ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Jim Harbaugh’s job is safe at Michigan whether his team finally beats Ohio State or he falls to 0-5 in what has become a one-sided series.
But a victory over Ohio State on Saturday at the Big House would sure provide a boost for Harbaugh and college football’s winningest program — even if he won’t say it.
“It would mean a lot to him,” Wolverines linebacker Khaleke Hudson acknowledged Monday. “It would mean a lot for Michigan going forward with all aspects — with recruiting, with going forward to the next season and to have some confidence to just keep this thing going. It would be a great win for him.”
It would also be a surprising upset.
No. 2 Ohio State (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten, No. 2 CFP) is favored to beat No. 10 Michigan (9-2, 6-2, No. 13 CFP) by about 10 points to continue a trend that Harbaugh has been unable to overcome so far. The Buckeyes have won seven in a row, including a 62-39 rout last season, to match its longest winning streak in the series set from 2004 to 2010. They have won 14 of the last 15 in the series.
After the Buckeyes poached a pair of Harbaugh’s coaches to work for first-year coach Ryan Day last winter, Harbaugh made a major move of his own that is starting to pan out.
Harbaugh hired former Alabama assistant Josh Gattis to be his offensive coordinator a year after Michigan didn’t have an assistant with that job. He has allowed Gattis to call plays in a no-huddle spread offense that is clicking well enough — finally — for the Wolverines to average nearly six touchdowns over the last four games.
If Harbaugh can help the Wolverines win a fifth straight game with their first victory over Ohio State since 2004, it might prove to be as pivotal moment for the program as it was 50 years ago when Bo Schembechler beat one of Woody Hayes’ best teams.
Harbaugh seemed at ease Monday at his weekly news conference. He didn’t guarantee a victory over the Buckeyes as a did as Schembechler’s quarterback in 1986, a boast he helped to back up with a 26-24 win at the Horseshoe, but did say a win would be very significant.
“It’d be big,” he said. “It always is.”
Harbaugh, who is 47-16 with the Wolverines, is in the fifth year of a seven-year contract with a compensation package that gives him more than $7 million per year. He returned in 2015 to the school where he was a star after going 44-19-1 with the 49ers, winning the 2012 NFC championship.
He was hailed as the coach who could restore glory at Michigan. Averaging nearly 10 wins a season without a victory over Ohio State has toned down the hype about what he could do at a school without a Big Ten title since 2004 or a national championship since 1997.
For the first time, Harbaugh won’t have to try to close the regular season with a win over Urban Meyer.
Meyer, who retired after last season, made the Michigan game a huge deal within the program and backed up his priority by dominating its rival. Like Meyer, Day has made it clear how important preparing to play and beat the Wolverines is to him.
“We live it every day, the Team Up North is something that we talk about every single day,” Day said Saturday after a 28-17 win over Penn State. “And the best way to respect a rivalry is to work it every day and we do.”
Day kicked the rivalry up a notch last winter, hiring assistants Greg Mattison and Al Washington away from the Wolverines on consecutive days.
Harbaugh dodged a question about facing his former assistants, and his players insisted they don’t have hard feelings about the coaches, both of whom were given big raises to join the Buckeyes.
Ohio State senior receiver K.J. Hill said from the moment he stepped on campus, the Wolverines have provided motivation.
“All the push-ups, we do for them,” Hill said. “All the sit-ups, we do for them.”
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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