No college football coach has ever owned an offseason news cycle like Jim Harbaugh did one year ago.
All winter, spring and summer of 2016, Harbaugh headlines were impossible to avoid. With so much downtime in the sport's long offseason, Harbaugh's Twitter account managed to dictate much of the national conversation, whether it was feuds with other coaches and athletic directors or recruiting stunts or satellite camps. Harbaugh became a one-man publicity machine, making Michigan the dominant story, on nearly a daily basis, even though it hadn't finished a season ranked in the top 10 since 2006.
It was a story ripe for headlines: a lost national power finding its footing behind an acclaimed coach with a knack for attention-grabbing theatrics.
The hype went into overdrive, and once the season finally began, the Wolverines rose as high as No. 2 in the polls before losing three of their final four games: a disastrous loss at Iowa, a mistake-marred double-OT loss to Ohio State decided by an inch and a dramatic Orange Bowl loss to Florida State. The three games were decided by a total of five points after Michigan spent most of the first half of the season blowing out opponents, and the result was a 10-3 overall record and a third-place finish in the Big Ten East. It was a strong season for a program that had been mired in uncharacteristic mediocrity, but given that Michigan beat Penn State -- which won the Big Ten -- by 39, given that Michigan State tumbled to 3-9, given that Ohio State returned only six starters and given that Michigan had so many impact seniors, the season felt like a missed opportunity, even if all the losses were by the slimmest of margins.
In the aftermath, Michigan is in a somewhat strange position entering Year 3 of the Harbaugh era. It is expected to take a step back … now that Brady Hoke's recruits have been replaced by Harbaugh's. Whereas the Harbaugh era at Stanford had a clear upward trajectory, his time at Michigan could take a different path. If there is a step back, however, it will only be temporary.
In his first two years, Harbaugh finished one game better than Hoke, who went 19-7. In Year 3, Hoke fell to 7-6, before going 5-7 and getting fired to end a career arc in which he won fewer games every season. Harbaugh, of course, is thought of in the same category as recent national championship coaches. Since 2000, Nick Saban (twice), Urban Meyer (twice), Jimbo Fisher, Gene Chizik, Les Miles, Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel and Bob Stoops have all won a national title within their first four years at their school. It took eight years for Dabo Swinney and Mack Brown. Success has typically come quickly for top coaches, and that has been true of Harbaugh, even if Michigan's actual goals -- winning the Big Ten and competing for national titles -- haven't been realized yet.
The Wolverines had a stellar season in 2016 with a veteran, senior-heavy roster, the product of good recruiting classes by Hoke and his staff combined with much-improved coaching. With Jabrill Peppers declaring for the draft, the only returning starters in 2017 will be quarterback Wilton Speight, fullback Khalid Hill, center Mason Cole, guard Ben Bredeson and linebacker Mike McCray. Plenty of new starters have a lot of experience, but the depth chart has been ravaged and will soon be filled with new faces. Leading rusher De'Veon Smith is gone. Leading receivers Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt -- the only players who had more than 16 catches -- are gone. Three offensive linemen are gone. Nearly the entire starting defense, which was one of the best units in the country, is gone.
In fact, Michigan is sending 14 players to the NFL scouting combine, equaling Ohio State's total from last year, when it dominated the draft conversation.
For the first time, Michigan will be built around players Harbaugh signed, and Michigan will look a lot different than his first two Wolverines squads. It appears to be a Michigan team in transition, likely with tempered top-20 expectations rather than top-five aspirations, especially because division rivals Ohio State and Penn State both return many more key players from their major bowl teams.
It's early, but the Harbaugh offseason has felt a bit more muted, too, even if we've already been treated to the announcement that Michigan will finish spring practice in late April in Rome -- rules have already been created disallowing trips like the Wolverines' 2016 spring break excursion to IMG Academy in Florida -- in addition to Harbaugh's impending hire of Michael Johnson, coach and father of one of the top quarterback recruits in the class of 2019, to the Michigan staff. Of course, neither of these moves was actually controversial: College basketball teams often take trips abroad in the summer, and Johnson has been offensive coordinator of UCLA and the 49ers, in addition to serving as Harbaugh's position coach in San Diego in 2000. There hasn't been much actual controversy, and even Michigan's "Signing With The Stars" event was toned down, compared to last year.
The noise may die down a bit and the stage is set for an unpredictable season, but Harbaugh does have many things working in his favor. While Wilton Speight had mixed results at quarterback, he returns with a year of experience under his belt. Chris Evans flashed potential at tailback. The defense loses so much but was also deep -- at least up front, where Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst and Chase Winovich will be among the returning players. This is a great coaching staff -- Don Brown on defense, and now Tim Drevno paired with Pep Hamilton on offense -- now working with back-to-back top-six recruiting classes, although Harbaugh's first class in 2015 was short on numbers. In some ways, Michigan in 2017 looks similar to Ohio State in 2016 in terms of all the attrition, and the Buckeyes ended up making the playoff (only to get blown out by Clemson). For Michigan to exceed early expectations and become a top-10 team, it will need to reload the offensive line and find a more consistently explosive running game, on top of doing what Ohio State did last year and find a way to quickly rebuild the secondary.
There is, not surprisingly, enormous potential in Ann Arbor, in season that features five marquee games on the schedule that are likely to define this team: the opener vs. Florida in Texas, plus Ohio State and Michigan State at home and Penn State and Wisconsin on the road. The roster is loaded with potential breakout stars, with the former No. 1 overall recruit Gary atop the list. It's a matter of how quickly the new-look lineup can come together and whether Harbaugh can push this team to success ahead of schedule.
Given his reputation and all the attention, expectations for Harbaugh at Michigan have been as high as we've seen for any new coach. He has done what Michigan has hoped so far, bringing instant credibility to an identity-less program and quickly developing a much-improved product. There is no reason to believe that the Wolverines, especially given their recruiting success, won't push for those lofty on-field goals very soon.
While Harbaugh will never be far from the headlines, Michigan could recede from the spotlight just a bit in 2017. If it does, however, it's still likely to be merely the calm before Michigan takes the college football world by storm.