The Monday after: Jim Harbaugh fulfilled the prophecy of cementing Michigan as the overlord of the Big Ten

On a typical National Signing Day, a college football coach sits in his office watching and listening to a fax machine purring with signed letters of intent from the players he has persuaded to join his program over the past two or three years. The coach celebrates with his staff, chatting with the players before finding time to tell the assembled media how excited they are for the lessons, ending with something along the lines of, “It’s time to get to work to go!”

Jim Harbaugh didn’t do that in February. The Wolverines’ coach, who has always danced to the beat of his own drum, found a song no one had heard before. He wasn’t in Ann Arbor. He wasn’t even in Michigan state. Instead, he applied to Minnesota for a job with the Minnesota Vikings. On National Signing Day. Given the timing, it felt like a strong indication that Harbaugh was finally doing what rumors had suggested every offseason: returning to the NFL.

The timing, while odd, made sense. Michigan had one Big Ten title and one appearance in the College Football Playoffs. Harbaugh had finally slain the Ohio State dragon perched on his shoulder. Harbaugh was ultimately not offered the job with the Vikings and said he was done with the NFL, but the interview had an impact. A week later, Josh left Gattis, Michigan offensive coordinator and winner of the Broyles award (awarded to the nation’s top assistant) to become offensive coordinator in Miami. A week before the interview, Mike Macdonald, the defensive coordinator who helped revitalize Michigan’s defense, returned to where he came from, John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens.

The Wolverines would lose many of the team’s key players to the NFL Draft a few months later. It was fair to wonder whether 2021 wouldn’t prove to be a breakaway season, or at least an exception to Ohio State’s rule, given the changes in personnel and roster. Then, despite the NFL interview, despite new coordinators on both sides of the ball (we still don’t know who’s playing offense), a new starting QB and new stars on defense, Michigan did it again. It beat Ohio State convincingly, and this time it did it on the road without its star receding and on a perfect fall afternoon.

It’s not an outlier. It’s not a program that peaks at the right time to capitalize on a team that’s better than it is. It’s simply a team created to do what it does. Harbaugh’s Wolverines are built to smack their opponent in the face as many times as necessary until the opponent refuses to get back up. Ohio State has stayed on the mat for two years.

While the victories over Ohio State get the most attention, Harbaugh doesn’t just seem to have figured out the Buckeyes. While his record against the Buckeyes in his first six seasons resulted in the most compelling social media visuals, Michigan’s struggles against the top of the Big Ten overall didn’t stop anyone from considering the program as elite. The Wolverines could beat Penn State or Michigan State in one season, but it couldn’t beat them both.

That season, the Wolverines beat Penn State by 24, Michigan State by 22, and Ohio State by 22. When Harbaugh returned to Michigan for the 2015 season, he intended to put the program back on its feet—to make it the world’s greatest program once again make the Big Ten and compete for national titles.

It’s taken a few years longer than Michigan fans had hoped, and there have been some weird detours along the way, but Harbaugh accomplished his mission. The state of Ohio is no longer the big dog in the Big Ten block. Michigan runs the show.

Rebuild formula of the week

USC will be playing for a Pac-12 title and a place in the college football playoffs this weekend. We already knew the first part, but the second part was confirmed when the Trojans defeated Notre Dame 38-27 on Saturday night at the Coliseum. It was another great display from USC offense and now-Heisman favorite Caleb Williams.

Williams threw for 232 yards while completing 18 of his 22 passes, rushing for 35 yards and finishing with four total touchdowns. These days, any QB who makes a cool off-platform throw in practice is dubbed the next Patrick Mahomes, but there’s no other QB in the country that reminds me of Mahomes as much as Williams. It’s one thing to make incredible looking shots; it’s another to do what Williams is doing.

He twists and turns in his pocket to keep the game alive, running around in different directions and then suddenly unleashing a dart in the exact spot his receiver needs to make the catch. And he does it repeatedly in the kind of soul-crushing way Mahomes has done to his opponents for years. Williams can run but only if it’s the design of the game or the best and only option when no one is open or he’s under pressure.

Many will point to the quick turnaround Lincoln Riley accomplished at USC in his first season in Los Angeles thanks to the transfer portal. The Trojans went from 4-8 last season to 11-1 and a win from a playoff berth. But that won’t be the rule. There could be 500 transfers on the USC roster, and many have had a positive impact. However, only one of them really mattered, and his name is Caleb Williams. It’s the quick fix option, not the portal.

catch of the week

First off, thanks to Texas A&M for scoring 30 points in a game against an FBS opponent for the first time since about 1934. Second, thank you for taking care of my blood pressure and for saving me from talking about a college football playoff hopes of a two-losing team in a world with three unbeaten Power Five teams and two just-one-losing competitors.

But most of all thanks for this catch of Moose Muhammad. While Devon Achane was the star of the Aggies offense — nothing new — in their 38-23 win over LSU, that catch was the supreme highlight.

Down Bad Fans of the Week

I understood why Oklahoma fans rallied around the program during the offseason. No one expected Riley to get up and go to USC and take everything off Norman. So when they lashed out at those on the outside who had serious concerns about the direction of the program, it made sense. As I watched the events of Saturday, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sympathy for what the Sooners fans are struggling with right now. I hope you enjoyed last week’s delicious beatdown in the state of Oklahoma because the fun stopped on Saturday.

Williams played against Notre Dame and could win the Heisman Trophy. Riley is one win away from his fourth appearance in the college football playoffs in six years as head coach and his first season at USC. Even Spencer Rattler, the QB whom Sooners fans sang on the bench in Williams favor last season, was enjoying a renaissance. A week after his upset win over top-10 Tennessee, Rattler had another great game in South Carolina’s excitement over top-10 Clemson.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma finished the regular season 6-6 after an overtime loss to Texas Tech. I can’t help but think that this season will be the exception to the norm despite the upcoming move to the SEC, but that norm must feel light years away right now.

coach of the week

Many coaches have had fantastic seasons, but I don’t think any coach or program has flown further under the radar this season than Oregon State. The Beavers came back from a 31-10 deficit late in the third quarter to beat rival Oregon, and they did it on the ground (and with some help from the Ducks).

Oregon State’s last five possessions lasted 19 games, all of which were runs. The first four resulted in touchdowns. The fifth and final possession ended with squats. The win gave the Beavers a 9-3 record that season, and while there was the blowout loss to Utah, the team’s other two losses were a three-point loss to USC and a three-point loss to Washington .

It’s been another season of improvement under Jonathan Smith, who has done an incredible job of rebuilding the program. Smith won two games in 2018, bringing the number to five in 2019. The Beavers went 2-5 in 2020, but nothing that happened at the Pac-12 during the COVID season was normal. The team bounced back with seven wins in 2021 and now nine in 2022. I have no doubt other programs have noticed Smith’s work and will look to pry the Beaver from his alma mater this offseason.

concussion of the week

College football can make any rules to protect players, but you can’t protect players from themselves. Please stop it! Slam your helmet on the ground, knock over a Gatorade cooler, scream at the top of your lungs, but don’t bang your head on your helmet. You will not win this fight.

The reaction on the bench is pretty epic, so at least that concussion wasn’t wasted.

Mascot fight of the week

I love Rivalry Week and I love mascot antics.

College football playoff projection of the week

I don’t expect the committee to make any major changes other than the obvious ones, but don’t rule out Michigan moving up to No. 1 after beating Ohio State. The Wolverines now have two three-point wins against teams likely in the top 10 (Penn State and Ohio State), while Georgia has just one after Oregon lost a third game. Still, I don’t think they will because if both Georgia and Michigan win their conference championship games, they would only bring Michigan back to No. 1 anyway.

  1. Georgia
  2. Michigan
  3. TCU
  4. U.S.C

See you next Monday after!

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