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Clash with Ohio State won’t define Wolverines’ season

Jim Harbaugh Michigan Wolverines Jim Harbaugh - The Canadian Press

College football’s winningest program is shrouded in controversy.

Third-ranked Michigan hosts second-ranked Ohio State on Saturday, with a spot in the Big Ten title game and a path to the College Football Playoff at stake. But this weekend’s meeting, as well as a potential playoff spot, will far from define the Wolverines’ season.

Things got off to an ominous start, with a self-imposed three-game suspension for head coach Jim Harbaugh resulting from a recruiting violation the NCAA is still in the process of investigating.

Now the program is at the centre of a sign-stealing scandal that’s shaking up college football.

Harbaugh was suspended for three more games on Nov. 11 – this time by the Big Ten – following an NCAA probe into Michigan staffer Connor Stalions, who was alleged to have purchased tickets to more than 30 games over three seasons in order to scout and steal signs from opposing teams. Michigan initially challenged the ruling before withdrawing its court fight last week.

Through it all, the Wolverines haven’t skipped a beat. They’re 11-0, capped by last Saturday’s win at Maryland, which was the 1,000th in program history. Michigan is winning games by an average of 29 points, and quieted the notion that they hadn’t beaten a worthy opponent by comfortably handling Penn State on the road two weeks ago.

But Ohio State is the real test. The Buckeyes and Wolverines both enter the matchup undefeated, with the loser almost certainly eliminated from playoff consideration.

“I’m just so proud, just so proud of our team,” Harbaugh said earlier this week, before channeling his inner Ted Lasso: “Despite that noise, our locker room is in one piece. Locker rooms, a lot like my mom’s bathing suits…I like to see them in one piece.”

It was an odd tone from Harbaugh, who’s been allowed to take part in team activities amidst his suspension but can’t be present at stadiums on game days. He’s eligible to return for the Big Ten championship on Dec. 2, provided Michigan qualifies. That too will be decided by the result of Saturday’s meeting with the Buckeyes.

To date, there’s no evidence of Harbaugh’s involvement in the sign-stealing scandal, and the Big Ten acknowledged in a statement that he is being disciplined merely as a representative of the program. Stalions also claimed Harbaugh was unaware of the scheme, prior to resigning from his position with the program on Nov. 3.

“It’s been tough,” said running back Blake Corum. “Coach Harbaugh means so much to this program, especially to myself and the guys. He’s formed a culture here, he’s a players’ coach, [a] great guy. A lot of us would run through a wall for him. And going into ‘The Game’ without him, it’s just adding fuel to the fire.”

Michigan did its own diligence last week, firing linebackers coach Chris Partridge, who was alleged to have destroyed evidence in the sign-stealing scandal. When asked if any more personnel changes were in line in coming days and weeks, Harbaugh claimed to have nothing in mind besides Saturday’s game.

“All the focus is on Ohio State,” Harbaugh insisted. “When you’ve got a task in front of you, you’ve got to use every day, every hour, every minute…get yourself in position to play to the best of our ability.

“We are in position to be in position, that’s what we know,” he added. “[We’re] 11-0, they’re 11-0. All focus and preparation is on this game, as it should be.”

Michigan and Ohio State are amongst five remaining undefeated teams in Power Five conferences, alongside Georgia, Washington, and Florida State. And then there’s Oregon, Alabama, and Texas – each with impressive resumes and a lone loss – lobbying for their spots in the playoff. 

Here’s the reality for Harbaugh and Michigan: lose to Ohio State, and the season’s over. Win, and beat Iowa in the Big Ten championship next week, and you’re back in the playoff for a third straight year.

So while the debate rages over the ethics of the Wolverines’ bid for a national championship, all eyes will be on the Big House this weekend for the latest chapter in one of sports’ greatest rivalries.