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.