Michigan's results are always going to attract close scrutiny, because it's a member of the exclusive club of high-profile historic college football powerhouses that are always under a microscope. No game can escape national notice, and every win or loss -- especially the losses -- is made to fit a larger narrative concerning the trajectory of the program. Such is life as a blueblood.
In 2017, Year 3 of the Jim Harbaugh era, Michigan can't help but be even more closely scrutinized than usual, largely because of the attention that Harbaugh has attracted to the program and the high expectations that have been established as a result.
A rainy night at the Big House last Saturday night was thus made to feel more momentous than usual, even though the result has become relatively common and it should not have been entirely unexpected: Michigan State beat Michigan 14-10, in a sloppy game in which the Wolverines started backup quarterback John O'Korn in place of the injured Wilton Speight and couldn't get out of their own way, committing five turnovers to the Spartans' zero.
All rivalry results are particularly meaningful, and that Harbaugh has lost two of three to the Spartans and that Michigan has lost eight of 10 in the series can't be ignored. The top priority of any Michigan coach is to beat Ohio State. For any successful Michigan coach, beating Michigan State is expected to be a foregone conclusion.
Year 3 is typically supposed to be a turning point for high-profile coaches of Harbaugh's stature, but this is a unique situation. In terms of the long-term trajectory of the Harbaugh era, Saturday night didn't mean much. Barring an unexpected catastrophe, the results of this season as a whole won't mean much, either. In the big picture, the Wolverines were on track before Saturday, and they're still on track now.
Expectations were always too inflated for Michigan this season. The Wolverines went 10-3 in each of his first two campaigns, with three close losses in the final four games of 2016 preventing them from achieving a true breakthrough in a season in which they were a bounce or two away from the playoff. After the Orange Bowl defeat at the hands of Florida State, Michigan was voted No. 10 in the final AP and coaches polls. When this season opened, Michigan was one spot lower, 11th, in the preseason AP poll but one spot higher, ninth, in the coaches poll. That means that coaches who cast ballots believed that Michigan would improve this year despite losing 17 starters.
Yes, "returning starters" numbers can always be misleading. Teams that recruit at a high level are capable of reloading faster than others, and it doesn't account for players who return with significant rotational experience. Those caveats did apply to Michigan: Its defensive front was clearly still loaded, and both Harbaugh and Brady Hoke before him had plenty of recruiting success. There was little reason to believe that Michigan would experience a massive drop-off this year.
There were, however, ample reasons to believe that Michigan would experience a slight drop-off and couldn't improve upon last year and realistically beat out both Ohio State and Penn State to win the Big Ten East. Five returning starters is five returning starters. With a youth movement, this team was bound to be far more inexperienced than last year, with lesser depth, putting the Wolverines at a significant disadvantage in a division featuring experienced Buckeyes and Nittany Lions squads that won 11 games each in 2016.
So far, Michigan is as advertised: Its defensive front has been outstanding, its new-look secondary hasn't really been tested (stay tuned for next week's trip to Penn State), its offensive line is a work-in-progress and its passing game doesn't have a high ceiling. The Wolverines rank third nationally in yards per play allowed on defense, but they're 85th in yards per play on offense. They've also been abysmal in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on only 5 of 15 trips inside the 20-yard line.
The struggles at quarterback and on the offensive line have been particularly concerning, given Harbaugh's background with successfully developing both. But even though it's Year 3, the future has not yet arrived at either position. The offensive line is experiencing its changeover from the Hoke era to the Harbaugh era -- it can take a while for development to truly show along the O-line -- and at quarterback, the hope is that Brandon Peters, a redshirt freshman, or Dylan McCaffrey, a blue-chip true freshman who is redshirting, will provide bigger upside than the Speight/O'Korn combination and lead the Wolverines into the future.
None of that was ever going to be achieved this year, creating a strong likelihood that jokes about Michigan being the nation's most hyped third-place team were likely to carry over to this season, which is a transition year between Harbaugh winning with Hoke's players and Harbaugh winning with his own players.
There are no guarantees, of course. Harbaugh has an excellent track record at Stanford and in the NFL, but in a tough division that features healthy Ohio State and Penn State programs plus a pesky Michigan State, there isn't much margin for error in terms of developing quarterbacks and an offensive line. But Harbaugh's past success has earned him the benefit of the doubt, and he's recruited at an elite level. Nothing that has happened has done anything to indicate that Michigan isn't on schedule, that the Harbaugh era won't rise to begin meeting high expectations next season and beyond.
The scrutiny and questions about patience are understandable. From the moment he returned to his alma mater, tasked with resurrecting Michigan football after the dark days of the Rich Rodriguez and Hoke eras, Harbaugh made it his mission to attract attention, changing the conversation from everything that's wrong with Michigan football to the heights that Michigan football can reach again. Already one of the most famous coaches in football, Harbaugh sparked feuds with other coaches and schools, pushed the limits of recruiting rules, pulled off attention-grabbing stunts and even appeared in a music video shouting his go-to slogan, "Who's got it better than us?"
Love him or hate him, Harbaugh has done a masterful job of publicizing Michigan football. But when a coach goes to such bold lengths to be in the public eye at all times, an extra level of scrutiny comes with the territory, which leads to Year 3 questions wondering when all the bravado will turn into tangible results that match the attention. Harbaugh rapidly built up expectations to astronomical heights, and any stumbles were bound to lead to a healthy dose of schadenfreude elsewhere every time Michigan stumbled.
However, the rest of the college football world should enjoy the stumbles while it can. Harbaugh invited the extra attention, but there's still little reason to think he won't get the last laugh.