ANALYSIS: What Jim Harbaugh’s exit means for Michigan and Ohio State

Jim Harbaugh has gone back to the NFL, leaving chaos in his wake.

Harbaugh, who was named head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers on Wednesday night, leaves Michigan in a better place than he found it (maybe).

Likely successor Sherrone Moore is ready to carry over the momentum Harbaugh built over the last three years (maybe).

At Ohio State, Ryan Day has learned from past mistakes (maybe) and has Ohio State primed to take its best shot at the Wolverines in November (maybe).

Something we can say for certain: Watching everything play out over the next year and beyond should be fascinating.

Here are seven things we do know and three we don’t at this point in time:

1. We know Michigan is the defending national champion.

Harbaugh improved the on-field product at Michigan, and he did that primarily by revamping the offseason program, which appeared to have been lacking for a solid decade when he arrived.

He leaves behind a group that looks a lot better getting off the bus than the one he inherited from Kettering native Brady Hoke nine years ago, though it is probably fair to say Hoke gave him a better starting point than Rich Rodriguez left him.

2. We know Harbaugh did roster building his own way.

Michigan’s 2021 offensive line and defense were largely home-grown, but Harbaugh used key transfers to fortify both units the past two seasons, especially the line.

That might not have been necessary if his recruiting had been a tick better, but Harbaugh winning without recruiting at an elite level might actually be good news for Moore and the Wolverines if that is an area he can improve upon.

3. We know Ohio State is hurting after three straight beatings by the Wolverines.

Day responded to his first loss to Michigan by revamping the defensive staff. Now he has a new offensive coordinator, too, so no one can accuse him of taking those losses lying down.

Harbaugh retooling his staff in 2021 paid huge dividends, so we’ll see if Day gets a similar return even though it took place over multiple years.

However, the biggest questions coming out of Ohio State’s last two Michigan losses were how Day himself managed The Game, so he will continue to be under a microscope.

4. We know Ohio State has opened up to using the transfer portal, too.

The incoming transfer portal class last year provided starters at left tackle and cornerback plus potential depth at defensive tackle and in the secondary.

This year, the Buckeyes may have found their new quarterback, center and free safety that way, and they added one of the best running backs in the SEC.

5. We know that is not the only strategy Ohio State is borrowing from Michigan, either.

That would be retaining several key starters with good-not-great NFL prospects after typically seeing them leave early in recent seasons.

The combined motivations of leaving a winning legacy, improving draft stock and collecting some cash via name, image and likeness payments worked wonders for Michigan last season, and it just might do the same for the Buckeyes this year.

6. We know Michigan should still be at least very good on defense next season, but the offense might be another story.

The former is dependent on a large group of returning starters still opting to stay in Ann Arbor after Harbaugh’s departure.

We are also writing this without knowing where defensive coordinator Jesse Minter will be, but for now let’s assume Michigan will still be hard to score points on in 2024.

On offense, the Wolverines lost just about everyone, including quarterback J.J. McCarthy, but Moore was the architect of the offensive line renaissance and fared well as offensive coordinator and acting head coach in Harbaugh’s absence last season.

7. We don’t know how much stealing signs impacted Harbaugh’s program overall.

I believe the Wolverines gained an advantage for two reasons: A) I have enough common sense to know that knowing the upcoming play makes stopping it easier, and B) I have no idea why they would have kept doing it after 2021 if it wasn’t working.

Even if that advantage was gone in the second half of this season, wins in 2021 saved Harbaugh’s job and provided proof of concept crucial to building the team he had this year. Guys don’t stay in school if they didn’t think they had a shot at winning it all, and it is safe to assume the same with many of their transfers agreeing to join the program.

Nonetheless, Michigan made the plays necessary to win multiple big games down the stretch after the scandal came to light. To the victors go the spoils.

On the flip side…

1. We don’t know how Moore will fair in the big chair.

He did great work rebuilding the Michigan offensive line, fine-tuning the offensive scheme and steadying the ship while Harbaugh was suspended. Moore called an incredible game against Ohio State, pushing the right buttons at the right time as far as strategic change-ups and going for it on fourth down.

But being in charge of a whole program brings many more challenges, something Ohio State fans already know after watching their program ebb and flow in five years under Ryan Day, who was also a young offensive coordinator promoted when a veteran national championship coach left.

Learning on the job can be harrowing at a place like Ohio State or Michigan.

2. We don’t know how lasting Harbaugh’s impact will be — or what it will be.

He won with defense and running the ball, and he did it without elite recruits. You’re not supposed to de able to do any of those things anymore the way the football is played now, but it happened.

Is it sustainable? That would be another feather in his cap if so.

The NCAA may have a say as a pair of investigations are still ongoing, one involving the sign stealing operation and another recruiting violations.

3. We don’t know if Ohio State is going to take advantage.

The defense got somewhat better in 2022, took another step forward last season and should be elite this fall with returning personnel and another season under Jim Knowles.

On the other side of the ball, Ohio State made a splash with the additions of quarterback Will Howard, running back Quinshon Judson and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, but it remains to be seen how the new pieces come together and how the offensive line will perform with another year of seasoning.

About the Author