Jim Harbaugh has coached Michigan to this point before.
In 2016, Michigan’s head coach guided his Wolverines to Columbus with only one loss and a No. 3 ranking in the College Football Playoff rankings. In his second season at the helm, he exceeded expectations, and Michigan finally looked better than Ohio State.
Yet, the Wolverines lost.
In 2017, Michigan hosted an Ohio State team that had two losses and again, looked like a vulnerable titan.
Still, the Wolverines lost.
Now, Harbaugh has guided the team to the brink again. His Wolverines are No. 4 in the nation. They are in a position to win the Big Ten East with a victory Saturday. They are favored against the Buckeyes.
“I think this season ends up, kind of, all for not if you don’t win the Big Ten. If you don’t beat Ohio State. If you don’t go to the playoff,” Cody Stavenhagen, The Athletic’s Michigan beat writer, said. “One guy had told me that the trajectory of Michigan football has almost been sisyphean, so to the point where every time you think it’s getting better, you think Michigan is making progress, something happens. It doesn’t quite get there.”
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished by being forced to roll a boulder up a hill just for it to roll down at the end of the day, leaving him to repeat the act for the rest of time.
Harbaugh has always been able to push that boulder up the hill. He’s led the Wolverines to more success now than they ever found under former head coach Brady Hoke. But every year, that last week of the season, the Buckeyes push that boulder back down the hill, leaving him to start again the next campaign.
This Michigan team found the missing piece it has lacked in the past years of the Harbaugh era: a quarterback.
Shea Patterson, a former top-rated quarterback recruit, has completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 2,177 yards and 18 touchdown passes. He has only thrown four interceptions. Patterson has also rushed for 255 yards on 60 carries, punching in two touchdowns on the ground.
In the past, Michigan has had the defense, the receivers and the running backs. It just didn’t have the signal-caller. Now, it has Patterson.
“The defense is still the backbone of this Michigan and Karan Higdon in the running game is really what the offense is centered around,” Stavenhagen said. “But just the knowledge that Michigan has a quarterback with some unique abilities, capable of making plays, capable of making big throws on third down or in the fourth quarter… I think that really changes kind of the whole vibe of this team.”
With a defense that ranks among the top in the nation statistically, Michigan has all the pieces needed to come into Columbus and beat a struggling Ohio State team that was humiliated by Purdue and surrendered 51 points to Maryland, a team that scored three against Michigan State.
It has been a long time since Michigan entered the matchup truly optimistic to win against Ohio State.
Michigan Daily sports editor Max Marcovitch said it’s been rare in the past 15 years that Michigan has been regarded as a better team, and fans know this is the case.
“I think Michigan fans are recognizing that if it’s ever going to happen, if the program is ever going to turn the corner and sort of get to that level at the top of the Big Ten, that this kind of has to be the year,” Marcovitch said.
A loss, and this season is a wash. It’s another season during which Harbaugh pushed the boulder up the hill, but couldn’t get it over. To Wolverine fans, it is another lost season.
“I certainly think you can’t call this a successful season at this point unless Michigan beats Ohio State and wins the Big Ten,” Marcovitch said.
A win, and Harbaugh has just one hurdle to push his boulder over, at least for 2018. The winner of Ohio State and Michigan will go on to face Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game. Harbaugh has never made it to that game, having watched Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, Penn State’s James Franklin and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer all hoist that trophy during his tenure.
Michigan would be heavily favored to beat Northwestern, a 7-4 Big Ten West champion of the considerably weaker half of the conference.
Beat Ohio State. Win the Big Ten. Reach the College Football Playoff. All would be firsts in the Harbaugh era. Everything else after that in 2018 would just be gravy.
“A Big Ten championship and a College Football Playoff appearance would be a huge success, especially after the way this season started,” Marcovitch said. “And anything beyond that I think is extra. Now if you ask fans that two weeks from now and Michigan’s playing Alabama, a lot of them will have talked themselves into it.”
The boulder is back up the hill. The question remains: Will Harbaugh be able to get it that one step further, or will he watch in dismay as it rolls back down, waiting to be moved again in August 2019?