Following a season-opening, 24-17 loss at Notre Dame, the Michigan Wolverines’ rabid fan base wants blood. Former all-American wide receiver Braylon Edwards even added gasoline to the fire under Coach Jim Harbaugh’s seat.
Harbaugh dissenters point to Michigan having dropped 17 consecutive road contests against ranked opponents since 2006 and the coach’s 1-6 record against rivals Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
However, for the increasing faction of fans and pundits clamoring that the program hasn’t improved, to say nothing of those who call for his dismissal or refer to him as the most overrated coach in the sport, it should be noted that Harbaugh has hardly been given the credit he deserves. He has turned around the winningest program in the sport’s history.
In 2015, Harbaugh’s first season in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines blossomed from 5-7 the year before into a 10-win team, one that was 16.3 points per game better than the average college football team. In the two seasons since, they have won 10 and eight games, respectively, and have been at least 13.4 points per game better than the average college football team in each season. Just 21 major-college teams can claim to have won 70 percent of their games since 2015, and Michigan is among them.
The Wolverines have per-game point margins of plus-15.3 and yard margins of plus-115.9 over that stretch, both top-10 marks nationally, which are far better predictors of future success than wins. Over the past three seasons, Michigan has been 15.8 points per game better than the average college football team. In terms of three-season average SRS, that’s the program’s top mark since the turn of the century.
Another way to measure Harbaugh’s tenure is his monumental impact on recruiting. Michigan ranked as low as 49th in recruiting before Harbaugh. Since, he has produced three consecutive classes in the top 25, including two in the top five.
Those high-profile — and highly criticized — losses have largely come by narrow margins and terrible luck. One, to Michigan State in 2015, was among the most improbable in the history of the sport; another, the following year against Ohio State, was effectively decided by a controversial fourth-and-one conversion.
Five of the team’s past eight losses have been decided by one score or less, and the program is just 4-8 in one-score games since Harbaugh — who has faced a top-25 overall schedule in the past three seasons, it should be noted — arrived in Ann Arbor. Furthermore, the past 10 teams to beat Michigan under Harbaugh have finished the season ranked in the top 17 of the Associated Press poll.
The key problem — ironic, given Harbaugh’s prowess and background — is on offense. Only two Division I teams rank lower in win probability added on offense since 2015, according to data provided by TruMedia. Much of that can be traced to quarterback play.
Over the past three seasons, the Wolverines have ranked 48th in adjusted quarterback rating (which takes into account strength of opposing defenses and the given season), 85th in quarterback points above average (which measures how many points a quarterback’s performance is above or below an average quarterback’s in a respective season) and 98th in quarterback points above replacement (which measures how many points a quarterback’s performance is worth compared to replacement level in a given season), according to TruMedia. In fact, no Power Five team has won more than the Wolverines over that stretch despite such shoddy quarterback play, as defined by QBPAA and QBPAR.
Michigan is 28-12 under Harbaugh; teams that produced a QBPAR between 100 and 200, as Michigan has, won around 46 percent of the time, meaning the Wolverines probably should have around 18 victories in that time. Teams that produced a QBPAA between 0 and 50, as Michigan did, won around 51 percent of the time, meaning the Wolverines likely should have won around 20 games.
Success and expectations are largely relative. Michigan isn’t a run-of-the-mill program. And success looks different for a coach making the national average than it does for Harbaugh, with his earnings of more than $7 million per season. But Harbaugh has found ways to manufacture wins despite an unlucky streak in close games, an arduous schedule and quarterback play that would cripple most teams. The Wolverines may not be at the top of the heap, but make no mistake: They’re clawing their way up.
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