ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh shook up his coaching staff and whipped himself into shape as if he was still playing quarterback after his opportunity to coach at his alma mater was extended last winter by at least another season.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, a former teammate of Harbaugh's under the late Bo Schembechler, signed Harbaugh to a new deal that slashed his guaranteed pay with what is essentially a year-to-year contract in a move that fell somewhere between extending and firing him.
Harbaugh responded shortly thereafter by bringing in new defensive coordinator Mike Maconald to replace Don Brown. He recruited a pair of young and dynamic former Wolverines, Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy, to join the new-look coaching staff. He even changed the name of the team's 9-on-7 drill to Beat Ohio at the start of spring drills, trying to toughen up his players while sharpening their focus on the rival Buckeyes.
So far, it has seemed to work because the Wolverines (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) are ranked sixth in the AP Top 25 and fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings. Ohio State is No. 2 in the AP poll and in the CFP.
Harbaugh desperately hopes the many changes he made help Michigan finally beat Ohio State on Saturday at the Big House. He seems to have a chance to win in the rivalry for the first time as a coach, but the Buckeyes (10-1, 8-0) are favored to win by more than a touchdown, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
The spread is relatively respectable in a suddenly lopsided series that has seen Ohio State win a school-record eight straight games and 15 of 16. Keeping it close won't cut it for Harbaugh, whose tenure as a coach at Michigan has been long on hype and short on significant wins.
“Both teams have a lot on the line,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It's a true playoff in that sense. In the College Football Playoff world, this is the start of the playoffs.
“The team that wins will advance. The team that doesn't won't. It is that, and it's also the big game, The Game, the rivalry.”
The victors will earn a spot in the conference's championship game and a solid shot at making the College Football Playoff.
Even if the Buckeyes win by multiple touchdowns, Harbaugh will most likely keep his job. Another setback, though, would haunt him for months and lead to more doubts that he can ever restore college football's winningest program to championship contender.
Despite a 37-33 loss to the then-No. 8 Michigan Sate last month that dropped Harbaugh to 3-4 in the in-state rivalry, the Wolverines are a win away from advancing to the Big Ten championship game for the first time.