What’s Going on with Michigan Football?

Despite a relatively unremarkable season, Michigan football and in particular, Jim Harbaugh, tends to get a larger share of national coverage than any other program. This year the coverage has had a largely negative slant, despite a modest 8-3 record to date. This is a team that is hitting their pre-season expectation almost exactly (this site projected 8.874 wins, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projected 8.9 wins, and the Bovada over/under was set at 9 wins), yet if you tuned into ESPN this week you’d think the program is in shambles. So, what’s really going on with Michigan football? Let’s take a look at the national sports media talking points, but with the intent of finding the truth rather than baiting for more readers/viewers with sensational proclamations.

  • Expectations have not been met

This is both the most common and the most puzzling take I have found, especially as it pertains to this year. Michigan is going to end up, at worst, one game below expectations this season. So technically, yes, they very well could fall just short of their preseason expectations. However, they are far from the only team who will pay out on the ‘under’ this year. Among the Power 5 teams (65 in all, including Notre Dame), 4 are exactly on their over/under total with only one (Northwestern) expected to move above it, 9 are 0.5 below with only 5 projected to move ahead, another 6 (including Michigan) are one game below, and 22 are too far below to get above their mark this year. This puts Michigan at or just below the median for Power 5 teams. Hardly a headline-worthy disappointment.


Team Conference  Wins Losses  Over/Under Difference
Mississippi State SEC            8 3 5.5 2.5
South Carolina SEC            8 3 5.5 2.5
Purdue B1G            5 6 2.5 2.5
Boston College ACC            6 5 4 2
Wisconsin B1G          11 0 9.5 1.5
Georgia SEC          10 1 8.5 1.5
TCU XII            9 2 7.5 1.5
Notre Dame Ind            9 2 7.5 1.5
Washington State P12            9 2 7.5 1.5
Michigan State B1G            8 3 6.5 1.5
Wake Forest ACC            7 4 5.5 1.5
Iowa State XII            7 4 5.5 1.5
Arizona P12            7 4 5.5 1.5
California P12            5 6 3.5 1.5
Miami FL ACC          10 0 9 1
Arizona State P12            6 5 5 1
Virginia ACC            6 5 5 1
Rutgers B1G            4 7 3 1
Alabama SEC          11 0 10.5 0.5
Oklahoma XII          10 1 9.5 0.5
Clemson ACC          10 1 9.5 0.5
USC P12          10 2 9.5 0.5
Auburn SEC            9 2 8.5 0.5
Maryland B1G            4 7 3.5 0.5
Northwestern B1G            8 3 8 0
Kentucky SEC            7 4 7 0
Texas A&M SEC            7 4 7 0
West Virginia XII            7 4 7 0
Penn State B1G            9 2 9.5 -0.5
Stanford P12            8 3 8.5 -0.5
North Carolina State ACC            7 4 7.5 -0.5
Missouri SEC            6 5 6.5 -0.5
Iowa B1G            6 5 6.5 -0.5
Duke ACC            5 6 5.5 -0.5
Ole Miss SEC            5 6 5.5 -0.5
Texas Tech XII            5 6 5.5 -0.5
Syracuse ACC            4 7 4.5 -0.5
Washington P12            9 2 10 -1
Oklahoma State XII            8 3 9 -1
LSU SEC            8 3 9 -1
Virginia Tech ACC            8 3 9 -1
Michigan B1G            8 3 9 -1
Indiana B1G            5 6 6 -1
Ohio State B1G            9 2 10.5 -1.5
Texas XII            6 5 7.5 -1.5
UCLA P12            5 6 6.5 -1.5
Utah P12            5 6 6.5 -1.5
Georgia Tech ACC            5 5 6.5 -1.5
Illinois B1G            2 9 3.5 -1.5
Oregon P12            6 5 8 -2
Kansas State XII            6 5 8 -2
Vanderbilt SEC            4 7 6 -2
Kansas XII            1 10 3 -2
Louisville ACC            7 4 9.5 -2.5
Colorado P12            5 6 7.5 -2.5
Minnesota B1G            5 6 7.5 -2.5
Nebraska B1G            4 7 7 -3
Arkansas SEC            4 7 7 -3
Pitt ACC            4 7 7 -3
Tennessee SEC            4 7 7.5 -3.5
Florida SEC            4 6 8 -4
North Carolina ACC            3 8 7 -4
Oregon State P12            1 10 5.5 -4.5
Florida State ACC            4 6 9.5 -5.5
Baylor XII            1 10 7.5 -6.5


Expanding the scope further to Harbaugh’s entire Michigan coaching career:

Year Over/Under Regular Season Wins
2015 7.5 9
2016 10 10
2017 9 8 (chance for 1 more)


Cumulatively, this puts Harbaugh’s regular seasons at worst a half game above expectations. In addition Michigan is 1-1 in the postseason under Harbaugh where the win was a blowout and the loss was by one point.


  • Jim Harbaugh is going to leave for X team after this season

Every year since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor (and even in the days before he was hired at Michigan) there have been rumors that he will be coaching at somewhere besides Michigan the following season. His name was connected with the Raiders, Bears, Jets, and Dolphins in 2014 before choosing Michigan, the Colts in 2015, the Rams in 2016, the Colts again in 2017, and even UCLA was mentioned this week. He hasn’t left yet, and now there are rumors of a lifetime contract with Michigan which could be an attempt to finally dampen these annual rumors that he is leaving.


  • Harbaugh’s salary is too high

Harbaugh’s salary is often reported as being $9 million, which is not true. It is $7 million. I’m not sure why this matters enough to talk about, but for whatever reason it is a common talking point when Harbaugh’s name comes up. The $9 million comes from a 2016 life insurance policy which included two $2 million premium payments for the insurance in addition to the $5 million salary.

Coach salaries are misconstrued to be proportional to the number of wins a coach earns with the team, but that’s not really how they work. Their salary represents their market value, i.e. how much an entity is willing to pay them for their services. This is no different than any other profession. If a company wants to keep an employee that they deem valuable who is being pursued by a competitor, the current employer may offer a higher salary to ward off the competition and get their employee to stay. This does not mean that the employee will instantly perform better at their job. The higher salary is a reflection of the demand for their services; their perceived value.


  • Harbaugh’s antics are all for show

Everything Harbaugh does is with a purpose. That purpose is most commonly recruiting exposure and improving the student-athlete experience for his players. Things like trips to Florida and Rome with the entire team for spring practices are a way to reward his players which were (at the time) within the NCAA rules. These experiences are being provided instead of under the table payments to players, which is a less out-in-the-open but much more accommodated reward system.

Stories of unusual recruiting tactics surface from time-to-time, whether it be climbing trees with a recruit or spending the night at their house, and these are met with enthusiasm by the recruits but with derision by opposing fans and media. But if it works and is within the rules, why should it stop?

There was even ridicule of his actions on the sidelines, as if he is the only coach to ever express emotion during a game. He has since dialed it back in 2017 after the introduction of a rule created to detract his outbursts. He was penalized once in 2016 before this rule existed, but has not been penalized since.

  • “His best finish is 3rd in the division”

This one is technically true, but really needs some context as its aim is only to sound degrading. In 2015, Michigan finished ranked 12th in the final AP poll. Two teams in their division finished ranked 4th and 6th, respectively. In 2016, Michigan finished ranked 10th in the final AP poll. And again, two teams in the division finished ranked higher, this time 6th and 7th. The claim of finishing 3rd does not paint an accurate picture of the success, as 3rd out of 7 sounds much worse than 12th or 10th out of 128. This claim is intentionally misleading, and really only speaks to the strength of their division as no other division had 3 teams ranked as highly as the Big Ten East had in either 2015 or 2016.

  • Michigan’s roster is full of 4 and 5-star players

Michigan typically has highly ranked recruiting classes. The classes which could make up the 2017 roster (2013 through 2017) were ranked as follows:

Recruiting Class Class Rank # of commits
2017 5th 30
2016 8th 28
2015 37th 14
2014 20th 16
2013 4th 27

This breakdown implies that the youth on the team and any players who stuck around for a 5th year would make up the most talented portion of the roster. However, attrition played a huge role in shaping this roster, nearly all of which occurred in recruiting classes assembled prior to Harbaugh’s arrival. Here’s a list of all the players from one of the five classes above who left the program early for reasons other than entering the NFL Draft, and their last year of competition with Michigan:

Recruiting Class Player Star Rating Position Final year with program
2015 Brian Cole 4 ATH 2015
2015 Keith Washington 3 ATH 2016
2013 Ross Douglas 3 CB 2015
2013 Reon Dawson 3 CB 2015
2014 Michael Ferns 4 LB 2014
2013 Logan Tulley-Tillman 4 OL 2015
2013 Kyle Bosch 4 OL 2014
2013 Dan Samuelson 3 OL 2014
2015 Grant Newsome 4 OL 2016*
2013 Chris Fox 4 OL 2014
2013 David Dawson 4 OL 2016
2013 Shane Morris 4 QB 2016
2013 Derrick Green 5 RB 2015
2016 Devin Asiasi 4 TE 2016
2014 Freddy Canteen 4 WR 2015
2013 Csont’e York 3 WR 2013
2013 Da’Mario Jones 3 WR 2015
2016 Nate Johnson 3 WR 2016
2013 Jaron Dukes 3 WR 2015

*Newsome injured his leg early in the 2016 season and has not yet returned.

Note that there are 6 offensive linemen who left the program earlier than expected; 5 of which would be 5th year seniors and Newsome who would be the starting left tackle. Offensive line also happens to be the most heavily criticized position on Michigan’s roster, and this illustrates why there is a problem. Some attrition is to be expected in football, but losing 6 would-be veteran players from the same position group would crater any roster.

Also note that 10 players from the 2013 class left the program after 3 or fewer years. Again, some attrition is to be expected, but losing over a third of a class well before their eligibility runs out will eventually take a toll.

  • Harbaugh has never won a championship

This take is bizarre in two ways. First, it is very selective in what is deemed a championship, as Harbaugh led the University of San Diego to two conference championships (2005 & 2006) in his 3 years as their head coach, Stanford to an Orange Bowl championship in 2010, and the 49ers to an NFC championship in 2012. This implies that conference championships don’t count at the FCS level or in the NFL, but at the FBS level not only do they count but count for more than a postseason major bowl victory and final AP ranking of 4th. Secondly, it implies that a championship is the only criteria for a successful coach. He has been at Michigan for just under 3 seasons, and here is the list of teams with equal or higher winning percentages in that same time frame:

Rank Team Record Win Pct.
1 Alabama 39-2     0.9512
2 Clemson 38-3     0.9268
t3 Ohio State 32-5     0.8649
t3 Oklahoma 32-5     0.8649
5 Wisconsin 32-6     0.8421
6 Stanford 30-8     0.7895
t7 Michigan 28-9     0.7568
t7 Georgia 28-9     0.7568
t7 Oklahoma State 28-9     0.7568


  • He wears out his welcome

Harbaugh’s coaching trajectory has been as follows:

Team Title Years
Oakland Raiders QB coach 2002-2003
San Diego Toreros (FCS) Head coach 2004-2006
Stanford Cardinal Head coach 2007-2010
San Francisco 49ers Head coach 2011-2014
Michigan Wolverines Head coach 2015-present

Each move prior to landing at Michigan has been an obvious step-up, which tends to happen for coaches who perform well. The move from the 49ers to Michigan can be interpreted as a step down, but it cannot be interpreted as a demotion since he chose Michigan over numerous other NFL positions as shown in linked article earlier and it was not a firing but a mutual decision.

The national media has bungled their coverage on Harbaugh at Michigan since before he arrived in December 2014. They have gotten in wrong every year since. Why should anyone trust them to get it right today or going forward?

If you want the real story of what’s going on with Michigan football, the national media is not the place to go. Their job is to cover everything a little bit, it is inch-deep/mile-wide coverage. If you want in-depth coverage, you need to go to a local source, media that only covers this team. Or better yet, go straight to the source: Jim Harbaugh has a weekly podcast with his dad co-hosting. Amazon is chronicling the 2017 Michigan football season with a series set to air in January on Amazon Prime.


So, what’s left? Michigan is performing as closely to expectations as possible, Harbaugh is not leaving for the NFL, and Michigan’s program is actually in decent shape for the future with a young, talented roster. Pretty boring, right? But if this were the story that was being told, nobody would pay attention; nobody would care because it isn’t interesting.

If Michigan loses tomorrow, all of these points will be harped on again as if there is a serious problem to address. And if Michigan wins, they will be celebrated excessively and most of this will be forgotten. At least until their next loss.

The Safest Bet in Sports

I’ve promised that I would never place a 100% win probability on any game on this site, and that will always be true here. My goal is to determine the likelihood of outcomes and identify the safest picks. But what makes a pick safe? When it comes to sports, especially at a non-professional level as is the primary focus here, there really doesn’t appear to be a truly safe pick. But when a specific match-up features the same result, year after year, it becomes difficult to believe that a different outcome will occur in the next event.

This week, Michigan State plays at Michigan. This will be the 11th meeting in which Mark Dantonio is the Spartans head coach. In the previous 10 meetings between these two teams, against the spread, he is 10-0. His team covers when they’re favored and when they’re underdogs. Home or away; doesn’t matter. Here’s what I’m talking about:



Sources for graphics above: http://www.oddsshark.com/stats/dbresults/football/ncaaf


I include the 2nd graphic to show that the line opened at Michigan -4.5, which MSU did cover. The first graphic shows that the line closed at Michigan -3.5, which MSU did not cover. At that point we’re really splitting hairs though; this streak is truly incredible.

The opening line for this game on October 7th is -12.5 in favor of Michigan. I’m not saying this is a guaranteed cover for MSU, but I mean…10 in a row? Something is going on here that the Vegas oddsmakers have failed to recognize for a decade. Will this year be any different? I wouldn’t bet on it.