State of the Program

Hello, America. Here we are on election night, wearing our American flag socks, a cold beer in hand and trying to think of anything that gives us less anxiety than the outcome of this election. So, let’s revisit the wonderful day of college football we enjoyed this past Saturday. 

If you’re new here, and we know you aren’t Mom, there are three power 5 football programs of interest at Hangover Headquarters: Michigan (former employer), Penn State (Mrs. H’s alma mater) and North Carolina (our alma mater). In case you missed it, this past Saturday those schools lost to Michigan State, Ohio State and Virginia, respectively. In the simplest terms possible, it was a disaster.  

After a cooling period of a couple days, we decided to take a look at the state of each of these programs, as we sit here in early November. 

Penn State 

Our longtime reader knows that he can trust the fact we’ll always be candid with you. And in that spirit of candor, we can tell you this – we really can’t speak that intelligently about the state of Penn State’s program. Which, our reader will also admit, has never stopped us from writing about other topics, so why stop now?! 

In our picks column last week, we stated that Penn State has played Ohio State tougher than anyone in the Big Ten in recent years. Well, James Franklin is now 1-6 against Ohio State and the one win was thanks to a late blocked field goal that they returned for a touchdown. Granted, that’s infinitely better than Michigan has fared against the Buckeyes, but not exactly a gold star on Franklin’s resume.  

That said, we do actually believe that they have been the best matchup for Ohio State within the conference in recent years. That says more about the widening gap between Ohio State and everyone else than it does about Penn State, but at least they are the second-best team in the conference? 

Penn State is a surprising 0-2, but really, they should be 1-1 since the refs robbed them of a win against Indiana. They don’t have quite the roster they would expect with 3 of the 4 running backs they expected to have either injured or out of the program and All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opting out. Those are major losses, but to our untrained eyes, they miss Trace McSorley. We have no statistics to back this up, and we aren’t going to go find them, but Sean Clifford doesn’t inspire confidence that someone can carry an offense without a major running game. And sadly, Penn State probably won’t have a significant running game the rest of this season.  

The schedule is fairly friendly with Maryland, @Nebraska, Iowa, @Michigan, @Rutgers and Michigan State. Stranger things have happened, but that looks to me like 5 wins and a toss-up with Michigan. Road games aren’t quite the imposing proposition they usually are in the conference without any fans in the stands, so it would not surprise us to see the Nittany Lions finish the regular season 6-2. 

Long term, we believe Penn State is well positioned to be the second best team in the Big Ten. The question becomes if Penn State is okay with that reality? Now, you can be the second best team in the Big Ten, but still win 10-11 games a year, and play in some really nice New Year’s Day Bowls.  Maybe you even snag a Big Ten Championship every now and then. You won’t make the College Football Playoff though.  So if you’re not comfortable with that ceiling, what do you do to change it? Fire James Franklin? Hope Ryan Day takes an NFL job? Give Ohio State players some free tattoos? Seriously – we have no idea.  

Michigan 

You may find this hard to believe, but Michigan fans were feeling pretty good about themselves after their season-opening win in Minneapolis. On College GameDay, there was discussion that the Wolverines might be underrated while ranked in the mid-teens. The main story line was that “Harbaugh finally has his quarterback.” In addition to Milton’s breakout performance against Minnesota, there was a strong running game to complement the typical Don Brown aggressive defense. It felt coming into Saturday that Michigan might have a chance to actually compete with Ohio State. Sure, that Friday night loss by Minnesota to Maryland might have caused some hesitation before jumping on the Michigan bandwagon, but naahhh. Let’s Go Blue! 

But WH, Maryland had lost by 40 to Northwestern the week before?!  

Shut it, Mr. Voice of Reason. We’re Michigan Men. They were still just demoralized from the beating we put on them the week before. 

Unfortunately for Michigan, no one told Michigan State that MICHIGAN WAS BACK. Sure, the Spartans lost to Rutgers the week before. At home.  And of course, Sparty is the pesky little brother who thinks they can play with the big kids – it’s really quite adorable. But, apparently, they do actually offer scholarships, watch film and practice. 

And once the game started, it became apparent that the whole film watching and practicing thing works. We won’t rehash the game, but any time Michigan loses to Michigan State, there is cause for concern in Ann Arbor. When Michigan loses as a 3-touchdown favorite, and the Paul Bunyan trophy travels to East Lansing, it’s full-scale meltdown.  

Ed. Note – thanks to reader JJ for reminding us about how Paul Bunyan’s name is spelled.  

So, where does Michigan go from here?  We’ll break down the rest of this season, and then a big picture view. 

The remaining regular season schedule for Michigan is @Indiana, vs. Wisconsin, @Rutgers, vs. Penn State, vs. Maryland and @Ohio State. If we’re being very conservative, we see two clear wins remaining (Rutgers/Maryland), three toss-ups and one humiliating defeat. The reality is Michigan is better than they played Saturday, but they aren’t nearly as good as everyone wanted them to be after the Minnesota game. Add those projections up, and you’re looking at a 3 or 4 loss regular season (again) and a 3rd or 4th place finish in the division (again).  

The bigger picture is more interesting, or sad, depending on your point of view. Here is the reality of Harbaugh’s tenure: 

  • 0-5 vs. Ohio State 
  • 3-3 vs. Michigan State 
  • 1-4 in bowl games 
  • 3rd in Division is highest finish in Big 10 
  • Last year of his contract 

Pete Thamel wrote a scathing post-game column which frankly felt a little over-the-top and petty – Harbaugh might have run over his cat or something – but there are some interesting nuggets in there, especially as it relates to recruiting. Since we try our best not to spend too much time worrying about the decision-making process of 17-year-olds, we’ll trust his insight here. 

But, if you’re getting beat on the field and you are getting beat on the recruiting trail, it’s going to be tough to change the results listed above. Harbaugh has won everywhere he’s been, and he’s winning plenty of games in Ann Arbor – certainly more than Brady Hoke and RichRod. But a coach at Michigan isn’t evaluated compared to RichRod, he’s compared to Bo Schembechler. 

We saw a stat on Twitter this week that since 2015, every FBS program had won at least one game as an underdog except one. That one: Michigan. And since anyone can post anything they want to Twitter, it has to be true. Now, Michigan alums will argue that is because they are so superior that they’ve never actually been an underdog. Actual facts would tell you that Michigan has been an underdog a few times since 2015.  

The most interesting bullet point is that Harbaugh is in the final year of his contract. So, what will Michigan do? First, they’re going to wait out the rest of the regular season. Second, they’re going to wait to see if Harbaugh takes an NFL job. And if we get to mid-January, they’re going to give Harbaugh a contract extension. And probably a raise, and invest more resources into football.  

If a Michigan fan were to ask my unbiased opinion for what the best case scenario is, we would tell them that they should hope Harbaugh takes an NFL job. That enables a fresh start for Michigan without Warde Manuel having to be the athletic director who fired Jim Harbaugh. Go Blue? 

North Carolina 

Carolina Football has long lived in the shadow of the basketball program. With a down year last season in the Smith Center, the emergence of Sam Howell at quarterback and a top 10 recruiting class, hopes were high around Kenan Stadium. Preseason rankings aren’t commonplace for Carolina Football, and unlike Michigan or Carolina Basketball, the Heels are not used to being the favorite.  

Carolina Football showed its lack of experience being the hunted in Tallahassee, and that inconsistency reared its head again in Charlottesville. Now, to be fair, Carolina rarely wins in Charlottesville – only 5 times in the last 40 years – but the loss exposed some bigger issues that will be a factor the rest of this season and need to be addressed in the long run. 

For the rest of this year, the Heels schedule features @Duke, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, @Miami, Western Carolina. Again, looking conservatively, we see one win, two losses and two toss ups. If they can right the ship the next two weeks and beat their Tobacco Road rivals, they’ll host Notre Dame in a more familiar role – talented underdog. The Heels, at least according to Twitter, have actually won some games in the last five years as underdogs, so that could make things very interesting. Despite the two losses, Carolina still controls their own destiny in the conference standings. Win out, and they’ll earn the right to lose to Clemson in the ACC Championship game. Honestly, the Heels could finish anywhere from 5-6 to 9-2 and it wouldn’t totally surprise us. 

And that’s the big picture problem – inconsistency. On Saturday, the Heels scored 41 points, did not punt once, threw for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns (with only 5 incompletions) and lost. Why did they lose?  The last five minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half. In the first half, those five minutes included a missed field goal, a fumbled punt return and a 1st and Goal that led to 0 points. After regrouping at halftime, the Heels stormed out of the locker room to give up a touchdown drive, and then fumble setting up another UVA touchdown. A 20-20 game turned into a 41-20 deficit, and the game was over.  

Those lapses are too detrimental and too frequent for the Heels to realistically dream of being worthy of the #5 ranking they enjoyed earlier this season. How do you fix it? Well, Mack has coached a program to a national championship, so he understands to problem, but can he get the players in the building to fix it? His recruiting has been strong, the talent is there, but can you change the culture and mindset?  

The good news for Mack Brown? The fan base is pretty content if the Heels win 8-9 games a year, beat NC State and Duke regularly and provide an entertaining diversion from August to November, when Carolina Basketball tips off.  

The good news for Carolina Football long term? Mack is building the infrastructure and convinced Bubba Cunningham to heavily invest in the football program. When Mack retires in a few years, the program will be light years ahead of where it was when Mack returned two years ago. While it will never surpass the importance of Carolina Basketball, there is optimism that it will become more than just a diversion to get through to the season opener. 

So, to sum up, Penn State – eh, not as bad as it seems; Michigan – uhhh, we may have a problem; North Carolina – shouldn’t basketball be starting soon?  

Published by workhangover

I'm a blog, mostly about sports. Come for the gripping analysis, stay for the witty jokes.

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