Michi­gan’s mo­ment?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Nick Baum­gard­ner Detroit Free Press USA TO­DAY Net­work

The pres­sure is higher than it has ever been for Jim Har­baugh and his play­ers to de­liver on a trip to the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off.

ANN AR­BOR, Mich. – They all came here to change Michi­gan.

Not all at once, mind you, and not all at the same time. But shortly after coach Jim Har­baugh walked to­ward a mi­cro­phone in Ann Ar­bor on Dec. 30, 2014, and told the world that “you have my pledge that I will carry for­ward the ex­cel­lence of the Univer­sity of Michi­gan foot­ball program,” they be­gan ar­riv­ing, one after an­other.

Some of them, such as starters Karan Hig­don and Tyree Kin­nel, are se­niors now. Some of them, in­clud­ing Rashan Gary and Lavert Hill, are ju­niors who might be play­ing for a pro con­tract in a year. Some, such as Chris Evans and Ben Bre­deson, are up­per­class­men who know it’s time to make good on the prom­ise they made when they com­mit­ted.

For a program as big as Michi­gan’s, “now or never” is rarely a con­sid­er­a­tion. But for the gentle­men who came here to re­store cham­pi­onship pride be­fore their time ex­pires, “now or never” feels pretty real.

“We’ve got one shot,” says ju­nior line­backer Devin Bush, an All-Amer­i­can. “When the year’s (over), se­niors leave, peo­ple leave. You’ve got one shot with this team, with this group of guys. You can’t miss.

“It opens your eyes. We have some­thing spe­cial here; we need to make the most of it. We have to. We only get one shot at this.”

Har­baugh’s run at Michi­gan has been as well-doc­u­mented as that of any col­lege foot­ball coach any­where, at any time in his­tory. Most are fully aware that he was able to stop the neg­a­tive mo­men­tum gen­er­ated from the tail end of the Brady Hoke era in short or­der dur­ing his first sea­son in 2015.

They’re also aware he had his 2016 squad an inch away from the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off in a sea­son that saw 10 vic­to­ries by an av­er­age mar­gin of 34.6 points and three losses by an av­er­age of 1.7 points.

Yet every­one’s also aware that be­ing the head foot­ball coach at Michi­gan comes with pres­sure-laced sit­u­a­tions and ex­pec­ta­tions that live some­where north of ev­ery cloud in the sky. No Big Ten ti­tles since 2004 doesn’t work here. Fiveloss sea­sons and a 1-5 record against ri­vals Michi­gan State and Ohio State, no mat­ter the mar­gin, don’t work here ei­ther.

“We have a lot of pieces,” se­nior de­fen­sive end Chase Wi­novich says. “It’s as per­fect a storm as we’re go­ing to get. You never know who might leave next year. I ob­vi­ously can’t come back. Devin Bush, maybe he leaves. Rashan might leave. Maybe some oth­ers.

“We have to make the most of it.”

The sched­ule this sea­son is bru­tal, with road games against na­tion­ally ranked ri­vals Notre Dame, Michi­gan State and Ohio State and home tilts against touted Wis­con­sin and Penn State squads. The Wolver­ines aren’t grip­ing, though they say they’re ready to play whomever comes their way.

In part be­cause Har­baugh spent the bulk of the 2018 off­sea­son im­mersed in self-re­flec­tion with re­gard to his program. He rad­i­cally al­tered an of­fen­sive coach­ing staff that presided over one of the worst units in Amer­ica last sea­son. He re­vamped Michi­gan’s strength and con­di­tion­ing program. He hired a new nu­tri­tion­ist. He sought out player in­put about how he could be more ap­proach­able and open to their con­cerns and sugges­tions.

And, per­haps most im­por­tant, he signed a quar­ter­back in Shea Pat­ter­son that, if noth­ing else, seems to have given Michi­gan’s un­proven of­fense a sense of con­fi­dence that the most im­por­tant po­si­tion on the field might fi­nally have some sta­bil­ity. In turn, it’s given one of the coun­try’s top de­fenses — a group that re­turns nine starters — a feel­ing of se­cu­rity that, per­haps, their best ef­forts won’t be wasted this year.

Pat­ter­son, while new to the ros­ter, is also a player who is hop­ing to de­liver on a prom­ise he made to him­self when he en­tered col­lege foot­ball back in 2016. Things didn’t work out at Mis­sis­sippi; the program found NCAA trou­ble that re­sulted in post­sea­son bans. Rather than stay with­out the abil­ity to com­pete for a na­tional cham­pi­onship, he left and sought out a sit­u­a­tion where he felt that goal was a pos­si­bil­ity.

“I can live with throw­ing an in­ter­cep­tion in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game or the play­off,” he told re­porters this spring. “But I don’t know if I could’ve lived with not even be­ing able to get the chance to com­pete for one.

“And I think we’ve got a re­ally good shot at do­ing that.”

These are the type of as­pi­ra­tions Michi­gan has this sea­son. To win ev­ery ti­tle pos­si­ble. It’s the bar Har­baugh’s set, with­out apol­ogy, since he got here.

And if the Wolver­ines don’t meet that bar, they’ll look back on this sea­son and won­der about what might have been.

As for the head coach him­self?

Har­baugh’s an­swered plenty of crit­i­cal ques­tions this off­sea­son about his in­abil­ity to per­form in ri­valry games or de­liver any type of cham­pi­onship since ar­riv­ing with so much fan­fare and hype.

His an­swers have been sim­ple and to the point.

“We want to win,” he said this sum­mer. “We want to win at foot­ball. We want to treat peo­ple in a first-class man­ner. We want to win cham­pi­onships.”

Har­baugh’s had pres­sure ev­ery step of the way at Michi­gan, and it’s higher now than it’s ever been. Same goes for the play­ers who fol­lowed him.

They know it, too. “Coaches coach, play­ers play. When we’re on the field, it’s just (us),” Bush says. “Coach can’t play for us.”

They all came here to change Michi­gan. And through three years, they’ve been close.

But close doesn’t earn any­one a ti­tle.

And Michi­gan’s tro­phy case looks tired of be­ing dusty.


Michi­gan quar­ter­back Shea Pat­ter­son trans­ferred from Mis­sis­sippi.

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