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Jim Harbaugh Gets Michigan Breakthrough vs. Ohio State and Shakes Up CFB Playoff

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 27, 2021

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 27: Head Coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates with fans after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium on November 27, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)
Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Back in July, before any of this felt possible, Jim Harbaugh spelled it out. 

Coming off an offseason when he nearly lost his job—a decision that many Michigan fans didn't much care for—words didn't mean much. They were done with Harbaugh after six monotonous, unfulfilled years. 

Zero wins over Ohio State. Zero Big Ten Championships. What was another sound bite in an elaborate library of compelling Harbaugh sound going to add?

"I'm as enthusiastic and excited as I ever am, always am, even more to have at it, to win the championship, to beat Ohio, our rivals Michigan State, everybody," Harbaugh said at Big Ten media days. "That's what we want to do. And we're going to do it or die trying." 

On Saturday, Harbaugh and Michigan were alive. In fact, I'm not sure this program and head coach have ever been more alive.

At the very least, it's been a minute.

Michigan beat Ohio State 42-27 in Ann Arbor. In doing so, the Wolverines locked up the Big Ten East, and they will compete next weekend in the Big Ten Championship Game against Iowa or Wisconsin. A win there, and they are a lock to make the College Football Playoff.

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On a macro level, that's what transpired Saturday afternoon as snow flurries painted the field and the Big House crowd constantly brought both sound and energy to the greatest rivalry in college football. 

But the game itself, the history between these two teams and the moment for Harbaugh, maybe the most polarizing figure in the entire sport, was so much more. Not to mention the impact on the sport as a whole.

Given the hype surrounding this matchup—No. 2 vs. No. 5 with seemingly everything at stake—many likely assumed the game would fall short of expectations. In fact, many probably pegged this as another Ohio State blowout. 

This was a beautiful game between two programs that don't care for each other. Two distinctly different styles clashing in the elements in front of more than 100,000 people looking to catch a glimpse of something different.

Tony Ding/Associated Press

Making the game that much more meaningful was the play of a select few. Michigan running back Hassan Haskins ran for 169 yards and five touchdowns—putting up an offensive performance that will be talked about in living rooms around the state of Michigan for decades. 

Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson delivered three sacks, tormenting Ohio State's offensive line throughout the game. Beyond making himself a ton of money with the performance as NFL scouts looked on, Hutchinson cemented himself as one of the program's all-time greatest defensive players. 

Ohio State, of course, did not go quietly. Quarterback C.J. Stroud still threw for 394 yards and two scores, and his wideouts regularly delivered circus catches throughout the afternoon. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave were superb, much like they've been all year. 

The only difference is that Michigan countered every Ohio State moment. The Wolverines rushed for 297 yards and averaged more than seven yards per carry—dominating the line of scrimmage from the start. 

The game plan was pristine, the play-calling from offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was superb and the outcome was not one Michigan fans have seen since 2011. 

But the story, before we look ahead, should be about Harbaugh. 

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 27: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines runs on the field during warm-ups prior to the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium on November 27, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Mike Mulho
Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

A year ago, he was thought to be done at Michigan. Fans were done. The administration looked to be done. Even Harbaugh, whose body language is always tough to read, seemed to be on his way out. 

He took a pay cut to stay at the school he once played quarterback for. The Wolverines reworked his contract, essentially allowing him one more run to get it right. He bet on himself, perhaps due to a lack of options elsewhere. 

The result? An 11-1 regular season with a win over a team many thought he would never conquer.

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 27: Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) gets the ball away just before Michigan Wolverines defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) hits him during The Michigan Wolverines vs the Ohio State Buckeyes game on Saturday Novembe
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Had he lost against Ohio State, many likely would have again called for Harbaugh to be fired. It was a conversation being had before the game was played, with many assuming the Buckeyes would continue to roll through everything in their path. 

Forget about 10 wins; Harbaugh, through the quirks and the khakis and the endless stream of sound bites, will always be assessed differently than most.

Every loss feels bigger. Every moment of weakness seems to be celebrated through a megaphone. We grade him differently than most, whatever the reason. 

Saturday was his day, and it was seven years in the making. It was his brand of football: big, beautiful and overpowering. It was stylistically familiar in many ways and new in many others. The outcome certainly was different, and Michigan fans are likely feeling emotions they haven't felt in decades.

And yes, it's hard not to get swept up in the possibilities and just how much reach this result will have.

Ohio State, thought to be the biggest threat to a historic Georgia defense, might be out of the playoff. At the very least, the Buckeyes need a great deal of help.

The CFP shake-up is sizable. With a week still to play, plenty of new scenarios have emerged. 

The Heisman Trophy race? That just endured a bit of an overhaul as well. While Stroud delivered huge numbers yet again, this loss opens the door for others.

As the clock on the college football season bleeds away, things feel different. Michigan can finally crack the playoff with one more win. We have to determine the latest, greatest threat to Georgia now that the Buckeyes have fallen. Perhaps we just witnessed it.

But in a sport that rarely allows us to bask in the moment and celebrate the now, this feels like an exception. Seven years of frustration. Seven years of doubt. Seven years of wondering when Harbaugh might finally have a moment. That moment has arrived.

Regardless of what happens next week or next month, or the teams that will likely benefit from one of the greatest college football games in recent memory, that moment is now.

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