Realistic Expectations for Jim Harbaugh in First Season at Michigan

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterJanuary 23, 2015

Jim Harbaugh is seen after being introduced as the head coach of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Jim Harbaugh has been a miracle worker at just about every stop as a head coach. The accomplishments on his resume have been well-documented. He took a lowly Stanford program that won just one game the season before his arrival and molded the Cardinal into a Pac-12 powerhouse. 

With the San Francisco 49ers, he took a team that went 6-10 in 2010 and led them to three straight NFC championship games, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2013. 

So it's natural to think Harbaugh will reach into the pockets of his khakis, pull out some magical football fairy dust, and like that, the Wolverines will be relevant again. As great a coach as Harbaugh is, things aren't always that convenient. 

Microwave results, like the ones experienced by former Michigan coach Brady Hoke, can be dangerous anyway. Hoke won 11 games in his first season (2011) with Rich Rodriguez's players, leading the Wolverine nation to believe their long national nightmare was over. In reality, it was only getting worse. Michigan won fewer games each season until Hoke was fired after going 5-7 in 2014. 

Suffice to say, the state of Michigan football is in, well, less-than-ideal shape. Hoke recruited well in his four years in Ann Arbor, finishing with top-10 classes in 2012 and '13, per 247Sports.com composite rankings. However, development of those players has been practically non-existent. Wide receiver Devin Funchess, a member of Hoke's 2012 class, is the lone exception. 

That means Harbaugh has a lot of work to do and even a mastermind like him might not be able to get everything accomplished overnight. So here's what fans should realistically expect from Harbaugh in Year 1: 

Recruit, Recruit Some More and Then Recruit Like Hell

Take a stab at how many verbal commits Michigan has for the 2015 class.

Give up? It's six as of Friday, Jan. 23, as per 247Sports.com. National signing day is in less than two weeks on Feb. 4. 

Of course, signing day is the start of when recruits that aren't early-enrollees can ink their letter of intent, not the end, so it's not like Harbaugh is on a hard deadline. Still, six verbal commits this late in the season is so appalling that it's almost offensive. You can thank the uncertainty swirling around the program for months on end for that. 

Harbaugh is working heavily in two areas. Some top uncommitted guys like tight end Chris Clark remain for the taking. Harbaugh is also looking to flip verbal commits like cornerback Will Lockett, who has been with UCLA since August. 

Tom VanHaaren @TomVH

UCLA and Michigan all the sudden battling for recruits. Roquan Smith, Chris Clark, Will Lockett, Keisean Lucier-South

Additionally, Texas quarterback commit Zach Gentry is set to visit Michigan, according to Steve Lorenz of 247Sports.com. Quarterback is an area of need for the Wolverines as the best available option is soon-to-be junior Shane Morris, and Morris has had limited playing time in his two years. 

Whatever Michigan's 2015 class ends up looking like, it may not necessarily define Harbaugh's tenure with the Wolverines. Right now, Harbaugh needs bodies on his roster to replace the usual offseason attrition. That doesn't mean the '15 class isn't important, but by the time signing day rolls around, Harbaugh will have been on the job for a little over a month. 

It's difficult to assemble a star-studded class in that span given all the other responsibilities Harbaugh has, like putting together a coaching staff. How Harbaugh and his staff recruit beyond February will be the more accurate assessment of how they'll do going forward. 

Develop the Offensive Line

It's true that quarterback play is a concern for Michigan. Given that Harbaugh is a former quarterback himself and groomed guys like Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick, the direction that position goes will be closely watched. 

However, if whoever plays quarterback doesn't have any protection, then it doesn't really matter who's playing. 

Offensive line play has been bad over the past couple of years with Michigan finishing among the worst teams in the Big Ten in sacks allowed and total offense. However, adding to the absurdity of it all, offensive lineman Taylor Lewan was a first-round selection in 2014.  

Tony Ding/Associated Press

Luck was a rare recruit for Stanford, but the Cardinal were still a heavily run-first team with him under center. In 2009 and '10, the two years in which Luck and Harbaugh played and coached together, the Cardinal averaged about 41 run attempts per game vs. about 26.5 passing attempts per game.

Good coaches adapt to their personnel, but the Wolverines' success on offense will come from developing good run-blockers. 

If there's any silver lining to Michigan's offensive line, it's that it suffered its lumps a year ago as a young unit and returns mostly intact. That chemistry is important for offensive coordinator/O-line coach Tim Drevno to help build over time.

If Michigan needs an example, look no further than Ohio State. The Buckeyes had a new-look O-line to start the season and the results were understandably terrible. By the time the College Football Playoff came and went, though, the Buckeyes were blocking for an average of 289 rushing yards against Alabama and Oregon. 

It doesn't have to start out pretty, but by the end of the '15 season, Michigan has to show noticeable improvement in the trenches. All other successes branch from that. 

Get to a Bowl Game

Going to a bowl game by itself won't show that Michigan's improved. The Wolverines were one win away from bowl eligibility in 2014 and one of those losses, to Rutgers, was by two points. The difference between 5-7 and 6-6 or 7-5 can be small. 

Tony Ding/Associated Press

Which bowl game Michigan goes to after next season doesn't matter, either. It could be the Heart of Dallas Bowl. What matters is getting six wins and qualifying for a postseason game, because postseason games mean extra practices.

For a first-year coach installing new systems, those practices are beneficial.

"I'm calling it another spring ball," former Utah State coach Gary Andersen, now with Oregon State, told Steve Megargee of Yahoo Sports in 2011. "That's what I told our younger kids in the program." 

Those practices are more opportunities to grow together as a team. Miss out on bowl eligibility and those practices aren't happening until the spring. That's a lot of time away from the practice field. 

Michigan's 2015 schedule has its fair share of difficult games (at Utah, against Michigan State, at Penn State, against Ohio State), but getting bowl eligible isn't a long-shot by any means. Getting those extra practices would provide Harbaugh's group with a head start going into 2016. 

It could take some time for Michigan to establish its identity and become a Big Ten and national player again. Harbaugh has done well enough at other places that he should be awarded that time. 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com


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