Back in August when Corn Nation was doing the preview of Nebraska's opponents, Mike did one on Michigan, and in perusing the comments one in particular stood out:
Michigan seems to always trip over their junk when they are expected to do big things nationally, so I hope we will see a repeat of that this year.
Their non-con schedule is laughably putrid, probably engineered by their cheater-in-chief. No other top ranked team plays such cupcake non-conference schedule.
I used be mildly amused by Harbaugh's antics and idiosyncrasies, but now I just find it tired and really can't stand the dude.
As entertaining as this was, it got me thinking: what if Nebraska had hired Jim Harbaugh in 2014 after firing Bo Pelini?
I mean, I think this is a valid question to ask. Yeah, Harbaugh is really easy to hate, but on one hand I think if we set our biases aside it's largely because he's coaching a fellow Big Ten team, and let's be honest, it's really hard for anyone to have respect for any Big Ten coaches who aren't theirs.
But what if he was? Just imagine it for a second. Imagine if Jim Harbaugh—this dude who you can't stand—was the head coach of the Nebraska football team and roaming the sidelines clad in Husker red—or black, mimicking his Stanford days. What would that look like? Where would the program be? And how would you feel about it?
That's what I'm going to explore in this little thought experiment. But first, a few preliminary notes I'll address, because I know the commenters will inevitably bring them up:
1. "This is pointless. Why even discuss it?" Yes, it is pointless. All sports talk is pointless ultimately. Nebraska is in year one of the Matt Rhule era after losing two games to Minnesota and Colorado, and after two acceptable non-conference wins are now hosting Michigan, so it's Michigan week, and I feel like talking about it. The Huskers just went through Mike Riley and Scott Frost so there isn't really much to talk about substantively until Rhule gets it going, so shove it.
2. "Who cares about Harbaugh? We've got Matt Rhule!" Yes, and may the corn rise evermore in the morning. But even Jon said Matt Rhule looks like an Ewok. Of course, Jon was wearing a dew-rag at the time, so... yeah. I don't know where I was going with this. This post isn't a knock on Matt Rhule. He is currently Nebraska's head coach, and maybe it works out. Who cares about anything anyway?
3. "Nebraska would have never hired Jim Harbaugh, so again, what's the point?" Yeah, I know they probably would not have. That's not what this is about. Just try to have a little fun. And yeah, maybe this will make you mad. Don't tempt me to write a future think piece on what if the Huskers had hired Brian Ferentz, which we both know you'll click on.
Okay, so do we have that nonsense out of the way? Got it out of your system? No? Well, the rest of us are moving on without you.
Let's take a memory trip back to November 2014. It's just after the Iowa game. The Huskers have beaten the Hawkeyes on the road in overtime, 37-34. The infamous audio tape of head coach Bo Pelini calling athletic director Shawn Eichorst the c-word is leaked. There is widespread discussion on his future. Then, to the surprise of many, and the delight of some, Bo Pelini is fired after going 9-3, echoing Frank Solich's departure. The national media, football coaches, and sports analysts of varying talent everywhere are stunned.
Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, in the Michigan Wolverines are a floundering, unfocused program hobbling to 5-7. Brady Hoke, who had led them to 11 wins and a BCS bowl victory in his first season, is summarily axed along with the athletic director, Dave Brandon. There is but one name that Michigan fans, alumni, and boosters are calling for. That name is Jim Harbaugh, the sitting coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
At first everyone is skeptical that Harbaugh would ever consider leaving the NFL for a return to college, but then there are reports that Harbaugh is on rocky terms with the owner of the 49ers, Jed York, and can't seem to get along with the general manager, Trent Baalke. Despite having led the 49ers to three NFC championship games in four seasons, a Harbaugh exit seems vaguely plausible, but in general people still scoff at it.
There is also another vacancy in the Big Ten conference. Gary Andersen suddenly announces his resignation as head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers. Athletic director Barry Alvarez quickly sets his sights on Paul Chryst, HC of the Pitt Panthers and former Wisconsin alum. For the purposes of this thought experiment, I'm going to say there is no drama here and Wisconsin hires Paul Chryst. I'm only mentioning this bit as a quick note for the "wait, what about" people.
So now that the board is set, let's go back to Nebraska. We all know that in reality Shawn Eichorst hired Mike Riley from Oregon State—for reasons that are known only to him. Maybe it had something to do with Riley's personality being the polar opposite of Bo Pelini. It doesn't matter. Instead, we're going to say that somehow
Palpatine returned Shawn Eichorst manages to pull off one of the most earth-shattering coaching hires of all time. Nebraska swoops in and signs Jim Harbaugh before Michigan can get him.
How does this happen?
Dream up whatever scenario you want. Maybe Eichorst suddenly realizes that he's a shoddy AD and lazily passes off the duty of finding Bo's replacement to a pair of ruthless sports operatives—who I guess we can call Jake and Elwood—while Eichorst himself spends most of his days sitting in an empty Culver's dining alone and gazing longingly at a picture of Barry Alvarez that he keeps in his wallet. He then waits for the phone call of who Jake and Elwood have selected after they have concluded contract negotiations. The news is of course leaked and Eichorst subsequently takes the podium and formally makes the announcement, and Jim Harbaugh conducts his opening press conference. Then the Harbaugh era at Nebraska is fully underway.
What are the immediate repercussions of this move? Let's go over a few:
The Meltdown of Michigan Fans
Other Big Ten fan bases grab their popcorn and watch with sheer glee as the Maize and Blue go absolutely apeshit. Michigan beat writers, sports radio talk show hosts, bloggers, and grandmas are beyond speechless. They just watched the Michigan Wolverines have one of the worst seasons since Rich Rodriguez was the coach, where their team is a dilapidated mess, getting their teeth kicked in by the Spartans and Buckeyes, and the only hope they had for the future—which they nearly believed was possible—has now slipped away. Some of the more masochistic of them decide to watch the live stream of Jim Harbaugh's introduction in Lincoln and take in the sight of him wearing a red tie and a Nebraska lapel pin on his suit.
Michigan's athletic department now has no idea who to turn to. Do they go after Dan Mullen, reportedly their plan B? Maybe Les Miles gets a call, but because he's Les Miles and this is 2014 he turns them down like he did in 2007 (allegedly). The Wolverines' recruiting class tanks. Jabrill Peppers seeks a transfer. Dark days are ahead in Ann Arbor. They do eventually hire a coach, but it's nowhere near the pedigree of Harbaugh, and suffice it to say the Michigan fans are despondent and disappointed and have to talk themselves into believing. Urban Meyer is laughing his ass off.
The Change in Nebraska's Roster and Scheme
Now is where things really get interesting. Despite what you may think of Bo Pelini, he left Nebraska in 2014 with a standard for winning. The players knew how to do it. A massive overhaul was not needed. The Cornhuskers were on the cusp of a Big Ten championship in 2012—laying an egg against the Badgers notwithstanding—and all they really needed to do to consistently win the West division was beat Wisconsin, which itself is now going through a coaching change at the same time. Iowa is pesky too, and though they weren't very good from 2011 to 2014, they seem poised for an unexpected run in 2015. We'll address that in a bit.
What about Tim Beck? Oh, Beck's gone. Nebraska's spread offense is going by the wayside as Jim Harbaugh decides to bring in an offense similar to what he ran at Stanford. And strangely enough, he has a good amount of the personnel to fit it. Although Ameer Abdullah has departed for the NFL, there are still a number of intriguing names at running back. Senior I-back Imani Cross is there and could not be more excited. And on defense, there's about to be a major upgrade, when Harbaugh taps DJ Durkin from Florida.
We already have a pretty good idea of what Harbaugh's staff would look like based on what he started with at Michigan. So again for thought-experiment purposes let's just say that it's largely the same. There's no Mike Riley, Danny Langsdorf, and Mark Banker. Harbaugh brings in Kevin Tolbert as his strength & conditioning coach and they set to work taking Nebraska to the next level.
One possible issue: quarterback. Does Harbaugh go with Tommy Armstrong? The former starting QB has shown that he was capable of being a clutch player, but does he fit the offense? I'm going to diverge from history here and say that for whatever reason Armstrong decides to transfer. Maybe he follows Bo to Youngstown State and seeks a waiver so he can play immediately. Maybe he goes back to the Texas area, where he had played his high school football, or somewhere down south. In any case Tommy Armstrong and Nebraska part ways. But don't panic, because Jim Harbaugh has already been in contact with a quarterback who is pretty close to ready-made for his offense, and who also happens to have starting experience in the Big Ten: Jake Rudock. Despite Kirk Ferentz's best efforts, he cannot prevent Rudock from transferring to a division rival after CJ Beathard is named the starting QB for the Hawkeyes, and a showdown in Lincoln is marked on everyone's calendar for November 27.
How does the 2015 season go?
It's tough to say exactly how things would be different or the same in comparing a hypothetical Harbaugh at Nebraska in 2015 versus what happened at Michigan in that season. Harbaugh inherited Brady Hoke's recruits instead of Bo Pelini's. Michigan was already a pro-style offense that just needed a jolt and some clear direction as well as some basic competence on game day. Similarly, the Wolverine defense had been established as pretty stout, so it wasn't a huge surprise that they would hold three opponents to shutouts under a new coordinator like DJ Durkin. And they also retained Greg Mattison, one of the better D-Line coaches in the Big Ten. But even with Harbaugh's acumen and energy there were few outside of Ann Arbor who expected them to do better than 6-6 in 2015.
Nebraska meanwhile had some large holes on defense but had an offense that generally worked. Pelini would somehow find a way to win tight games. The Huskers were frequently in discussion for the division crown, even if they eventually became frustrated by Wisconsin nabbing it from them (and everyone else) most of the time. So when we're looking at Harbaugh's theoretical situation at Nebraska, we're first looking at new blood on defense—which most Husker fans were already calling for—and a bit of a transition on offense. But with Rudock in tow that transition doesn't go as bad as say, Rich Rod's experiment in Ann Arbor until he found Denard Robinson. Yes, there are probably still grumbles about a non-triple option offense and Harbaugh's scheme worries people about a repeat of Bill Callahan, compounded by the fact that Harbaugh would be a complete outsider to the Nebraska football program. The argument in favor of him being talked about on Husker radio by your Sam McKewon types is likely drawing comparisons to Nick Saban at Alabama. I think most Nebraska fans get on board. (Huskerfanindc holds out.)
If Harbaugh's in Lincoln he also has the benefit of being in the Big Ten west. Even in 2015 it was looked at as second fiddle to the East, where Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State stood as the greatest threats. At this time the battle for the East is largely going to be decided between MSU and OSU. Michigan has completely cratered.
In reality Harbaugh lost three games in his first season at Michigan: the road opener to a Utah squad that had finished ranked 22 the year prior, on a last second botched punt to Michigan State, and a blowout loss to the Buckeyes. The Utah game was decided by a fourth quarter Jake Rudock interception, chalked up to rust and transition costs. It wasn't until midway through 2015 that Rudock started looking like one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and finished with a better season than he ever had at Iowa.
So, how do we apply this to Nebraska's 2015 schedule? In case you need a refresher, here's a quick glance at who the Cornhuskers and Wolverines each played with the real world results:
|Nebraska 2015 Schedule||Result||Michigan 2015 Schedule||Result|
|Sept. 5: BYU||L, 28-33||Sept. 3: at Utah||L, 17-24|
|Sept. 12: South Alabama||W, 48-9||Sept. 12: Oregon State||W, 35-7|
|Sept. 19: at Miami (FL)||L, 33-36 OT||Sept. 19: UNLV||W, 28-7|
|Sept. 26: Southern Miss||W, 36-28||Sept. 26: #22 BYU||W, 31-0|
|Oct. 3: at Illinois||L, 13-14||Oct. 3: at Maryland||W, 28-0|
|Oct. 10: Wisconsin||L, 21-23||Oct. 10: #13 Northwestern||W, 38-0|
|Oct. 17: at Minnesota||W, 48-25||Oct. 17: #7 Michigan State||L, 23-27|
|Oct. 24: Northwestern||L, 28-30||Oct. 31: at Minnesota||W, 29-26|
|Oct. 31: at Purdue||L, 45-55||Nov. 7: Rutgers||W, 49-16|
|Nov. 7: #6 Michigan State||W, 39-38||Nov. 14: at Indiana||W, 48-41 2OT|
|Nov. 14: at Rutgers||W, 31-14||Nov. 21: at Penn State||W, 28-16|
|Nov. 27: #3 Iowa||L, 20-28||Nov. 28: #8 Ohio State||L, 13-42|
|Dec. 26: UCLA (Foster Farms Bowl)||W, 37-29||Jan. 1: Florida (Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)||W, 41-7|
|Nebraska Final Record||6-7||Michigan Final Record||10-3|
Nebraska and Michigan have a few shared opponents:
Of these Harbaugh only lost to Michigan State, on what Michigan fans argue was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke. Nebraska's victorious bout against the playoff-bound Spartans, an upset for the ages, was itself not without controversy. Michigan went down to the wire against Minnesota, but Nebraska blew them out. Similarly the Huskers lost very close to Northwestern, but Michigan clobbered them in a shutout. The same applies to BYU.
Okay, rather than go on a game-by-game narrative, as much fun as that would be, let's just say to make a long story short that Harbaugh goes 9-3 just like he did at Michigan in that first year, and what the heck, he wins the bowl game to finish 10-3. He does knock off No. 3 Iowa in Lincoln to dash their playoff hopes, but the Hawkeyes still go to Indianapolis, where they lose to whoever is sent from the East division. Iowa's perfect 12-0 regular season becomes 11-1 simply because Jim Harbaugh is Nebraska's coach. Deal with it, Hawkeyes.
The point is this: Nebraska doesn't have the weird Mike Riley year where the fan base is collasping on itself in fury over unexpected losses. Riley was very clearly a downgrade from Bo Pelini in most aspects but if Harbaugh is in Lincoln and given pretty close to the same starting point I don't think you see the same results.
Recruiting Top Ten Classes
It should go without saying that if Jim Harbaugh is Nebraska's head coach then you see a drastically different roster and drastically different recruiting classes. Mike Riley managed to pull in Top 25 classes but Michigan under Harbaugh did demonstrably better and it's not even close. A fully weaponized dad bod and khaki pants combo on the recruiting trail may unsettle some people but if Rashan Gary and Devin Bush find their way to Lincoln I don't think anyone is complaining.
It is also markedly clear that many of Harbaugh's best players have ended up at Michigan more because of him than because of the Maize and Blue. Yes, Rashan Gary had a connection to Jabrill Peppers, but he was also considering Clemson and Alabama. It's not a stretch to think that Harbaugh could convince him to come to play for what the national media would obviously be talking about as a resurgent Husker program on the cusp of being elite. Devin Bush was a Florida State legacy until Harbaugh flipped him. Those are just a couple examples.
The bigger question, I think, is where does Nebraska go at quarterback in these subsequent seasons. In the year one scenario I devised, Tommy Armstrong transferred and Harbaugh took Rudock for one year. At Michigan he had statue pocket passer Wilton Speight and the inconsistent John O'Korn, a Houston transfer who had to sit out a year. Mike Riley got Tanner Lee to play for Nebraska in 2017. Quarterback is obviously a bugaboo for any program and even though Harbaugh was winning at Michigan he didn't exactly find the next Andrew Luck right away.
Michigan had Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey (Luke's brother) sign onto their recruiting classes—again, both Harbaugh gets. Peters ended up starting games for Michigan and then transferred to Illinois where he was also their starting QB, albeit a fairly mediocre one. Dylan ended up God knows where, and then Michigan tried stuff with Shea Patterson.
Is it really crazy to think that most of Harbaugh's quarterback options would be all that different at Nebraska? We don't know what would have transpired with the McCaffreys. Obviously there was interest otherwise Luke would not have ended up in Lincoln for a time. In any case it is plausible that Harbaugh's track record follows very much the same at Nebraska as it did at Michigan, regardless of whether it's a recruit or a transfer under center. Maybe Tanner Lee shows up anyway and because Harbaugh is coaching him and the overall team is better he doesn't throw as many interceptions.
Harbaugh's quarterbacks aren't likely to win Heisman trophies like Lincoln Riley's but you don't need that to win a lot of games and compete for championships. You just need a guy who knows the system and can execute. So even if you've looked at the quarterback situation in Ann Arbor over the course of Harbaugh's tenure and have been thoroughly unimpressed, I think it's fair to say that it's been better than what's shown up in Lincoln.
Coaching Style and Sideline Behavior
Unless you've been living under the proverbial rock for the past fifteen years, you have probably seen Jim Harbaugh acting like a maniac on the sidelines. He makes people mad. Pete Carroll is likely still sore over Harbaugh's famous "What's your deal?" exchange.
For those of you who were hoping after 2014 that the next Husker head coach would be a break from Bo Pelini, you aren't getting it here. Harbaugh probably isn't chewing out the refs to the same degree Bo is, but he might get in their face and give them a stare down. This is likely the biggest thing that Husker fans are clutching their pearls over. "Why isn't he more like Tom Osborne?!" And without a doubt it would have been the biggest obstacle to his hiring, especially after the Pelini incidents, when the same questions were asked.
If in a world where Nebraska did not care about those things, and Jim Harbaugh becomes the head coach, maybe some choose to be entertained by his style rather than offended by it. This is a guy who ran up the score against little kids in laser tag as an adult. He's a psycho. No, he really is. In the past few years he does seem to have mellowed out a bit, but let's not kid ourselves.
The style of offense should also be no mystery. Harbaugh favors a ground-and-pound, smashmouth brand of football without being boring. He does incorporate some spread concepts like virtually every college offense today, but in general it's going to be more line up and be physical—a welcome change to Nebraska football. Those who bought the "Run the Damn Ball" T-shirts or who would like to see the Huskers emulate a more traditional style of a Big Ten football team, this is your guy. Anyone hoping for a Chip Kelly type of hyper finesse is probably going to have to revisit their affinity for hot dogs.
The coaching staff would also be a significant upgrade over Nebraska's. There would be a greater focus on the O-Line and D-Line than the Huskers have seen for quite some time. And even if Harbaugh's O-Lines don't win Joe Moore awards immediately, they're more efficient than anything that was in Lincoln in Pelini's final years, or certainly under Riley or Frost. The coaching tree is decent. His first running game coordinator, Tim Drevno, went on to coach the O-Lines at USC and UCLA. Jedd Fisch, Harbaugh's OC from 2015-2016, is now the head coach for the Arizona Wildcats. And Harbaugh's defenses were always impressive, whether under DJ Durkin, Don Brown, or whatever obscure coach the Baltimore Ravens feel like sending. (Come on, Zac Taylor!)
Assuming Harbaugh would have the same or similar staff at Nebraska, are they national championship caliber? Like, overtaking Clemson and Alabama during that time frame? Probably not, but they're certainly good enough to compete for Big Ten titles, and in those first years Harbaugh is winning enough at Nebraska to keep Husker fans happy.
A Five Year Outlook
Mike Riley managed to go 9-3 in 2016. I think Harbaugh goes at least 10-2 with that schedule. He loses to Ohio State in Columbus, and for the sake of brevity let's say he dick-trips against Iowa in Kinnick on Black Friday. But with the head-to-head win against Wisconsin, Nebraska goes to Indianapolis, where there is a rematch versus OSU in the Big Ten championship—and Harbaugh loses again.
You could also make the case that he faces off against Penn State instead of OSU in the conference championship since they were the actual East rep that year—and wins. Maybe even thumps them. Then the Huskers take a trip to Pasadena where they square off against Sam Darnold and the USC Trojans. At that point, win or lose, Harbaugh's already got a Big Ten championship under his belt and the Cornhuskers are in the playoff picture going into the off-season.
In either scenario Harbaugh's path to Indianapolis is considerably easier, and year to year Nebraska is probably trading the division crown with Wisconsin.
Sure, if we're being fair, he in all likelihood continues to struggle against the same teams as he did at Michigan. He can't get past Urban, and some are left wondering if he is actually better than Bo Pelini. The difference is that the Huskers aren't a listless pile of garbage going into 2018, nor do they spend the next five seasons circling the drain. We obviously don't know what would have happened with Covid but even if there is a dip in 2020—which even Michigan endured—there is still a probable bounce back in 2021. Nebraska played better but just lost a bunch of close games, thanks to Scott Frost.
What does it all mean?
At Michigan, Jim Harbaugh is 52-17 in Big Ten games. Of those, he has struggled the most against the top teams in the East: Ohio State (2-5), Michigan State (4-4) and Penn State (4-3), for a combined 10-12. He is 16-19 against ranked opponents and 12-13 against ranked Big Ten teams.
Against Nebraska, Rutgers, Maryland, Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue, and Illinois, he is a whopping 29-0.
Even in the face of that some argue that since Michigan hired Harbaugh to win championships and he wasn't doing that for the first six years he's clearly a bum. Those people are idiots.
Because Michigan couldn't getting past the Buckeyes until 2021 they were kept on the outside looking in which made their fans more than slightly agitated. 2020 was a rough year but they were still winning a lot before that. 2021 was undoubtedly a resurgence for them. Now as we look at what Harbaugh has built in Ann Arbor there is a bit more clarity on his ability and in meeting expectations.
He has made the four-team playoff twice. It will be easier when it goes to 12. He has finished in the Top 25 in six of eight seasons. The path to the Big Ten championship now runs through Ann Arbor. Even if Michigan doesn't go to the playoff in 2023, their trajectory has been miles higher than Nebraska's.
Before 2023, the Cornhuskers were 38-56 after firing Bo Pelini. Scott Frost finished at or near the bottom of the paltry West division every year he was the head coach in Lincoln. If you are looking at where Nebraska sits right now and glance across at Ann Arbor and Harbaugh's antics make you not want any part of that success, then you might be the crazy one. If he's in the West division his overall record is probably even better. Combined with the amount of players he has put into the NFL compared to what Nebraska has offered up, I would take that.
So what does Nebraska look like today if they had hired Jim Harbaugh? Really good at football, with a coach everyone else hates.