No. 17 Michigan’s 35-16 loss to No. 9 Alabama in the Citrus Bowl served as the familiar referendum on the Wolverines after five years under coach Jim Harbaugh.
The Wolverines are a little more than halfway there, but that second half continues to elude a program desperate to join college football’s first class. That was true against the Crimson Tide for one game, and it will be the narrative again heading into the 2020 season and beyond.
The lead criticism will not change: Michigan is now 1-4 in bowl games and 0-5 against rival Ohio State — twin albatrosses that grow larger with each season — and with each big game.
Michigan (9-4) showed up for a half against the Crimson Tide. The Wolverines averaged 5.0 yards per carry, piled up 135 yards and took a 16-14 lead on a 57-yard field goal by Quinn Nordin. You can’t say Harbaugh didn’t have the Wolverines ready to play for this one.
Alabama (11-2), however, made the necessary halftime adjustments. Michigan was limited to 27 rushing yards in the second half, and the Crimson Tide exposed those attributes that separate the first-class programs from everyone else — including the Wolverines.
Like wide receiverJerry Jeudy. The future top-10 pick scored with an 85-yard touchdown on Alabama's first play from scrimmage and notched a 58-yard catch that set up a touchdown to stretch Alabama’s lead to two scores. He finished with six catches for 204 yards. Or Najee Harris, who chose Alabama over Michigan and rushed for 136 yards and two TDs against the Wolverines. They are the skill position difference-makers Harbaugh hasn't been able to bring to Ann Arbor.
There's quarterback. This wasn’t even Tua Tagovailoa, but backup quarterback Mac Jones (16 of 25, 327 yards, three touchdowns) made the big throws while Shea Patterson (17 of 37, 233 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) missed with seven overthrows on deep shots downfield. Harbaugh still hasn't been able to develop that field-tilting quarterback. That will be on Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton to change as a first-time starter in 2020.
Then there’s the philosophical question that continues to revolve around defensive coordinator Don Brown’s aggressive scheme. In the two regular-season losses to Ohio State and the bowl game losses to Florida and Alabama, the Wolverines have allowed an average of 48.8 points and 513 yards per game.
That is the last quarter-and-a-half between College Football Playoff contender and top-10 purgatory in which Michigan continues to find itself. Yes, Michigan is a top-10 program. Here are the top 15 Power 5 programs by record since Harbaugh took over in 2015:
That is Playoff purgatory. The top three schools (Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State) have won national titles in the Playoff era, and are built to do that every year. The next three (Oklahoma, LSU, Georgia) are built to make the Playoff every year. The next three (Wisconsin, Penn State, Notre Dame) are the ones Michigan is closest to; Harbaugh is a combined 6-5 against the Badgers, Nittany Lions and Irish. Nobody cares about that, or the 3-2 record against in-state rival Michigan State.
13 Oklahoma State 45 20 .692
Harbaugh was brought on in 2015 to compete with the Buckeyes and the SEC powerhouses, and that was amplified with the satellite camp tour after he arrived. This marks three straight bowl losses to the SEC, and Ohio State will be favored to win the Big Ten again in 2020.
As for Harbaugh and Michigan, those questions will continue. Harbaugh isn't going to get fired, but with each season it's fair to wonder if he can finally close that second half. That makes the 2020 season a pivotal one under Harbaugh. The Wolverines open at Washington and host Wisconsin in the final week of September. Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan State are on the October schedule before the season-ending game against Ohio State.
The Wolverines haven't won in Columbus since 2000, when Drew Henson was the starting quarterback. That’s a 20-year drought that will be the leading question about Michigan in 2020 — and whether Harbaugh will ever take the Wolverines the rest of the way.