When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t really want to answer your question, he turns on a default-setting answer at the press conference and repeats that phrase over and over again.
Harbaugh had one queued up for questions around Saturday’s top-10 showdown between No. 6 Michigan and No. 8 Michigan State at Spartan Stadium (12 p.m., FOX).
How much does he appreciate the first top-10 matchup between the schools since 1964? What would a win mean for the Wolverines? How would this impact recruiting in the Mitten State?
“Obviously those are the kind of questions that answer themselves,” Harbaugh said at his Monday press conference. “Huge game for us. We’re really excited for it.”
Harbaugh is right. Michigan would improve to 8-0 with a victory against its in-state rival, reclaim the Paul Bunyan Trophy and soldier on into November with a mulligan in its back-pocket ahead of the Nov. 27 showdown with Ohio State.
“It’s an elimination mindset,” Harbaugh said. “Playoff mindset at this point. Win this game, and it will help your chances.”
Harbaugh hot-seat talk has died down this season while USC and LSU have made coaching changes.
Harbaugh rebuilt Michigan after it bottomed last season with several new assistants. The defense ranks second in the FBS with 14.3 points per game behind Georgia. The Wolverines rank fifth in the FBS in rushing yards at 253.3 yards per game. It’s a flashback-to-the-70s formula that led to a surprising 7-0 start.
Running backs Blake Corum (729 yards, 10 TDs) and Hassan Haskins (602 yards, 10 TDs) have been at the heart of that, and quarterback Cade McNamara led road victories at Wisconsin and Nebraska.
It’s hard to mean-tweet about Harbaugh when the Wolverines are unbeaten. Unless, of course, you live in Columbus.
Or East Lansing. The Spartans are 7-0, too. Michigan State has a Heisman Trophy candidate in Kenneth Walker III, and they are at Spartan Stadium burning to knock off the Wolverines, just like last season.
You can make a strong argument this is the most-important game for Harbaugh this season. Lose here, and the mean-tweeting about not being able to win the big game returns. After all, Michigan hasn’t played a ranked opponent and is 2-12 against top-10 teams under Harbaugh.
Michigan vs. Top 10 under Jim Harbaugh
The five losses to Ohio State stick out, but that losing trend started with the “Punt Fumble” loss to Michigan State in 2015. That moment is talked about most, even if it isn’t the whole truth in the rivalry since Harbaugh arrived.
Michigan can make it three straight victories in East Lansing. Harbaugh had a 3-2 head-to-head record against Mark Dantonio, and it looked like the Wolverines were ready to retake control of the rivalry once and for all. Mel Tucker spoiled that last year in a 27-24 shocker, and the Spartans look like a near-mirror image of their in-state sibling.
“He’s doing a great job,” Harbaugh said of Tucker.
The rivalry is less heated between coaches since Dantonio left, but that doesn’t mean either side has forgotten the flash-point of the modern chapter. Since former Michigan running back Mike Hart issued the “Little Brother” proclamation in 2007, the Spartans have a 9-4 head-to-head advantage. That still hasn’t changed the narrative on this Big Ten matchup.
Michigan is supposed to win this game. The Wolverines have been favored every year since Harbaugh arrived. Harbaugh hired Hart as his running backs coach this offseason, which adds another layer to this year’s game. Hart might get heckled more than Harbaugh at Spartan Stadium.
It’s one Michigan has to have a little more than Michigan State. This is the biggest game between the schools since those other top-10 showdowns, which were between 1959-64. Almost nobody remembers those now. Everybody is going to remember the result of this game.
Win, and Harbaugh will have a month to get ready for that yearly referendum against the Buckeyes, much like 2016 and 2018. Ohio State will be heavily favored when they come to Michigan Stadium. Nobody is really expecting the Wolverines to win that one, at least not right now.
Lose, and all those big-picture program questions return. Should Michigan turn the quarterback position over to freshman J.J. McCarthy? Why does Harbaugh have a losing record to Michigan State after seven seasons? Is that hot-seat talk applicable again?
Harbaugh likely will have an automated response for those, too.
But really, the questions will have answered themselves.
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