By Pat Harty
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh has bigger problems to solve than how to beat Iowa, but that problem will confront him on Saturday.
And it’s a legitimate problem, not necessarily for Harbaugh, considering he is just 0-1 against the Hawkeyes, but Michigan has lost five of the last six games in the series that dates back to 1900.
Michigan still leads the overall series by a wide margin of 41-15-4, but 11 of Iowa’s wins have come since 1981, which is also the same year when Kirk Ferentz joined Hayden Fry’s staff at Iowa as the offensive line coach.
Ferentz coached the Iowa offensive line from 1981-89 and the Hawkeyes had a 3-5-1 record against Michigan during that time.
Ferentz now has a 7-5 record against Michigan as the Iowa head coach, and his current team is fully capable of improving that record on Saturday.
“Looking at Michigan, things really haven't changed since the first time I was ever exposed to them in person, 1981,” Ferentz said. “First of all, they're one of the premier football programs in the history of the college football. They've been good for a long time, and when you look at them, typically they're very talented.
“That's certainly the case with this group. Pretty much at every position they have good skill, good talent, and good ability. So that has been pretty consistent. Typically, when you play a Michigan team, they're well-coached, and it's the same thing here.”
There is a lot of truth in what Ferentz said, but on the other hand, Michigan has changed since 1981, including having five different head coaches.
The legendary Bo Schembechler was replaced by Gary Moeller, who was replaced Lloyd Carr, who was replaced by Rich Rodriguez, who was replaced by Brady Hoke and now Harbaugh.
Michigan certainly isn’t at the level of Nebraska when it comes to being delusional and fixated on past glory, but it’s also not the Michigan that used to be the envy of college football for decades.
It was thought that by hiring Harbaugh, Michigan finally had found the perfect fit, the one person who could bridge the gap between past glory and future success.
As a former Michigan quarterback, Harbaugh was considered the ultimate Michigan man when he returned to his alma mater in 2015.
He was also considered one of brightest head coaches around after having been wildly successful in both the collegiate ranks at San Diego and at Stanford, and in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.
It wasn’t a matter of if Harbaugh would restore Michigan’s dominance, but when.
But the glow has since rubbed off a little as Harbaugh continues to struggle to meet the incredibly high expectations in year five.
Harbaugh has led Michigan to a 10-3 record three times, and his overall record at Michigan is a very respectable 41-15.
Those kinds of numbers would make you a legend at Iowa, but Michigan isn’t Iowa when it comes to expectations.
Harbaugh’s problem is that nearly half of his 15 losses have come against Michigan’s two biggest rivals in Ohio State and Michigan State. He is a combined 1-7 against those two teams, and the cuts deep with Wolverine fans.
Michigan, in some ways, is like Nebraska in that both programs are trying to restore dominance with a former star quarterback leading the way as head coach.
But in fairness to Michigan, its problems are minor compared to the situation in Lincoln.
I picked Michigan to defeat Iowa in late July by four points, and will stick with that pick, although, my confidence in the Wolverines has waned considerably, while Iowa might be better than expected.
It’s hard not to question Michigan after how unraveled against Wisconsin, losing 35-14 on Sept. 21 in Madison, Wis., in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
Michigan’s lack of resistance against the Badgers was stunning.
Harbaugh has also shifted to using more of a spread offense this season and it sputtered against the Badgers.
Ferentz was asked at his weekly press conference on Tuesday if Wisconsin’s decisive win over Michigan was due mostly to having dominated the line of scrimmage.
Ferentz didn’t disagree with that theory, but his answer focused mostly on the impact of Wisconsin All-America running back Jonathan Taylor.
“I know where my vote for best running back in the country would go right now,” Ferentz said. “Just watching him play is pretty good. I don't mean that to diminish other people's work that's out there, but sometimes games like that happen to teams, good teams.
“We've seen that before, and we've been victimized by that ourselves. But it was one of those days, Wisconsin just played a tremendous football game, and it just wasn't Michigan's day. But I've got to say that back is pretty special, too.”
Iowa doesn’t have a running back as talented as Taylor, but Iowa does have four pretty good options at running back, along with a senior quarterback who will be making his 31st consecutive start, a deep and talented group of receivers and an offensive line that should be at close to full strength with the expected return of starting left tackle Alaric Jackson.
Iowa also has a sturdy defense, especially up front, and a reliable punter in Michael Sleep-Dalton and kicker in Keith Duncan, who made a field-goal as time expired to defeat Michigan 14-13 in 2016 at Kinnick Stadium.
Duncan has made 9-of-10 field-goal attempts this season, while Sleep-Dalton is ranked fourth in the Big Ten with a 45.5 average on 13 punts.
“They're going to be important because if we're playing well, then it's going to be a close game,” Ferentz said. “Special teams are always big just like the ball security thing. Those things factor in when it's a tight ballgame, and we seem to be in a lot of those. So the first challenge for us is to make it sticky and make it tight, and then we've got to be good on special teams.”
Michigan will counter with its own dynamic duo on special teams in kicker Jake Moody and punter Will Hart. Moody is a perfect on four-field goal attempts this season, while Hart is ranked second in the Big Ten in punting with a 47.6 average.
“They've got really good specialists, first of all,” Ferentz said. “Their kicker, punter, as good as you're going to find. They've got two kickers and then they've got a punter that led the Big Ten last year.
“They've got great return guys, so it's going to be a challenge. We're going to have to really be working hard, and there are some things we still can get better at, too, so hopefully we'll improve as the week goes here.”
Michigan also has the storied Big House on its side, but Michigan Stadium is known more for its massive seating capacity (107,601) than for its hostile environment.
Iowa hasn’t played in the Big House since losing 42-17 in 2012, so it’ll be a new experience for the current players.
But the Iowa players have been in many hostile environments, including Penn State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa State, so they shouldn't be overwhelmed by the Big House.
“It’s just another crowd that we’re going against, nothing special,” said junior receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette. “So I’m just looking forward to playing one of the bigger schools and better schools in the Big Ten.”
The Iowa players sort of shifted back and forth on Tuesday while speaking to the media about playing in the Big House. On one hand, it’s a big deal because it’s Michigan and the Big House, but on the other hand, it’s just another game.
“After this game, there’s another game and after that game, there’s another game,” Smith-Marsette said. “So you just got to look at it as you’ve got an opponent this week and your plan is to go 1-0 this week, and get ready as well as you can for this week.
“You don’t really worry about, it’s Michigan, it’s a big stadium and they’ve got a crowd. At the end of the day, that’s there and there is nothing we can change.”
As for Harbaugh, you could argue that he needs to win on Saturday more than Ferentz does because Michigan already has one loss and still has to play at Penn State and at home against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Both head coaches are about as secure as you can be at the college level, but there is a sense that Michigan fans are getting a little restless.
So there should be a sense of urgency within the Michigan program.
Combine that with having home-field advantage and the Wolverines should be ready to compete on Saturday.
Or maybe I’m just trying to convince myself of that after having picked Michigan to win in July, but now having second thoughts.
Prediction: Michigan 24, Iowa 20