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Jim Harbaugh has Michigan back ... but the journey is just beginning

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Coming off a two-win (albeit Covid-shortened) season, with his pay slashed and his staff retooled, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh occupied one of the hottest seats in college football coaching entering 2021.

Seven games and seven victories later, that has cooled considerably. Barring some complete and unforeseen disaster, Harbaugh’s status as head coach of the Wolverines is secure.

Give all credit where credit is due.

Not only is Michigan winning, it is winning games that it lost in the past — such as on the road as an underdog (Wisconsin) or needing a fourth-quarter comeback (Nebraska). The team plays hard, plays with pride and looks nothing like the listless crew of a year ago. It isn’t easy for a program to regain its footing. So far, Michigan has.

Yet as is discussed on the latest edition of the College Football Enquirer, that doesn’t mean Harbaugh and his sixth-ranked Wolverines are done with the work.

Saturday’s visit to No. 8 Michigan State begins a five-week stretch of prove-it games that includes a visit to Penn State on Nov. 13 and hosting Ohio State on Nov. 27. It will help define Harbaugh’s tenure at his alma mater, not to mention how this particular team is remembered.

Harbaugh knows that and embraces that.

“Win the conference? Win the national championship?” Harbaugh told reporters. “Yeah, it’s an elimination mindset. You got a playoff mindset at this point …

“Now we're in a situation — huge game,” Harbaugh said. “In some ways [the 'one game at a time' concept] is similar, but in some ways it definitely gets turned up a notch."

This is Harbaugh, 57, at his best. The coaching? Well, we’ll see. No one ever got a parade for 7-0. The energy and attitude though are different this season. He at least sounds like his old self.

This is a guy who was known as “Captain Comeback” while an NFL QB, where he lasted 15 seasons, and famously feuded with Mike Ditka despite being of moderate talent. The one who used to run around the non-scholarship University of San Diego program asking players, “Who’s got it better than us?” Or who took over a one-win Stanford team and got it to 12 wins in just four years. Or who coached Colin Kaepernick to the Super Bowl.

He embraced the challenges and tried to punch above his weight. Until he got to Michigan — which is a heavyweight on its own — it worked, often spectacularly. Yet he hasn’t been able to get by Ohio State, hasn’t won a Big Ten title (or even division) and hasn’t reached the College Football Playoff.

The program looked stalled out even before last year’s 2-4 debacle. A series of good but not great teams — with a very close loss to the Buckeyes in 2016.

Maybe Harbaugh never gets Michigan to that level. Maybe this is the year it happens. Time will tell.

At the very least, it’s Halloween weekend and the possibility is there, Michigan and a revitalized Michigan State are playing in the kind of huge game that programs like this should. It’s as much of a must-win as a 7-0 coach can have.

Nothing gets settled on Saturday, of course. If Michigan leaves East Lansing victorious, then the next challenge in a season full of them comes with the visit to State College (and the Buckeyes looming). Harbaugh may not have to go 12-0 for the program to be deemed successful, but he needs to be a lot closer to that than to 2-4.

That’s part of what makes Saturday’s game so ferocious and tantalizing — more than the always heated backyard brawl between these two.

All that winning the first seven games did for Jim Harbaugh was make No. 8 so important.

Also discussed:

  • What do Michigan fans want from their football program?

  • Penn State is struggling just as word breaks that James Franklin hired a new super agent.

  • Is Ohio State the team to beat in the Big Ten East?

  • Texas Tech fires Matt Wells despite being 5-3 on the season. This is the administration quitting on the players.

  • With the Cocktail Party here, what is the status of Florida coach Dan Mullen and his program?

  • An election scandal involving the University of Alabama Homecoming Queen.

  • Love at Subway.

  • And plenty more.