Michigan fans have lived through seven years of this.
Seven years of being teased by greatness, only to swallow hard and accept disappointment in the moments that matter most.
Seven years on the verge of a breakthrough, only to be left cursing fate at the end.
Seven years of having games like this under control, only to be undone by crazy plays, questionable officiating and self-inflicted mistakes.
“Who’s got it better than us?” was a phrase that defined Jim Harbaugh’s coaching in the good old days. You don’t hear that a lot anymore because the answer would be: Everyone that matters on Michigan’s schedule.
The Wolverines’ 37-33 loss to Michigan State was just that brutal. Not only because of what it means (undefeated record gone, Big Ten title hopes on life support) or how it happened (blowing a 16-point lead midway through the third quarter, seeing its hopes dashed on a fourth-down no-call that looked like pass interference). Instead, the real pain here is what it signifies.
Harbaugh is 3-4 against Michigan State. He’s 3-3 against Penn State. He’s 0-6 against Ohio State. He’s 3-3 against Wisconsin.
When you add it all up, Michigan is 9-16 under Harbaugh against the four best teams on its schedule annually. Even if you put the Ohio State losses to the side, he’s under .500 in the games that matter most.
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The Michigan State record is particularly problematic and significant in evaluating the Harbaugh tenure. There’s no shame in losing to Mark Dantonio when the Spartans were at the very peak of their program, including the epic game in 2015 when Michigan had it all but salted away until a bungled punt was returned for touchdown as time expired.
But in retrospect, that game foreshadowed a lot of the weirdness around Harbaugh’s teams and the heartbreak of close calls in big moments that Michigan would experience during his first few seasons. If just one or two of them go differently — we’re talking inches against Ohio State in 2016 — the entire narrative is different and Harbaugh isn’t viewed as an underachiever.
This year’s loss to Michigan State, though, feels different because he’s not coming up just short of Dantonio or Urban Meyer. Instead, Harbaugh is simply not as good at his job as the new guy on the other side of the state. Mel Tucker, the Michigan State coach, has the Spartans at 8-0 in just his second year despite inheriting a program that had really struggled at the end under Dantonio. Tucker has now beaten Harbaugh two years in a row. He’s the guy with the swagger and personality and sense of excitement about the job that Harbaugh used to have when he first got to Michigan.
And Tucker is doing it at a program that many Michigan fans consider to be inferior for reasons that are somewhat rooted in football but mostly about the hoity-toity culture around their school.
For Michigan fans that have been hanging on for seven years, waiting for the payoff to the Harbaugh story, it’s the perfect recipe for self-loathing even in the middle of quite a good season overall at 7-1. That’s why Michigan ranks No. 1 on this week’s Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.