Take/Counter-Take: Jim Harbaugh Will Never Beat Ohio State As Michigan's Head Coach

By Andrew Ellis and Ramzy Nasrallah on May 19, 2020 at 8:35 am
Jim Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh has taken five hacks so far, coming up short each time.

For the past half-decade, spanning Harbaugh's entire tenure at the helm of Michigan's football program, Ohio State has ended the regular season by topping the Wolverines. In their only game with Ryan Day as head coach, the Buckeyes won by more than four touchdowns.

  • 2015: 42-13, Ohio State in Ann Arbor
  • 2016: 30-27, Ohio State in Columbus
  • 2017: 31-20, Ohio State in Ann Arbor
  • 2018: 62-39, Ohio State in Columbus
  • 2019: 56-27, Ohio State in Ann Arbor

Will Harbaugh ever beat Ohio State as Michigan's head coach? We settle that debate.

Take: Jim Harbaugh Will Never Beat Ohio State

Andrew Ellis: Here's a #SpoilerAlert: There will eventually be a sad, dreary November afternoon when we are all ailing after a Michigan victory. It's going to happen, and it's going to feel miserable. I just don't think that time will come with Jim Harbaugh running the show in Ann Arbor. 

There's not a specific reason to cite for my stance on this. Rather, there are a number of factors – many of which have been lingering on for years now – that lead me to believe Ryan Day and the Buckeyes will continue to come away victorious every single time they go up against the Fighting Harbaughs. 

I'm clearly an avid follower of the recruiting scene, and while it actually may not be the biggest factor in all of this, we're going to start with something that's quite near and dear to me. Though I fully acknowledge the recruiting piece of this puzzle will surely be addressed in my adversary's counter-take.

There's a constant debate as to what's most important: talent or coaching. Regardless of your stance, it's abundantly clear that Ohio State has a major edge in both departments. Ryan Day has been constantly landing four- and five-star prospects while Jim Harbaugh and his staff are oddly fascinated with unranked kids from the state of Massachusetts. 

Ohio State's talent advantage has been painfully obvious, and this is especially true at quarterback. Shea Patterson never developed and I don't think anyone is all that worried about Joe Milton or Dylan McCaffrey. It's true that Harbaugh has a talented kid committed in 2021 five-star J.J. McCarthy, but he's a Midwest product that both the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish passed on. Meanwhile, the Ohio State quarterback room is set to be loaded for the next 4-6 years. 

And when Michigan does make some noise on the recruiting trail, things don't seem to pan out thanks to some questionable coaching and development. We've seen players like Donovan Peoples-Jones and Rashan Gary who just never developed into what was expected of them. These were five-star prospects who have gone onto the NFL, but their college days were unremarkable. 

I actually think the biggest issue for the Maize and Blue is the overall focus and preparation for the game. Don Brown has shown absolutely no ability to slow down the Buckeye offense as Ryan Day has been running circles around him since his arrival in 2017. Ohio State has been able to put its best foot forward the majority of the time and the focus on the rivalry permeates throughout the campus and especially within the WHAC. 

Meanwhile, Michigan's players have resorted to whatever the hell this is. It legitimately looks like my third-grade niece trying to make a TikTok video with her friends all the while said friends have absolutely no interest in the task at hand. 

But that wasn't an elementary school TikTok video. That's exactly what the rivalry has become. I'm not going to pretend that I can get into the heads of the Michigan and Ohio State players and coaches to get some deep psychological picture. But it would appear that the dominance – which now extends through three Ohio State coaching regimes – has taken its toll on a once-powerful Wolverine program. 

All of that being said, I will acknowledge that 2021 actually sets up nicely for Harbaugh and Co. The game is in Ann Arbor, Justin Fields will likely be gone, and Ohio State should have a first-year starter in C.J. Stroud or Jack Miller facing off against a more seasoned Wolverine quarterback. This really changes nothing for me. We've seen some other favorable setups and it has mattered nil.

Every time an NFL job opens up, folks immediately point to Jim Harbaugh as a potential hire. I'm not one of those people who think Harbaugh will be leaving anytime soon. He's the very definition of a "Michigan Man" and has averaged more than nine wins per season.

Will there come a time when he realizes he can't even win his own division and may elect to test the NFL waters again? Maybe. But I expect he'll stick around for several more years, and the University would be foolish to encourage him to look elsewhere. 

Ryan Day isn't going anywhere and he's assembling the most talented roster in the country. Michigan is struggling to even land the best players from its own state and the coaching staff has shown no signs of turning things around in the rivalry. There's only been one close contest dating back to 2015, and I see no evidence of things changing in the coming years. 

You can cite the recruiting, or the coaching, or the mental edge and focus on the rivalry. All in all, I think it adds up to Jim Harbaugh continuing to struggle and going winless against Ohio State. 

Counter-Take: Jim Harbaugh Will Eventually Beat Ohio State

Ramzy Nasrallah: Andrew, you ignorant slut.

If you think Jim Harbaugh's scrappy three-star army has no shot of ever beating Ohio State again, that’s fine - but you don’t say it. If you believe the Wolverines will never be able to hold the Buckeyes under 50 points in a single game again, cool - but shhhhhhhhh. 

And if you buy into the idea that Michigan could ride recruits who grew up near actual Ivy League schools to November triumphs in Ann Arbor or Columbus, you’re free to do so - just keep it to yourself. 

The Universe we share has a long history of violence in responding to what could be perceived as arrogance toward nature, and it’s called Equilibrium. This is a harmonious state where wins and losses are equitable and no one gets to be happy. Thing is, we’re both old enough to remember the bargaining stage of being on the wrong side of Equilibrium. 

Coop just needs to go .500 against Michigan; that’s all I want. People actually said that out loud, man. Saying you’re cool with losing the only game that matters half the time means you’ve already lost. But declaring your team will never lose the only game that matters - even in a single coaching tenure - is even more slippery. The Universe listens, and that son of a bitch is a master troll. Brady Hoke beat Ohio State, man.

This dance is complicated and nuanced: Michigan can never be allowed to beat Ohio State again, which violates Equilibrium. But believing it to be a forgone conclusion weakens the edifice the current century’s dominance has been built upon. In the modern era we have seen all of the evolution occur on the Ohio State side of the imbalance, and it’s been almost entirely around psychological command of the rivalry.

This is exactly where John Cooper - Hall of Fame coach and master recruiter - failed out loud. 

Jim Tressel arrived and made the Michigan game about pride. Urban Meyer took over and made it about respect. Both of those strategies worked really well. Let’s assume Ryan Day isn’t going to be satisfied with just going 1-0 against those guys. I’m also confident Day doesn’t think out-recruiting Harbaugh is going to be enough. Coop out-recruited most of the country and we saw what that meant in late November.

It is impossible to view the balance of a rivalry with any objectivity, which is why the notion that Harbaugh is win-proof against Ohio State for even the next season is a dangerous farce. Even Coop won The Game twice. His tie in 1992 was a blown win and there were (objectively) three and (probably not objectively but I’ll die on this hill) five other times Coop’s team should have won. 

The Universe operates on its own schedule, not ours. Confidence is a weapon, but grenades can go off before they’re thrown, too.

Michigan pre-declaring itself Leaders and Best several generations ago was a multi-decade trek into a self-defeating galaxy-brained prophesy that has only benefited its rivals who don’t care about dead champions. Michigan Tradition™ hasn’t scored a touchdown since Bo lost his eighth Rose Bowl.

Look at how they cope every time Ohio State wins The Game. It’s because the Buckeyes cheat. The refs suck. The players take online classes. Columbus is a football factory masquerading as a school. Forget for a moment about how absolutely delicious that all is and parse what the attitude portends for turning the rivalry around - embracing that fans and programs have never been more connected or intertwined than they are right now.

There’s no pride in any of those justifications for losing. There’s no respect for the opponent either. Michigan has been harping on tradition while diligently running the anti-strategy to beating Ohio State since it ran Rich Rodriguez out of town, and it’s rooted in their hardwired belief that Michigan is pure and superior and better than Ohio State no matter what, let alone a football score. 

Remember how many pearls were clutched when Urban reupholstered how Ohio State football had looked for decades? That anxiety lasted one season. Ohio State’s only tradition should be winning.

So if you want to borrow that line of thinking from Michigan to predict how Day v. Harbaugh is going to go - just because the Buckeyes land more/better recruits than the Wolverines do - cool man, all you. I want no part of that belief, no matter how warm and fuzzy it might feel. I’ve seen superior Ohio State recruits and teams eat shit at the worst possible moment with everything on the line because there was no way Michigan could win this time. 

Every time is this time. Every game is this time. Eras in Ohio State/Michigan are not defined by coaching tenures. They’re defined by bounces. Plays. Catches. Drops. Slips. Everything can teeter on a single play in this rivalry, and it makes no difference how many stars were involved on Signing Day or how eccentric Harbaugh is.

So no, I’m not cheering for him to get one in the rivalry. I’m not one of those white knights who wants the Wolverines to get a game here or there to “keep it interesting” or save a job/extend a tenure. I’m fiercely opposed to Michigan ever beating Ohio State in football again, and while I don’t play in the games - I’m a part of the tribe. We have a material contribution to the mindset in 2020. 

Michigan remains the threat. Harbaugh is a threat. I’ll never say he has no chance to beat the Buckeyes.

And the best way to guard against the threat - outside of maintaining superior recruiting, coaching and karma - is to keep Michigan revered and all alone on the highest-possible pedestal. That’s where Tressel put the Wolverines, that’s where Urban kept them, that’s how we got here - and that’s how we’ll stay here.

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