Michigan’s Bowl Blues – and What’s Next?

Hello, Loyal Readers!

I’m pleased to report Harper Collins/William Morrow has just launched the fourth printing of The Great Halifax Explosion, less than two months after publication. So, to all of you who’ve bought it, THANK YOU! (For the rest, whatya waitin’ for?!?) Can order it lots of ways on johnubacon.com, or amazon, locals, and the rest.

My interview on my book, “The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism,” this week finished the countdown of the year’s top 25 interviews by Al Kresta on Ave Maria Radio as their #1 interview, out of several hundred. Great thanks, Al!

“The Great Halifax Explosion” – Al Kresta interviews John U. Bacon

Now, back to our show!

If you want to listen to the audio version, click “play” below.


This year, for the first time, the Big Ten failed to place a team in the four-team College Football Playoff. But the league redeemed itself by winning its first seven bowl games – an amazing run. The Big Ten was just one win away from an unprecedented 8-0 bowl record: Michigan versus South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

Michigan finished the regular season with a disappointing 8-4 record, which wasn’t not too surprising after losing two quarterbacks. But a bowl game victory would put them at 9-4, just one short of the standard set by Harbaugh’s first two Michigan teams. Not bad at all.

The Wolverines were heavily favored, and that seemed right when Michigan jumped out to a 19-3 lead. The offense looked solid, and the defense dominant, as usual — and that’s when the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. The Wolverines gave the ball away five times in the second half. The offense was disorganized, undisciplined, and poorly coached – the antithesis of Harbaugh’s previous teams.

Michigan’s 26-19 loss sparked a crescendo of criticism from fans and reporters alike. The national media crowed that Harbaugh, Michigan’s homegrown hero, was a bust. For the first time, a significant minority of the Michigan fans wondered aloud if that might be true.

These predictable responses are overreactions, and most Michigan fans know it. But they do pile on the pressure for the season ahead, raising three possibilities:

First, the Wolverines could get worse. It’s not clear if the NCAA will let five-star transfer quarterback Shea Patterson play this coming season, so Michigan’s offense could be leaderless again next year. With a historically brutal schedule, another step backward is entirely possible – an outcome many experts are betting on.

Second, Michigan might hold its own, and finish with 8 wins again. If so, the future could still be bright, with a stronger roster and an easier schedule coming next year.

But there’s a third scenario: Harbaugh sorts out the offense, starting with his coaching staff. Right now they have too many cooks in the kitchen, with not one but two offensive assistants making a million dollars a year. This creates a cloudy chain of command – poison for any organization.

But it’s worth remembering Harbaugh played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years, and coached great offenses for another 14, so it’s hard to believe he suddenly forgot how to run an effective offense. I’d imagine he’ll take charge of the offense, get back to basics, and start scoring points again. With a defense returning almost everyone, they could get back to ten wins.

If they do, it will be reminiscent of Bo Schembechler’s biggest turn-around. In 1984, Michigan’s quarterback went down, and the Wolverines finished 6-and-6 – Bo’s worst season.

The next year, 1985, Bo made everyone – coaches and players – start from scratch. His quarterback returned to lead an unranked team to number two in the nation – Bo’s best finish.

What was the difference? He told me, “We just remembered how we do things around here. Then we went back to doing those things better than anyone else. That’s all.”

Who was that quarterback? None other than James Joseph Harbaugh. He knows that comeback script better than anyone alive.

The odds don’t favor a comeback for Harbaugh’s current team. But then, the odds didn’t favor a comeback for his mentor’s team, either.







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10 comments Leave a comment  

  • Phil Hemenway January 5, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Hi John,
    I believe Coach Harbaugh will do an outstanding job next season. One half of one game does not define a team or a season. Go Blue.

  • Clyde McKenzie January 5, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    You’re as insightful about M football as anyone we have, so I’m surprised that you see ’17 as a season that was just part of the normal course of events. 18 new starters? Starting three different quarterbacks due, principally, to injury? What other top program had comparable obstacles? I remember being a freshman and not being much good at anything. As Bo once commented, the best thing a freshman could do for the FB team is to become a sophomore.

    Bought and read The Great Halifax Explosion and really enjoyed it. Learned some stuff, too.

  • Dave Mezger January 5, 2018 at 12:42 pm

    It does define a season when the collapse in the 2nd half of the SC game is an accurate reflection of what happened in every UM game against a major opponent. We did not win one game against an opponent that finished above 500. Poor coaching and poor conditioning led to a disorganized offense and ineffective defense in every one of these 2nd half games. Let’s be realistic and not have our UM heads buried in the sand. Urban Meyer and Saban both had won championships by year 3. JH is now entering year 4 and has not won one title !

  • Matt Lee January 5, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    Thank you for being the voice of reason.

  • R. D. Parsons (Required) January 5, 2018 at 8:59 pm

    Message (Required) That QB who led Michigan after the 6-6 season under Bo was a very tough kid. I think that was required of everyone who started for Bo’s teams but especially a QB when they were running the option and heavy hits were commonplace whether you kept the ball or made the pitch. If I recall correctly, Jim Harbaugh guaranteed a victory over OSU then backed it up. If he finds a QB as tough as he was, then the Michigan football team will once again be playing for B1G titles.

  • Rockie January 6, 2018 at 7:13 am

    Doesn’t matter who they have at QB, they need to figure the OL out, or we will be back to having three QB playing the year.

  • Jim Epperson January 8, 2018 at 12:34 am

    My analysis: The basic problem is the O-line. This year’s line had one true senior (Cole) and one 5th-year senior (Kugler, who did not play much in the bowl game, due to an injury). Normally, the O-line would be chock-full of 4th and 5th year guys—Hoke recruits, in other words—but we spent much of the year starting younger kids, including true freshmen (Ruiz). It is bad form to call out the previous staff, but the fact is that Hoke left a full D-line cupboard but an empty O-line cupboard. Yes, we had three Hoke seniors on the line last year, but they were not good enough to run out the clock at Iowa or Ohio State, and none of them got drafted. So that is one big problem—no offense is going to be any good if no one is blocking. (The wholesale shake-up in the O-line did not help matters in the Outback Bowl.)

    A second problem (IMO) is coaching staff turnover. The loss of Frisch and Wheatley had to affect the offensive continuity with a young team.

    And, of course, the injuries to two QBs did not help. Still, there were obvious coaching errors. Michigan State was a winnable game, IMO, if the staff had looked at a weather report and understood that the second half would be played in a monsoon.

    Own your mistakes and move on. That’s how to win, in the long run.

  • clifford craig January 8, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Message: Book was a great read, finished in two days. Having spent 30+ years practicing orthopaedic surgery in Boston, didn’t appreciate the connection with Halifax. Hopefully the book will make more Bostonians aware of this history.
    Was intrigued by Barss’ injury described in the book. Obviously a vertebral fracture occurred. Since there was no spinal instrumentation at that time, prolonged recumbency with a cast would have been standard treatment. Since some recovery was described, the spinal cord injury must have been incomplete. Difficult to know the level without more complete physical exam findings (sensation/reflexes).
    The fact that med students couldn’t get married during the 1920s was interesting. That was also standard for many surgical internships at the time – at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston you had to sign a contract agreeing not to get married, and also not to go skiing!

  • Scott L. Gibson January 9, 2018 at 11:59 pm

    You write that our offense looked solid? We scored one TD. Did you forget about our 5 turnovers! Our ground game generated little more than 2 yards per play and our passing game wasn’t much better. Of the 130 teams in the FBS, our offense ranks in the bottom 30 in too many categories to mention here. I live in Atlanta, in the heart of SEC country. I have numerous friends who have college and NFL playing experience and they all say the same think: the O line is a mess. Take a moment to listen to Doug Skene or Jerry Hanlon. They know what the problem is! Playing too high. Poor technique. Bad angles. Poor use of hands. etc. I hear over and over that we have too many lineman playing out of position. We’re playing with 5 guards and no true tackles. Well, whose fault is this? Finally, did we really need two offensive line coaches. One has moved on to FSU and I hope the other is also on his way out. If it sounds like I’m angry, I am. This season was an embarrassment.

  • johnubacon January 12, 2018 at 8:20 am

    To be clear, I wrote that the offense looked solid in establishing a 19-3 lead, then, “the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. The Wolverines gave the ball away five times in the second half. The offense was disorganized, undisciplined, and poorly coached – the antithesis of Harbaugh’s previous teams.”

    That’s a little different.


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