There is no more reason to hedge on Jim Harbaugh’s team.
No. 6 Michigan is really good and will enter November as a very real College Football Playoff contender after it smothered No. 24 Michigan State on Saturday.
Buying in on the Wolverines has taken time, understandably. Through three seasons as coach of his alma mater, Harbaugh has been more of a headline-maker than a big-game winner. Oddball tweets. European vacations. Podcasts. Cameo TV appearances. Harbaugh has been college football’s most interesting man and one of its highest-paid coaches.
With all that attention and money comes great expectations, and Harbaugh had not delivered at a level equivalent to his pay check and celebrity.
Michigan was better than expected in Harbaugh’s first season, 10-3 after a 5-7 record the year before under Brady Hoke. In 2016, the Wolverines were a debatable spot away from beating Ohio State and playing for a Big Ten championship. Hard to call that disappointing. Last season, having to replace 11 NFL draft picks, Michigan regressed. Losses again to Michigan State and Ohio State, to South Carolina in a bowl game and an 8-5 finish. This season started with a 21-17 loss at Notre Dame and more reason to pile on Harbaugh as Michigan fell to 0-17 against ranked teams since 2006.
That streak is gone, and Harbaugh is now even (2-2) with Michigan State and Mark Dantonio, though definitely not buddy-buddy with the Spartans coach.
CORRECTS IDENITY OF PLAYER AT LEFT TO MICHIGAN DEFENSIVE LINEMAN LAWRENCE MARSHALL (93) INSTEAD OF MICHIGAN TIGHT END ZACH GENTRY (83) – Michigan defensive lineman Lawrence Marshall (93), linebacker Devin Bush, and head coach Jim Harbaugh walk off the field with the Paul Bunyan trophy after an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan won 21-7. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
The Wolverines had a lot to say after beating Michigan State, Harbaugh included .
Forget about all that now. The last two weeks Michigan has beaten Wisconsin and Michigan State, two teams that beat the Wolverines last season, by a combined 59-20 and both the Badgers and Spartans were fortunate to score that many points. Led by midseason All-America defensive end Chase Winovich and linebacker Devin Bush, Michigan’s defense is dominant. The offense is still in good-not-great territory, but quarterback Shea Patterson brings potential for the Wolverines to keep up with more explosive teams – like No. 2 Ohio State, for example.
The first selection committee rankings will come out Oct. 30 and Michigan, off next week, is likely to be no worse than sixth when they do.
Next up on the revenge tour is No. 18 Penn State in the Big House on Nov. 3. The regular season ends in Columbus, Ohio. Harbaugh is 0-3 against the Buckeyes and ultimately he will be judged by how that one goes. But there’s no doubt he has a team capable of getting it done.
EYE OF THE TIGER
Well, maybe next week No. 3 Clemson will be challenged. The Tigers turned aside No. 16 North Carolina State with ease , a battle of unbeaten that was never close.
The Atlantic Coast Conference is officially a Clemson-or-bust conference now, which is not surprising. The question now is will anybody challenge the Tigers? Next week they go to Florida State, which is hoping to salvage its season and extend its record bowl streak another year.
After Clemson had close calls against Texas A&M and Syracuse it was fair to wonder if the Tigers were going to be what they were cracked up to be – a likely to threat to Alabama.
A few weeks later, the Tigers are every bit what we thought they were. North Carolina State is far from elite, but the Wolfpack have a quarterback who will be drafted, a bunch of big receivers who have NFL futures and a pretty good offensive line. And they never had a chance against Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and the Clemson defense.
Meanwhile, with North Carolina State selling out against the run, Clemson simply had freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence be the focal point of the offense. He responded with 308 yards and no interceptions.
Clemson has suffered a surprising upset in the ACC the past two seasons on the way to the conference title and the playoff. Maybe the Tigers have another gaffe in them, but don’t bet on it.
AROUND THE COUNTRY: The folks at Auburn can calm down and get off coach Gus Malzahn’s back for a little while after the Tigers found some offense , thanks to Mississippi’s generous defense. Auburn is off next week, but November should be interesting on the Plains with No. 17 Texas A&M and road trips to No. 8 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama on the slate … Nebraska’s program record 10-game losing streak is over and a two-game winning streak is on the horizon. The Cornhuskers play Betune-Cookman next week, the game it added to replace the Akron game that was canceled by severe weather in September … The most interesting thing about Alabama’s latest romp was the coaching intern getting a Gatorade bath after the Crimson Tide crushed Tennessee. … How’s that Oklahoma defense, post-Mike Stoops? Pretty good so far. The Sooners held the Horned Frogs to 275 yards and 5.0 per play in game one with Ruffin McNeill as defensive coordinator. The Horned Frogs peaked against Ohio State and have been regressing ever since, but still a good step for the Sooners. … There are more physically gifted linebackers than Washington’s 225-pound Ben Burr-Kirven, but maybe none more productive. The senior had 15 tackles and an interception for the 15th-ranked Huskies against Colorado .
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Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against North Carolina State, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)