Three years later, Jim Harbaugh has yet to win anything of real significance at Michigan. But the crazy-eyed coach in khaki pants probably wins the vote for the most polarizing figure in college football. Some love him and some hate him, and even many of those who love him are starting to lose faith.
Harbaugh needs a win Saturday night under the lights in South Bend. That alone is no reason to bet on him against Notre Dame. There are plenty of other reasons.
The Wolverines have the better defense, better quarterback and better all-around team. The Fighting Irish have the home field, which is one strong advantage, and if they win it might be because Brian Kelly did the better coaching job.
What Kelly lost to the NFL is a well-documented story. Offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey were top 10 picks, and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and running back Josh Adams were legit playmakers. On top of those departures, respected offensive line coach Harry Hiestand returned to the NFL with the Chicago Bears.
South Point sports book director Chris Andrews was aware of all of that when he opened Notre Dame as a 7-point favorite this summer. Andrews said he believes in the Irish defense and how well Kelly has recruited in recent years.
Obviously, many bettors disagree with Andrews, who makes sharp numbers far more often than not. That’s one of several reasons this game is so intriguing. As of Saturday morning, the line has moved to Michigan minus-1 at most books.
It’s not easy to believe in Kelly’s quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, who completed only 50 percent of his passes last season with more talent around him. Wimbush will need to play a lights-out game, and a strong defense must do damage for Notre Dame.
However, Harbaugh and aggressive coordinator Don Brown boast what might be the nation’s top defense. The Wolverines return nine starters on a defense that allowed only 18.8 points and 271 yards per game.
What did Harbaugh lack in his previous big-game flops? A playmaker to pull the trigger on his offense. He finally has an NFL-caliber quarterback in Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson. If Patterson avoids turnovers and overcomes nerves in his first true big game, he should be the difference in a narrow win for the Wolverines.
I bet Michigan at plus-1 and pick’em still is available. The defenses should dictate the pace, the play-calling early in the game figures to be conservative, and with rain and light winds in the forecast, look for a low-scoring game. I also played this under the total of 47. Michigan, 23-17.
Six more plays for Saturday:
* Florida Atlantic (plus-21) over OKLAHOMA:
Lane Kiffin is another polarizing coach, and he’s also a good one. The biggest mystery facing the Owls is their new quarterback. This game features two of the nation’s top running backs. Devin Singletary returns after rushing for 1,920 yards and 32 touchdowns to fuel Florida Atlantic’s 11-win season. The defense returns 10 starters. Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray is getting his first start after sitting behind Baker Mayfield, and Murray has major weapons with running back Rodney Anderson and wideout Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Oklahoma will prevail with its depth, strength on the lines and speed, but the Owls are talented enough to stay within three touchdowns.
* Akron-NEBRASKA (Over 55½):
It’s not going to be a surprise if the Cornhuskers hang 50 on the board in new coach Scott Frost’s celebrated return to Lincoln. Adrian Martinez, a talented true freshman, will run Frost’s offense. In their final two games last season, the Zips allowed 45 points to Toledo and 50 to Florida Atlantic.
* Brigham Young (plus-12) over ARIZONA: Junior quarterback Khalil Tate will make the Wildcats the public side, so this line could rise a point or two by the late kickoff time. Tate’s rushing totals (327, 230, 137, 146, 161, 206) in his first six games as a full-time player last season were staggering, and he improved as a passer by throwing for 302 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-35 bowl loss to Purdue. New coach Kevin Sumlin inherits a team that should be a Pac-12 South contender. The Cougars are coming off a 4-9 season that puts coach Kalani Sitake’s job in jeopardy. Sitake has an experienced team and a senior quarterback in Tanner Mangum. It would be easy to predict Arizona rolls, but let’s look through the Tate hype and go with the disrespected and hungry ‘dog.
* Washington (plus-2) over Auburn: This is a monster game for the Pac-12, a conference shredded by critics after going 1-8 in bowl games. A Washington loss in Atlanta would leave the league on the outskirts of the four-team playoff debates for most of the season. But the Huskies have what it takes to win this game in Southeastern Conference territory, mostly because Chris Petersen is an elite coach with plenty of prep time. Petersen has 17 starters back from a 10-win team, and leading the way will be senior quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin. Browning rates slightly better than Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who’s no longer handing the ball to star running back Kerryon Johnson. It takes courage to back a Pac-12 team on this stage, so the betting public is more likely to eye the Tigers and their SEC pedigree. But Auburn is not as strong as Alabama or Georgia. The Huskies are live ‘dogs, and Washington is worth a play, especially if the line goes back to 3.
* Louisville (plus-24½) over Alabama: Jawon Pass, an impressive 6-foot-4, 230-pound athlete, takes over for Lamar Jackson. Mobile quarterbacks tend to give Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban’s defenses the most problems. Saban is expected to play two QBs — Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts — and both should have success against a suspect Louisville defense. Saban will not have to sweat out the win, but the Cardinals have enough offense to cover.
* Virginia Tech (plus-7) over FLORIDA STATE: Dual-threat quarterback Josh Jackson and the Hokies have the scoring firepower and defensive toughness to spoil coach Willie Taggart’s debut in Tallahassee on Monday night. It’s also the first game back for quarterback Deondre Francois, who went down to injury in last year’s opener against Alabama. Expect a competitive game that goes to the wire, with star running back Cam Akers carrying the Seminoles to a win by a field goal.