Who’s Got It Better Than Us?
Alas! Another year has come and gone. It blossomed in late summer with cautious optimism and a tinge of fear. Then came the ulcer-inducing rage and disappointment of early fall. And soon after Thanksgiving (when just enough time passed to make yourself delusional) another belittling loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes. Throw in a whole off-season to wonder why you even watch sports and you’ve got yourself the life-cycle of a Michigan football fan…
Following the 56-27 loss to Ohio State, there has been some more much-needed soul-searching amongst fans (because there’s never enough!). Many emotions and thoughts have been shared about the state of Michigan football within the last month. Most of it has been understandably negative. We have only ourselves to blame for rooting for this team. We hold the blinders that prevent us from seeing what so many others around the nation see. With each succeeding disappointment (commonly known as the “current Michigan football season”) fans become a little more agitated, disillusioned by what they witness. They call out in horror at what they witness. Their voices are many, but a cogent analysis has been (to one degree or another) yet achieved. Not all the points have been rightly considered; other, more erroneous, ones have been given too much attention. In light of this, I’ve compiled a list of the most compelling ideas about the Michigan football program and added my own thoughts. It is with this list I hope fans will better understand and cope with their grievances and be able to articulate them thusly at any time: to family members at wakes, co-workers on vacation, first dates, random strangers in check-out lines, or wherever the elderly are located.
So without further ado, let’s cut this cadaver open and see what we’ve got!
For years now, there has been a constituency within the Michigan fanbase who have spoken of a recruiting gap between Michigan and Ohio State. They have argued that this gap between the two schools is (in part) why Michigan cannot best Ohio State. More talented players have committed to Ohio State than Michigan over the years and allowed them to have the consistently better team year in and out. This growing recruiting gap explains how Michigan consistently plays second fiddle to the Buckeyes; and what’s worse, the gap has only widened since Jim Harbaugh took over the program in 2015. Until Michigan out-recruits Ohio State, they cannot hope to beat them.
On the face of it, sure, a team that can recruit top-tier talent to their school each year has a great shot at winning a lot of games and beating teams that have not recruited as well as them.
However, there are a few counterpoints that undermine this thinking. These counterpoints don’t outright negate the common sense logic of the “recruiting gap” argument, but they do allow for a more nuanced point-of-view on the subject.
First, some things to never forget about recruiting ratings and rankings:
- It’s subjective, not all scouts will agree exactly on every player.
- Not all players turn out to be as talented as they were projected to be.
- Not all players stick around at the original university they committed to, so rankings don’t mean much if you can’t get the talented players to stay.
But, let’s just say these variables had no effect on recruiting. Let’s take the rankings at face value. Below is a table of averaged class rankings.
Even if we were to accept the “recruiting gap” argument, we already run into some trouble.
If recruiting rankings matter so much: How does Michigan lose to Wisconsin and Penn State this year? How was it even close against Iowa? How does Michigan lose to Iowa in 2016? How can the 2017 Michigan team (by far the “worst” team in the Harbaugh era with the lowest collectively recruited upperclassmen) perform better against Ohio State than the 2019 team in The Game? Not just that, but in 2015, how does Michigan State beat Ohio State? Or Penn State in 2016? Or Purdue last year? Or this year, how is Alabama not undefeated? Or how have they not won the national championship every single year since 2011? How did they lose to not just LSU, but Auburn, too? Even with Bama’s starting QB injured, the gap between Alabama and Auburn was larger than Ohio State and Michigan’s.
To add insult to injury (per ESPN’s researchers), from 2016 to 2019, Michigan has out-recruited Ohio State in total number of four and five star recruits: 71 to 69. Per the same source: in that time, Ohio State has had eighteen players drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft; Michigan has had four…
Clearly, there is something more to winning college football games than recruiting.
THE WILL TO WIN
Much ado was made about Ohio State’s quarterback, Justin Fields, after his comment: “I think we care about [winning The Game] more than they do to be honest.” Some within the Michigan community took offense. Others (including former Michigan players) saw it as a telling indictment against the Harbaugh-led program.
“Fields’s comment couldn’t possibly be true! Why now, just look at all the tears in the eyes of these Michigan players, the heartbreak! How could you possibly suggest they did not care? And Fields is a first-year transfer from Georgia. What does he know of the importance of The Game, the tradition? My god, the tradition! Harumph!”
“He may have been at Columbus for less than a year, but he sees the obsession and the wanting to beat Michigan. They’ve got nothing but true believers over there, who want to win! And tears be damned! These guys just care more so they never have to cry!”
Passionate arguments aside, both appear to agree on this concept of “caring” or “willing” that is lacking.
The caring/willing for victory is a simple enough concept, it is the “we just wanted it more” ideology. This type of phenomenal thinking makes sense on a certain level, but sadly it is only a superficial one. Every player and coach wants their team to win. One does not simply “want” it more than one’s opponent. Both sides want the win equally. You either want to win or not. And every goddamned team wants to win every game. To not is a ludicrous standpoint. So when there is equal want, force decides. You want the victory? So does the other side. You’re going to need to take it from them. How so? Will power certainly isn’t going to block that 280lbs defensive tackle rumbling at top speed at you, or make a field goal, or catch or pass a ball, etc. etc. Someone needs to be put in each of those positions to make those respective plays. And then someone else is going to need to coach these persons on proper technique and get them into the gym so they can work out to become stronger and build endurance. And all these someones also need to study game film and learn their opponents and game plans and so on and so forth, you get what I’m driving at here…
Fields, whether wittingly or not, was making this other point: Intentions are all well and important, but the doing (and more importantly doing it well) is the foundation of any act. It is the difference between willing a victory and having the will to win. And even though there is no way to will victory into being. To work towards it at the highest mental and physical capacity with the most consistency is the best one can do and it often yields the results you desire.
For years now, Ohio State has demonstrated this dedication and work ethic with respect to The Game that Michigan has not.
Or perhaps not, perhaps there are supernatural forces at work…
UNLUCKY… OR INEPT
“Here we go…” might be the unofficial phrase of Michigan football fans. They tend to say it more than “Go Blue!” or “Hail to the Victors” combined. Whether it is a bad turnover, costly penalty, missed “sure bet” field goal (or badly needed one), dropped passes, missed assignments, out of position player on a crucial down, misread/executed offensive or defensive play, or any given type of inexplicable decision made by a player or coach, there is no shortage of head-scratching, hair-pulling incidents that happen in a Michigan football game that fans cannot help but wonder: “Are we cursed?”
Any given successful play can depend on any amount of luck, it is a game of odds after all. A quarterback throws a pass that bounces off the back of a lineman’s helmet, up into the air, right back into the hands of the quarterback and he rushes for a crucial first down or better. A kicked ball hits the field goal post and bounces through for the points. Right before the running back can cross the goal line, at the last possible inch, a defensive player knocks the ball loose and it falls into the hands of another defensive lineman and prevents a score. These are all lucky moments. They are abrupt, unplanned moments that could have been to the detriment of a team, but instead, work to its benefit.
Of course, being unlucky is the other side of contingency. When these unplanned moments during a game do turn calamitous for a team. Both luck and unluck, though, cease to exist after a certain point. Indeed, frequency is that point. Once something becomes common, almost habitual, then it ceases to have that frenetic quality it needs in order to qualify as a lucky or unlucky moment. If the quarterback continuously throws the ball into the back of his linemen’s heads, or the kicker continuously hits the post, or the running back always fumbles, these are not unlucky moments, these are inept players that need to either be benched or coached better, probably both.
In the case of Michigan, especially this year, the level of frequency with which unfavorable moments happened should leave no doubt which they suffer from.
Michigan fans are a prideful bunch. Much of the recent ire over the state of Michigan football comes from a deep, deep disappointment of current teams failing to live up to their expectations, steeped in a long tradition of winning…
Here are some facts for you to chew on, buddy!
- The Michigan Wolverines are the winningest program in college football history.
- They have claimed elven national championships.
- They have the most Big Ten titles.
- They have a winning record against all their rivals.
- The program is an iconic brand and has been since the great modern Michigan paterfamilias, Bo Schembechler, stepped foot on campus and rooted such lore as “Those who stay will be champions” and the “Michigan Man.”
What more evidence does one need to induct this scion into the Halls of College Football Greatness!? Who dare refute?!
…a more detailed look at the records of the Michigan football program, however, will offer a more nuanced, sobering picture.
- If Michigan wins the Citrus Bowl against Alabama, it will be their fourth 10-win season in five years. Michigan has not had four 10-win seasons in five years since the 70s under Bo Schembechler. The next time? The turn of the 20th century under Fielding Yost. By comparison? Alabama has had twelve straight seasons of at least ten wins. Oklahoma has only three seasons since 2000 in which they did not have double-digit winning seasons. And Ohio State? They only did slightly worse: four seasons that didn’t end with ten wins since 2000. And before then? They had five 10-win seasons within six years under John Cooper. All three have national championship claims as well.
- Jim Harbaugh is 2-11 vs Top-10 teams, and 10-13 vs Top-25 teams in his five years at Michigan. He was 2-2 vs Top-10s and 6-6 vs Top-25s in his four years at Stanford. But this losing record has not been uncommon to Michigan. In the years between 2008 and 2014, Michigan went 1-10 vs Top 10s, and 5-21 vs Top 25s. From 1990 to 2007, they went 25-14 vs Top 10s and 54-37 vs Top 25s. Michigan hasn’t had a winning record against Top Ten teams since 2007, Lloyd Carr’s last year (in which they were 2-1). They haven’t been undefeated against Top Ten teams since 1999 (yup, Tom Brady). And they haven’t been undefeated against both Top-10 and 25 teams since… you may have guessed it: 1997 (the last time they won a national championship).
- Michigan’s last national championship since 1997? 1948.
- Michigan hasn’t been the out-right Big Ten Champion since 2003 (they shared the Big Ten title with Iowa in 2004, the last time they had any claim to the title).
- Michigan hasn’t beat Ohio State since 2011 when it was coached by interim head coach Luke Fickel.
- Bo Schembechler never won a national championship. He didn’t even win the Rose Bowl until 1980, which happened to also be the first bowl he ever won at Michigan (he started coaching “the team, the team, the team” in 1969). He was 5-12 in bowl games.
- Michigan is 17-25 in bowl games since Bo arrived. 1-6 against Top-10 teams in bowl games since winning the national championship game.
- Michigan’s record against their rivals in the last ten years (in order of most to least importance: Ohio State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Minnesota): 1-9, 4-6, 4-3, 5-1.
Another thing to point out is that Jim Harbaugh never won a conference championship at Stanford, but that has nothing to do with Michigan football…
WHAT’S THE POINT OF ALL THIS?
Well, the Michigan football program has two obvious problems: 1) it isn’t an Elite football program; 2) the narrative promoted by the program, certain analysts, and the fanbase at large is that it is still one of the Elite programs in college football.
As I see it, there are two tiers in college football (Upper and Lower) and each has its own classes (Perennial Championship, Elite, Good, Above-Average, Average, and Poor), though the lines can blur. Below is just a brief explanation of the separate classes in the “Upper Tier”:
Perennial Championship Program: wins conference championships and competes in, and occasionally wins, national championships in a five-year span; has a winning record against Top-10 teams and Top-25 teams respectively in that timeframe
Elite Program: competes in, and/or wins, conference championships, and may compete for national championships within a three-year span; has recorded wins against Top-10 teams, and has a winning record versus Top-25 teams in that timeframe
Good Program: competes in conference championships or is in the conference championship race (finishing #2 or #3 in the respective division or conference) at the end of the season within three years; has wins against Top-10 and Top-25 teams in that timeframe
Teams rise and drop from within the classes, sometimes none occupy whole classes, but there is a distinction between each that have obvious discrepancies seen when certain classes play each other.
Michigan has not been a Perennial Championship football program since the time of Fielding Yost. The perception that Michigan plays national championship-caliber football year in and year out has not been the case since the turn of the last century. It is inappropriate and delusional for Michigan supporters to treat the program any differently. They haven’t even been Elite for some time. Since Bo came to Ann Arbor in 1969, they have only been a pre-season AP Top-5 team fifteen times and only No. 1 twice (1981, 1989). And they have only finished in the Top-5 nine times, and been the No. 1 ranked team only once (1997), which has an asterisk because Nebraska claimed a national title, too, that year (and that’s how we got the BCS basically). Michigan has been a two or three-loss team every year with few exceptions since Bo, and when there are exceptions they have tended to go in the “worse” direction. Arguably, the program’s “best” decade of football was the 1970s and they claimed zero national championships and only one outright Big Ten Champion title (to be fair, they won a total of seven and dominated the conference at the time along with Ohio State). Lloyd Carr had a few shining moments in the late 90s (of course, 1997) until he ran into that brick wall named Jim Tressel. Carr probably should have stepped down in 2004 after falling short to Texas in the Rose Bowl. It was already apparent Michigan was losing its ability to defeat elite teams. But the end of the 2006 season was really the nail in the coffin. Losses to Ohio State and USC cemented Michigan’s place as a “Good-not-Elite” program. It could have been at that moment Michigan amicably parted ways with Lloyd Carr and reached out to a plethora of coaches. The one that comes to mind is obviously Nick Saban. But there was the opportunity to hire from Jim Tressel, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, and/or Pete Carroll’s coaching trees, etc. There were plenty of opportunities to attract a coach who either had experience coaching elite programs or came from one, someone who could come into Michigan, stop the bleeding, and elevate it back into Elite status. That did not happen, of course. The powers that were selected Rich Rodriguez (and after his failed tenure, Brady Hoke) and the rest is sordid history…
Hypothetical revisionism is all well and fun, but it does us no good. The point is, Michigan is not an Elite program and it is nowhere near being a Perennial Championship-level program, and it has not been one for a long, long time. Fans need to stop this. If they want to hold Harbaugh to a high standard, that is fine. The man was brought to Ann Arbor to beat Ohio State, win Big Ten championships, and possibly play for the national title. He has fallen far, far from that. Credit is due to Harbaugh for turning things around, as thankless an achievement as that seems to be. In the seven years prior, Michigan was an Average-to-Above-Average program. He received a group of players that had potential but were not coached well enough. His predecessor, Hoke, had inherited a group of talented, though raw and often undersized, players playing in a still physical conference. And Rich Rod, for all the negative things that can be said about the coach, was not set up to succeed with the program Lloyd Carr passed on to him. All matters were heading in a downward trajectory, and Harbaugh has put a stop to that. As is often the case with historical moments, what is happening now is just a consequence of events that took place long ago by people who aren’t even around. You may have no control over how you got to now, but you need to be the one to move on in it. Jim Harbaugh has done a lot to fix the missteps of three preceding coaches, athletic directors, boosters, etc. who helped create the mess that was Michigan football. He has set the broken bone and taught the program to walk again, but now it needs to run. The players need to be coached better, motivated more effectively, the coaches need to prepare and scheme better. New recruits don’t want to come to middling Good programs when they have an opportunity to go to Elite or Perennial Championship programs. Is Harbaugh the man for the job to do that? That is a serious question everyone invested in the program needs to ask. If there is someone better for the job, then that person needs to be brought in. If not, then persistent calls for improvement and patience need to be both equally employed.
That is often easier said than done for fans, especially when a narrative of traditional greatness is embedded in your psyche. But that is the other part of the problem. Michigan fans really need to disabuse themselves of the lore of Michigan Greatness. To think that Michigan has been anywhere close to the regional Elites like Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Oregon (and USC before them) and the newly arrived Clemson in the past twenty years is insane. The program is far from it and it will take a great deal of time and effort before they can reach that status. The sooner fans can come to terms with this, the better.
But these are key elements to being a fan of a sports team: stoicism and realism. You revel in the times of success (because you know they are fleeting) and wallow in the dearth (because it fucking sucks to lose). The more you pour your time and energy (and money) into something, the more you expect some goddamn results! And it can be downright painful to have to endure hardship year after year after year after year after year after… But in the end, that is all a fan can do. It is imperative to remember the fan is just a spectator. That is all a fan can do: watch and experience the results. Of course, you can stop watching or attending games, or purchasing merchandise, etc. but then you cease to be a fan, which honestly is OK, too. I certainly don’t shame or judge those who simply cannot stand watching a team they have invested so much in continue to break their hearts. It is a relatively thankless, and all things considered, trivial pursuit, but one that also possesses some of the most wonderful, memorable moments social life has to offer.
I was in Ann Arbor in 2003 when No.5 Michigan hosted No.4 Ohio State. The winner would be the outright Big Ten Champion and play in the Rose Bowl. Michigan was coming into the 100th Anniversary of The Game as an underdog with back-to-back losses to the Buckeyes for the first time since the early 80s. They had not won the Big Ten outright since 1997, which was also the last time they went to the Rose Bowl. The mood was tense to say the least. What were we fans on the precipice of witnessing? We did not know. But as the teams took the field and Michigan players started to go toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes, we started to gain a bit of hope. When Steve Breston punched it in, capping a 90-yard scoring drive, giving Michigan the 7-0 lead before the end of the First Quarter, the nerves began to settle. Then Navarre hit Braylon Edwards on a 64-yard touchdown pass, and again later to cap off an 80-yard scoring drive, putting Michigan up 21-0. I remember looking at my brother in the stands, his face matted in maize and blue, and asking: “Is this real? Who the hell are we watching?” It was a stunning turn of events. The two Ohio State fans next to us, faces beat red as their scarlet jackets from excessive tailgating, were just as speechless. It was such a wonderful experience, to be a first-hand witness to a glorious historical moment in Michigan football. And even though Ohio State would crawl back to make the game interesting for a short while in the second half, in the end, there was no doubt, Michigan was the better team.
After the final whistle blew, I remember standing next to my brother. We stood in the sentient mass that was the Michigan fanbase, watching the students flood onto the field. I saw the players huddled around the vibrant Block-M in the middle of the Big House, roses held high in their hands as they chanted the greatest fight song in college football: “Hail! To the victors valiant. Hail! To the conquering heroes. Hail! Hail! To Michigan.”
There have been very few moments like this since. But I still remain a fan with the hopes that one day I will be able to feel jubilation like it again. It is a tricky thing for fans, holding onto the past. Our personal recollections or collective memories of the past inform our understanding of the present and beliefs about the future. I try not to let previous successes or hardships reign over my perceptions. Contingencies and ironies abound in life and I try to take them all in stride and due context. It’s about all I can do; it’s the best any fan can do in order to cheer on their team and enjoy a game they love.
So try to take it in stride, dear Michigan fans. There are many possible ways to go from here. But any which way we go, we must always Go Blue!
 There will be a lot of comparing Michigan to Ohio State. This is mainly because Ohio State has been the most-dominant team in the Big Ten conference for the last twenty years. The fact that they are also Michigan’s most-despised rival only adds to the bitterness.
 Case in point, the site Scout uses the player rating metrics of 247 Sports. However, their school rankings are wildly different at times.
 Averaged across 247 Sports, ESPN, and Rivals. Some years are only averaged between 247 and Rivals due to ESPN’s limited ranking lists.
 For all the talk Auburn fans give of wanting to sack Gus Malzahn. He is 3-4 against Alabama. Jim Harbaugh will never be able to produce that result in his first seven years at Michigan (if he gets there).
 To be fair, Michigan didn’t regularly play ten games in a single season for like fifty years, but still.
 This is not to pick on Bo Schembechler, or diminish the accomplishments made under his tenure. It is merely an attempt to further complicate the mythology surrounding the coach in the minds of many Michigan fans.
 For what it’s worth, Rich Rodriguez was one of the hottest names in town at the time of his hiring. What he had accomplished at West Virginia was seen as an amazing achievement (and it was) and his offensive schemes appeared to be exactly what Michigan needed in order to enter the new epoch of college football: The Spread Era.