Jim Harbaugh's Uneven Recruiting is Part of the Reason Michigan is a Step Behind Ohio State

By David Regimbal on August 3, 2020 at 2:50 pm
Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh

It was the second quarter of the 2015 Ohio State - Michigan game when Desmond Howard perfectly summarized the high expectations that surrounded new head coach Jim Harbaugh, who was coaching in his first game against Ohio State.

Urban Meyer and the No. 8 Buckeyes, fresh off an upset loss to Michigan State the week before, were trying to revive playoff hopes that were on life support after an underwhelming 10-1 campaign that, to that point, felt like a letdown from the previous years' national-title winning season.

The No. 10 Wolverines were operating with a lot more positive momentum going into The Game. The program had been in decline, winning seven games in 2013 and just five in 2014, but Harbaugh renewed the energy in Ann Arbor. After a season-opening loss to a solid Utah team, Michigan was just a botched punt away from 10 consecutive victories going into the Ohio State matchup. 

That's where the two programs were on the afternoon of November 28, 2015. With just under 10 minutes to go in the second quarter, ESPN's Holly Rowe interviewed Howard, former Michigan receiver and Heisman Trophy winner, who was honored during the game for his legendary career with the Wolverines.

Rowe asked Howard about his impressions of the early (and near-even) match that saw Ohio State leading just 7-3, but with Michigan holding a 143-118 edge in total offensive yards.

"I love what I'm seeing as far as the play-calling is concerned," Howard said on the ESPN broadcast. "I think we all understand that Jim Harbaugh is a masterful play-caller and he's gonna find some weaknesses in the defense and try to expose them. You know, he doesn't have his players here yet, they still don't have the explosive players yet... But I like what I'm seeing. They're moving the ball."

Harbaugh didn't have his players on the field that day. The roster he inherited was in large part assembled by former head coach Brady Hoke, along with his staff. But to that point, when ESPN interviewed Howard, that roster was trading punches with one of the most talented Ohio State teams in program history.

It didn't last.

Ohio State scored another touchdown exactly nine plays after that interview started, which put the Buckeyes up 14-3. A second-half rushing barrage from Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett, who accounted for 351 of Ohio State's 369 rushing yards on the afternoon, helped the Buckeyes secure a dominant 42-13 victory.

You very likely know the rest. Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines have gone 0-5 since his arrival in Ann Arbor, with the last two contests going in the favor of Ohio State by an average of 26 points.

Coaching, of course, goes into that. Schematically speaking, there's a sophistication to Ohio State's system that exposes Michigan's system, at least when it comes to the last two matchups.

But recruiting is a big part of the gap that exists between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines. Meyer elevated the Ohio State program to an elite recruiting status when he was hired by Gene Smith in the fall of 2011. Harbaugh hasn't reached that pinnacle at Michigan in his first five seasons with the Wolverines.

The Talent Gap

OSU & UM's Recruiting Rankings
Year Ohio State Michigan
2015 No. 7 No. 37
2016 No. 4 No. 8
2017 No. 2 No. 5
2018 No. 2 No. 22
2019 No. 14 No. 8
2020 No. 5 No. 14
2021 No. 1 No. 8
AVG. 5 14.6

When Howard told ESPN Harbaugh didn't "have his players yet," the implication was that Michigan would start beating Ohio State and compete for more Big Ten titles while also contending for national titles.

Quite literally none of those things have happened. The Wolverines were on the doorstep of the Big Ten title game and a potential invite to the playoff in 2016 and 2018, but those opportunities were vanquished by the Buckeyes.

When you look at the recruiting rankings during Harbaugh's tenure, it's clear that he hasn't been able to close the talent gap between the programs. The Buckeyes routinely rank inside the top five while Michigan has only ranked No. 5 or higher once.

Even if you factor out the years in which each school was going through a coaching transition, the Buckeyes' average recruiting rank elevates from five to 3.5, while the Wolverines still don't crack the top 10 at 10.8.

This year's cycle only highlights the recruiting difference between Ohio State and Michigan. Ryan Day and the Buckeyes are running away with the No. 1 class in the country (and chasing the greatest recruiting class of the modern era), while Michigan's eighth-ranked class has as many prospects ranked outside the top 850 nationally as Ohio State has 5-stars (four).

The moves Harbaugh made this offseason have been puzzling. Michigan has gone to Massachusetts for a pair of defensive ends in TJ Guy (ranked No. 852 nationally) and Dominick Giudice (No. 1,740) that typically end up at group of five schools.

Why Michigan prioritized these prospects over others is confusing. There's a 5-star defensive tackle in their backyard named Damon Payne, whose father grew up a Wolverines fan, that Harbaugh and company suddenly stopped recruiting. Payne committed to Alabama last week.

“It sounds weird. I totally get it,” Payne's father told Rainer Sabin of the Detroit Free Press. “As a parent, me and my wife and my son haven’t heard from [Michigan]. I can’t go into detail and say why.”

Meanwhile, the members of Ohio State's top-rated class have an average ranking of 94.9 (compared to Michigan's 89.4), and the Buckeyes still have room for a handful of additional commitments.

This November, it'll be five full years since Howard implied things would be different when Harbaugh had the control to assemble Michigan's roster with players he recruited. Fast forward to current day and the Wolverines have lost their last five matchups to Ohio State, have yet to reach Indianapolis for their first conference championship since 2003 and have lost four consecutive bowl games by an average of nearly two touchdowns.

Harbaugh's players haven't been getting the job done, and neither has he.

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