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College Football

One Player Still Has The Power To End The Year Of Harbaugh

9:46 AM EST on January 2, 2024

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines walks on the field after winning the Big Ten Championship against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 02, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The final week of one of the most depressing seasons in college football history will almost surely be told through the prism of professional dotty-uncle-at-the-family-reunion Jim Harbaugh because, well, coaches are what we know, and theirs are the stories we tell. It has always been thus because in an industry in which players come and go too quickly, the coaches are forever. Monday night, Harbaugh beat Nick Saban in a taut, elongated, but often artless game punctuated more by errors than elegance, and Michigan beat Alabama, 27-20. It was an overtime game with significant stakes but it wasn't a great game. Hey, it happens.

What is worrisome about Michigan's advancement to the title game is that we are going to get another week of Harbaugh-centric tedium in which the Michigan players get to refer to "adversity" without ever acknowledging that the guy who created it is the same dotty uncle with 35-year-old glasses he got from his father's bedside table. We could revel in their fun more readily if they weren't so defined by their coach, which is largely how college football works and why it takes extraordinary circumstances to lift the sport from the mundane world it has created for itself.

There may be good news, though, in that there may be a way to avert the same fate this coming Monday in the championship game, because Michael Penix, Jr., the Washington quarterback, is inherently more interesting as an entertainment vehicle than his head coach, Kalen DeBoer. We are not typically optimistic in this space, true, but Penix was the one player you could not avert your eyes from in eight hours of football Monday. You could watch him in the context of the game before him, you could project him as the kind of pro quarterback who can adapt most adeptly to nearly any team or roster situation, or you could just lean back and watch him do things that are not just physically enjoyable but most resemble all the second-level nuances required of the modern quarterback.

DeBoer's story is that of a coaching lifer who apparently never loses, which is how so many coaching careers begin before stuff changes. Penix, though, is the story that is unfolding—a quarterback who created fun while playing at Indiana of all places, and one who creates it now. Indeed, as long as he can avoid being drafted by Carolina, he might have the best chance of a non-traumatic transition to the pros because he will be drafted late enough to go to a team that will not be a hindrance to his ligaments, tendons and sensibilities.

He ran the Sugar Bowl pure and simple, to the point where you wanted Texas' last gasp attempt to steal the game to fail just so he would play once more. True, that opportunity will come up against a Michigan defense that forced Alabama into a series of errors that concluded with a bad snap to quarterback Jalen Milroe that may have busted the play they wanted and forced a plunge into the Michigan line that demonstrably failed. As happy-go-lucky fun guy Saban explained it all afterward, "We shot ourselves in the foot."

But Penix seems like the one quarterback least likely to be overwhelmed by even the Wolverines because he seems like the one least dependent on physical skills (which he has in abundance) that can be taken away. He even looked good throwing the ball away last night because he assessed situations quickly and firmly. In a world populated with failed gamblers, he seems like the kind of quarterback who not only won't beat himself, he may not even beat you.

And that is the alternative to one more week in The Year Of Jim Harbaugh. The choice, you feckless louts, is yours.

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