Jim Harbaugh has always been a good coach.
Now he’s a good coach who has finally beaten Ohio State.
No. 6 Michigan vanquished the Buckeyes on Saturday, ending a losing streak that has defined the program and its coach.
The Wolverines were tougher and smarter, bludgeoning and confusing the Buckeyes with a well-schemed and well-blocked running game and getting after the the No. 1 offense in the country with maybe the best pass-rushing combo in college football.
“It feels like the beginning,” Harbaugh said after he improved to 1-5 against Ohio State.
A year ago, it seemed like the end for Harbaugh at his alma mater.
Michigan was terrible during last season’s abbreviated Big Ten schedule, going 2-4 and not even getting a chance to play Ohio State because of a COVID-19 outbreak before The Game.
Harbaugh was 49-22 through six seasons at that point, with no victories in the game that mattered most. He had unquestionably made Michigan better since taking over in 2015, but Ohio State had soared to another level and left Harbaugh and the Wolverines behind.
After last season, Michigan and athletic director Warde Manuel faced a choice: Stick with Harbaugh, a demonstrably good coach, or dive into the market and hope to find someone better.
Patience is at a low in major college football, see LSU and Florida for examples.
Michigan trusted Harbaugh, though not so much that it didn’t re-do his contract to make getting rid of him if this season didn’t pan out more affordable.
With a new defensive staff and more confident and established offensive coordinator (Josh Gattis), Harbaugh delivered a team that perfectly matches his vision, with echoes of his greatest successes at Stanford and in the NFL with the 49ers.
Michigan’s offense is a modernized version of ground-and-pound supported by a defense that features two elite edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo.
Harbaugh returned to college football as its most fascinating coach, confident and quirky with all kinds of hype.
His failures against Ohio State turned into him into a punchline and easy target for critics: ‘This is your savior, Michigan?’
But if you are what your record says you are, Harbaugh is now 89-44 as a major college head coach and 44-19-1 as an NFL coach with a Super Bowl appearance.
One victory over Ohio State doesn’t make Harbaugh a genius. Five losses against the Buckeyes didn’t make him a dummy, though it was fair to question if he was making Michigan all it can be.
This might turn out to be a blip in the rivalry. Ryan Day, who inherited this Ohio State juggernaut from Urban Meyer, is still assembling one of the two or three most talented teams in the country every season.
But for a day Michigan and Harbaugh got the best of the Buckeyes and the coach who opposing fans love to hate had once again become college football’s most interesting man.
“There’s definitely stuff that people said that spurred us on,” Harbaugh said and then added a not-so-subtle shot toward Day. “Sometimes people that are standing on third base and think they hit a triple, but they didn’t.”
The Game on.
HEISMAN MOMENT/BONE-HEAD DECISION
A minute and a half to go and 97 yards to cover. Down a touchdown in college football’s fiercest rivalry.
Alabama’s Bryce Young put together a tying drive against Auburn that will seal a place for him in Iron Bowl history.
Young’s 28-yard touchdown pass to freshman Ja’Corey Brooks was a thing of beauty, just inside the front pylon. It was a Heisman moment that got the third-ranked Crimson Tide into overtime after it had struggled to protect the talented quarterback all game.
At that point it seemed inevitable the Tide would win, facing an Auburn offense with a hobbled backup quarterback in T.J. Finley.
After Alabama scored a TD on its opening possession, the Tigers matched it —- and had a chance to win the game with a 2-point conversion.
The Crimson Tide had outgained the Tigers more than 2-to-1 and, despite its issues, was clearly the better team and the team best equipped to keep scoring in overtime.
Still, Auburn coach Bryan Harsin chose to kick the tying extra point, instead of going for two and the win in a spot where Alabama’s offense could not respond.
If you’re the underdog trying to spring an upset, this is how you do it. The more you play the better your chance of being exposed by the more talented team.
The Tide and Tigers exchanged field goals in OT round two and then went to the 2-point conversion shootout where Alabama won it in the bottom of the fourth.
Harsin’s decision was egregious and he, too, earned himself a spot in Iron Bowl lore for all the wrong reasons.
AROUND THE COUNTRY: The Tide heads to the SEC championship game in an unfamiliar role, looking like a clear underdog against No. 1 Georgia. … Heading into Saturday night, all the conference championship games were set, except for the Big 12. The late game between No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 7 Oklahoma State would determine whether the Cowboys play Baylor or the Sooners next week in Arlington, Texas. … Both sides of the Big Ten were set by upsets Saturday. Michigan will face No. 17 Iowa after the Hawkeyes rallied to beat Nebraska on Friday and then got the help then needed from Minnesota. The Gophers upset Wisconsin to win Paul Bunyan’s Axe and hand the Big Ten West to Iowa. … There will be two unbeaten teams in FBS heading into championship weekend: Georgia and Cincinnati. North Texas ended No. 15 UTSA’s perfect season with a 45-23 victory. UTSA will still host the Conference USA title game next week against Western Kentucky. As for North Texas, it finished the season with five straight victories to become bowl eligible and maybe save coach Seth Littrell’s job … All signs and media reports point to TCU hiring SMU coach Sonny Dykes to replace Gary Patterson. Dykes would be switching sides in a crosstown rivalry and leaving on a down note. SMU lost four of the last five games, including at home to Tulsa on Saturday. … The two biggest questions heading into the next week or so for Florida are: Who’s the next coach? Can he keep quarterback Anthony Richardson from transferring? The talented freshman showed flashes all season of being a potential difference-maker and came off the bench to help Florida get bowl eligible by beating Florida State.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com
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