:

How hot is Harbaugh’s seat?

No doubt the joke this week will be something along the lines of — Big Ten Media Days are the only way Harbaugh and Michigan can make it to Indianapolis, site of the Big Ten championship game. There’s no doubt his seat temperature is going to be a topic, because, well, there are always coaches on the hot seat entering any season, and coming off a 2-4 record, about to start his seventh season, and with that contract extension, being winless against Ohio State and never reaching the Big Ten title game, Harbaugh is facing the heat this year. 

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How relevant will Michigan be this season?

Remember in 2019 when a Cleveland.com preseason poll of Big Ten reporters had Michigan winning the conference? Harbaugh, in a rare moment of agreement with media, said at the Big Ten kickoff that year that’s where he would pick the Wolverines. Michigan probably won’t draw much attention at media days this year in terms of being a contender. In many ways, this feels like the first year of a coaching change, the difference is, a new head coach and staff often are given a first-year pass.

Can Michigan catch Ohio State?

Might want to add “ever” to the end of that. The Buckeyes, it seems, have lapped the Big Ten East field — and conference — a few times. Maybe a team here and there will threaten their supremacy but on a consistent basis? Michigan players and probably Harbaugh will be asked about Ohio State, because they almost always are at media days. OSU players always talk about preparing every day for Michigan. It would be refreshing to hear Michigan players openly talk with an edge about their daily focus on rivals Michigan State and Ohio State.

Will recruiting turn up a notch?

Harbaugh’s staff is younger and energized when it comes to recruiting, and there’s a renewed focus on recruiting in-state, particularly in Detroit. The Wolverines currently are ranked third in the Big Ten and No. 11 nationally for its 2022 class according to 247Sports Composite. Michigan has 16 commitments with one five-star, three four stars and 12 three stars. Penn State is ranked second in the Big Ten with 20 commitments including 11 four-star recruits, while Ohio State is ranked No. 1 nationally and of its 17 commitments, three are rated five stars.

How different will Michigan look?

The biggest question will be the defense, because not having seen spring practice or a spring game, no one really knows what Macdonald has brought to the table in his first year as defensive coordinator. Harbaugh won't say much, either, to hide things behind the curtain until the season begins. There was such a small sample size with six games last year, it’s also difficult to know much about the returning players. Cade McNamara emerged as the starting quarterback after Joe Milton, who has since transferred, started the first five games, and there's five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy, and Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman. First-year quarterback coach Matt Weiss called McNamara the starter coming off spring ball, and Harbaugh likely will shed light on who they are as quarterbacks but not the competition.

What about the Dr. Robert Anderson report?

While the university remains in mediation with the nearly 900 accusers of the late Dr. Robert Anderson, an athletic department physician alleged to have sexually abused former UM students and athletes, Harbaugh has been a supporter of his former coach, the late Bo Schembechler. According to a report commissioned and paid for by Michigan, and comments from some victims who have spoken publicly, Schembechler was alerted to Anderson’s inappropriate behavior. Last month at a camp, Harbaugh was asked how UM should go forward honoring the legacy of Schembechler, whose name is on the football building and is represented by a statue in front of the building. He said the Schembechler “I know” never “swept under the rug or ignored” anything. Harbaugh probably won’t share more than those feelings.

What do Harbaugh, players feel about NIL?

Harbaugh has said he is supportive of college athletes profiting off their name, image, likeness (NIL), and since July 1, the doors have opened for athletes to do just that. It will be interesting to hear the players share some of the partnerships they've made and their thoughts on personal branding while playing for the Michigan brand.

How about the potential playoff expansion?

The College Football Playoff committee is exploring moving from a four-team playoff to determine the national champion to a 12-team playoff. Harbaugh has always been on board with playoff expansion and has frequently shared how he would format a playoff. But what do Big Ten players feel about additional games and how they would handle that. Would expansion make the college football postseason more interesting?

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis