The Michigan Wolverines open spring practice Friday with the fewest returning starters in the FBS.
Phil Steele put that number at five onFeb. 25 with his annual chart, and that's the challenge for third-year coach Jim Harbaugh heading into 2017. That's also the talking point, the hurdle and the tagline on the 2017 football season before it starts. How will Michigan compete for a Big Ten championship with five returning starters?
Harbaugh —per usual —combats that notion with his own self-tailored philosophy.
"The waters are hot," Harbaugh told Sporting News on March 12. "The competitive waters are heated up. That's what you're detecting in my voice. I love that kind of situation and coaching that kind of a team."
The waters are hot. That's howwe beginAct III of the Harbaugh era not knowing where those competitive waters will go. Michigan is coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons and has re-emerged as a Big Ten contender. Harbaugh went from an entertaining coach in the NFL to the most polarizing personality in college football, arguably more polarizing than Alabama's Nick Saban.
Everything Harbaugh does draws a reaction, and by that we mean everylittlething.
On the field, it comes in the form of a broken headset against Ohio State. In the offseason, it might be a satellite camp. On social media, it might be a Twitter joust with ESPN's Paul Finebaum or the latest viral hit with a Planters commercial where he shouts at a vending machine. Harbaugh says social media can "Put a smile on your face, and that's a good thing."
It also puts an insular program out there like never before. It's still Fort Schembechler on the inside, but the outside criticisms come from more places now.The go-to citations are the fact the Wolverineshaven't finished better than third in the Big Ten East under Harbaugh. Ohio State's Urban Meyer is 5-0 against Michigan. And, of course, five returning starters. At some point, the Harbaugh phenomenon will have to deliver a Big Ten championship for the Wolverines, which hasn't happened since 2004.
Harbaugh prepared for Act III by landing a top-five recruiting class after sending a potential school-record NFL Draft class to the next level. He didn't reach double-digits wins at Stanford until his fourth and final season there in 2010. The Wolverines are ahead of schedule, even if Harbaugh's schedule turns into a run-on sentence.
"My wife had a baby two months ago, John, and getting to do a lot of fun stuff with a Planters peanuts commercial and spring ball starting, Michigan is doing great in basketball and the (NFL) Draft is coming," Harbaugh said. "A lot of exciting things. It seems likes one after another. Just keep going. We'll see if we can get better today than we were yesterday and see if we can get better tomorrow than we are today."
That last part is a familiar Harbaugh-ism, a co-mantra of sorts along with "Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind." He has a plan for tomorrow (or next month). Harbaugh circumvented a NCAA ruling which prohibits off-campus practices during institutional vacation periods. It's almost fitting Act III will start in Rome.
"To go to the Coliseum to be able to walk inside the Coliseum," Harbaugh said. "I've never done that. To be able to be at a papal address. I mean life-changing-kind-of-unbelievable experiences. We'll have a chance to give back and meet with refugees. We're going to put on a football clinic. We're going to be able to have a gladiator school as a team-bonding experience."
That's Harbaugh. It just keeps going and going, an old-school Energizer Bunny who operates within the rules, even if he leaves a lot of gray to be debated across that social media platform. Here's how Harbaugh packages that trip:
"We'll have practices as well but this is an educational opportunity to really tour and see the Spanish Steps, to see things that are 400- and 500-years-old," Harbaugh said. "Those are life-changing experiences. To meet people of different religions, of different languages, of different perspectives. That's educational.
"The way we think about it is putting the college back in college football and the student back in student-athlete," he said. "To be able to experience this together is a tremendous thing."
That's how the Wolverines will begin with five returning starters, with an ultimate team-bonding experience. The offense returns quarterback Wilton Speight and running back Chris Evans but must re-tool the offensive line and receivers. The defense returns Rashan Gary and Mike McCray but will show anew-look secondary. It will be interesting to see if five-star freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon will be counted on right away. There will be a lot of new faces on the field when Michigan opens at AT&T Stadium —"Jerry World" —on Sept. 2 against Florida.
Harbaugh is preparing for it with another offseason that never ends. He said watching the basketball team's journey to the Big Ten tournament championship caught his eye. That team,"played with confidence and aggression." That's the way Harbaugh wants it on the field, off the field and even on social media.
“It's excitement," Harbaugh said. "You can probably hear it in my voice. Coaching this young team, younger team, hungry team where guys have been waiting behind a guy for a year or two and waiting for their opportunity to get on the field and contribute, to start and have a chance to show what they can do."
The waters are hot, indeed. Harbaugh is telling you and himself that to get ready for what will be most scrutinized coaching job at Michigan to date. Just don't put a tagline on it yet.
Maybe because if we've learned anything from Acts I and II, then we have no idea what will happen at the end ofAct III.