Progress tough to pinpoint, but Michigan football must find it in 2017


Train roll on.

A few weeks before Jim Harbaugh wrapped up what he ultimately declared his “favorite year in football” in 2015, he compared his first Michigan squad to a railway brake.

Michigan’s locomotive was raging off the tracks and blasting, full-steam ahead, in the wrong direction 12 months prior. That first team, he estimated, successfully yanked the lever on that brake. Stopping those wheels dead and, slowly but surely, forcing them toward daylight again.

The first step may feel like the hardest, but it’s not. This part — the spot Michigan’s in now — this is the hardest.

The bad vibes subsided and, over the course of the last two years, more good vibes have arrived. But this thing’s not rolling downhill just yet. And that’s what this season’s all about.

“The train’s already left the station,” Harbaugh said earlier this month, midway through training camp. “And it’s already picking up steam.”

Progress is subjective in college football. At a lot of places, incremental positive change is encouraged and acceptable. Small moves in the right direction, so long as you’re pushing forward.

But Ann Arbor isn’t one of those places. This, to borrow a line from Brady Hoke, is Michigan. A place that will likely have $182 million in revenue over the next year. Progress equals results and rings.

Still, it’s been an interesting question all summer long. Given the large number of new faces and young talent on Harbaugh’s third Michigan squad, what will qualify as progress in 2017? He’s 20-6 through two years, but but he’s also finished third in the Big Ten East twice and lost to Urban Meyer and Ohio State twice. U-M surprised in 2015 and squandered an opportunity in 2016.

What happens next, though, will go a long way toward determining the ultimate path this train takes.

Reciting the number of new Wolverine starters is beating a dead horse at this point. But it’s not an impossible obstacle. Ohio State was one of the youngest teams in college football last year and it made the playoff. Nick Saban’s third Alabama squad was one of the youngest in the SEC and it won the BCS national title in 2009.

And while it doesn’t seem fair to place those type of expectations on this team, asking for actual progress is reasonable.

Finding a way to turn Wilton Speight from an efficient game manager to an offensive weapon would be progress. Figuring out how to enter a hostile environment, against a top flight team, and leave with a victory — at Penn State or at Wisconsin — is progress. Fielding an offensive line that allows you to play the physical brand of football Harbaugh’s teams have been known for throughout his coaching career, regardless of the opponent, is progress.

For this team, right now, it’s about more than a win/loss record. If this team finishes with 10 or 11 victories, given all its youth and inexperience, folks should be thrilled. Ten wins would be the same, but the situation is different and it’d set you up for what could be a whopper of a 2018. If you finish the year with only nine victories, but one of those is against Ohio State, it’d be tough to shade the season as a disappointment.

But if you finish with eight or nine wins without taking the next step offensively, without solving the road puzzle that’s haunted this program for a decade, without beating the Buckeyes — then, well, the train never really left the station at all. It would be considered stuck.

Because every day that passes without a Harbaugh victory over Meyer makes this entire project that much more difficult. Michigan’s not going to get to where it wants to be without toppling Ohio State. No Big Ten title, no playoff, no national title, none of it. They recruit against each other every day and, right now, all Meyer has to do is point toward the scoreboard. Harbaugh, at some point, has to change this.

So, why not now?

This first stop on this ride happens Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as the Wolverines will kick the year off in a top 25 battle against Florida. It’s a great way for this group to start a season. Michigan’s not eating a cupcake here and it’ll leave the Lone Star State with real answers about where this team is headed. A loss wouldn’t be insurmountable. But a win could do wonders for this youthful roster as it heads into the most fascinating year of Harbaugh’s early tenure to date.

Putting a stop to the negative momentum left behind from the Hoke era was hard. But figuring out how to put yourself into the category of truly elite? That’s harder.

The locomotive has left the station. And we’re about to see how it handles.

Train roll on.

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By Nick Baumgardner

Detroit Free Press