Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh recaps Peach Bowl after the 41-15 loss to Florida on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Atlanta.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
The losing side pumped the brakes a few times too many. The winner buried the gas pedal through the floor and never looked back.
Defense played a role in Monday night’s national championship game, to be sure. But Clemson’s willingness to attack at every offensive opportunity opposite Alabama’s hesitation in critical situations ultimately led to a blowout victory.
When talent is close to even in modern football, the team that rides with its best athletes and uses an aggressive mindset wins more than not.
Locally, a sizable distance away from the College Football Playoff, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is about to enter his fifth year with the pressure rising.
The Wolverines are entering 2019 in college football’s version of no man’s land. Michigan is not playoff caliber right now. Not based on what we watched during this year’s final four of CFP games. U-M isn’t bad either. The Wolverines had a 10-win season, made a New Year’s Six bowl and will land on plenty of preseason top-10 lists this week.
But no one’s putting Michigan in its top four. And in the current world of big-money college football, any deep-pocketed program that lives on the wrong side of that magic line isn’t getting it done. Michigan is toward the back end of this category. And it only has one way out.
Harbaugh can change his philosophy about how big-time games are played and won or Michigan can slip out of no man’s land and firmly enter the territory of altered expectations and national irrelevance.
There’s a lot going on here.
Michigan’s once-vaunted defense had a rough finish to the 2018 season, to be sure. But in modern football, that happens. It’s a hard reality.
Clemson, the national champion, gave up 600 yards to South Carolina in a rivalry game on Nov. 24. But managed 744 of total offense on its own and won the game. The Tigers gave up more than 200 yards in the first quarter Monday night against Alabama. But were ultimately successful because they put endless amounts of offensive pressure on a Crimson Tide team that was forced into blinking too many times.
Much has been made about Harbaugh’s decision to work without an offensive coordinator at Michigan and his scheme in general.
But this isn’t about titles and a playbook.
It’s about philosophy and approach.
If you enter a football game against a team with even or better talent and don’t have enough in your toolbox to change speeds and allow your best athletes to be explosive, you’re going to lose. Michigan went conservative without enough tempo at Ohio State and lost. It went conservative without enough tempo against Florida in the Peach Bowl and lost. It went conservative without enough tempo in the season-opener at Notre Dame and lost.
Defenses aren’t bullet-proof in modern football. The game isn’t called that way. The rules favor the other side. If you’re more talented than your opponent, as the Wolverines were during their 10-game win streak this season, you can grind people into dust. If the playing field is even, you’d better be prepared to enter a shootout with something better than a plastic fork.
The good news for Michigan?
It’ll enter 2019 with the type of offensive talent that’s capable of putting up numbers against athletic defenses.
Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black will give Michigan three of the best receivers in the Big Ten. That trio should be up there with some of the best in the country. Collins and Peoples-Jones made massive leaps as sophomores. Black, if healthy, is absolutely a game-breaker.
What’s more? Michigan has Shea Patterson back. Patterson’s not the type of sure-fire first-round pick Clemson or Alabama had Monday night. But he’s absolutely capable of more than what Michigan allowed him to do in 2018.
He averaged eight yards per attempt in 2018, which was dead even with Clemson star freshman Trevor Lawrence entering Monday’s national title game. One difference? Lawrence threw the ball more, averaging better than 33 attempts over his last eight games leading into Monday night. Patterson averaged 27 attempts during his final eight, 25 attempts per game on the season.
Either way, maximizing explosive athletes in space has to trump time of possession moving forward.
Michigan’s going to rebuild its defense in 2019. Devin Bush Jr., Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary and David Long are all gone. Greg Mattison just jumped to Ohio State. The Buckeyes want Al Washington, too.
The defense is important, to be sure.
But Harbaugh’s offensive approach has to undergo a philosophical change entering his fifth year. Otherwise, no man’s land will turn into something worse.
And no one has the stomach for that.
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Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NickBaumgardner.