Back in October and November, before Michigan officially had an opening for a head coach, its fans already started daydreaming about the possibility of prying Jim Harbaugh from the NFL.
The evolution of fantasy to reality of Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor, each day providing additional drama, ended up being one of the more fascinating coaching storylines of 2014.
Now that he’s back, what Harbaugh does in his first season with the Wolverines promises to be the story to watch in 2015. Regardless of the team’s record, the journey from here to December will be appointment viewing.
From the opening trip into his introductory news conference, to quirky tweets such as Thursday’s “Attacking this day with Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind,” we’re all watching and listening to see what the guy does next.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Jim, even back to when he played [quarterback] for the Colts,” one coach told me this past week. “He’s weird, but he has such a raw passion for what he does. I’m glad he’s back in the college game, personally, and I don’t think it’s just me.”
Who knows precisely how it goes at his alma mater, but it is entertaining watching this thing lift off the ground.
Here are some other defining coaching storylines for 2015:
Ohio State’s ceiling and Meyer’s resurgence
This obviously relates to Michigan, where Harbaugh is tasked with catching rival Ohio State at a time when the Buckeyes are setting a brisk pace.
By winning the initial College Football Playoff and his third national championship, Urban Meyer passed Nick Saban in the eyes of many as the nation’s preeminent coach.
Saban made those around him in the SEC better, and it became a more difficult league to win. The same already seems to be happening in the Big Ten, but Ohio State has a sizable advantage on the field in terms of recruiting and, thanks to the title run, momentum.
Michigan State is the closest to the Buckeyes, but it took the Spartans three years to find an even serviceable quarterback. What does it say about Ohio State that it used just three different ones to win a national title? For one, the Big Ten should be concerned about the level Meyer is recruiting not only the QB position but those around it.
Ohio State is the easy choice to win again in 2015, especially looking at its schedule. After a pause, Meyer’s star is again soaring.
Life after Jameis for Jimbo and Noles
When Meyer lost a transcendent talent at quarterback, it started a spiral at Florida. Could something similar happen now that Florida State and Jimbo Fisher no longer have Jameis Winston?
It’s unlikely that FSU will fall too far because of the talent amassed at a variety of positions, but it’ll be intriguing to see how far the Seminoles slip at the QB position.
Remember that E.J. Manuel, a first-round talent (at least to the Bills), could never elevate FSU the way Winston did. It’s difficult to believe Sean Maguire or J.J. Cosentino can keep the program in the national title conversation. If FSU fans didn’t already understand what Winston meant to the success of the program, they are about to fully grasp it.
And what do we even remember about Fisher apart from Winston? It seems like every newsworthy quote or clip in recent memory was Fisher talking in some capacity about Winston, whether he was defending him from public scrutiny or lauding his ability as a player and leader.
Will the country even care about the Noles any longer now that he’ll be espousing about Maguire, Cosentino or someone far less interesting, controversial and, well, good?
Can the casual football fan tell you who the quarterback was who followed Tim Tebow?
Pressure’s turned up at Texas A&M
Kevin Sumlin has gone from 11 to nine to eight wins at Texas A&M while the pressure has progressively increased. (A $450 million stadium project has accelerated that, as well.)
By Year 4, “his” players are now funneling into the program, and the Aggies have recruited extremely well under Sumlin. There’s talent in place. The resources are in line with anyone’s in the country. Put simply, it’s time for a payoff.
Even given the depth and difficulty of the SEC West, A&M fans will lose patience if “swag” doesn’t turn into W’s -- and a first-place finish, even if it’s merely in the division. If the Aggies aren’t playing in Atlanta in one of the next two seasons, Sumlin’s seat is going to get awfully toasty.
And Sumlin is savvy and self-aware enough to understand that, illustrated by the moves to replace his defensive coordinator and offensive line coach. He knows the clock is ticking.
Sophomore years in Austin and L.A.
Texas and USC were the preeminent openings a year ago, and both Charlie Strong and Steve Sarkisian offered mixed bags in their first seasons.
The Longhorns being destroyed at home by BYU was their certain low point, and the Trojans were obliterated at Boston College. But those games were in September, and the end of the season provided hope for the near futures in both college football hubs.
USC’s bowl win against Nebraska, paired with returning talent -- including underrated QB Cody Kessler -- have suddenly made the Trojans a posh playoff pick for ’15. A wide-open Pac-12 is a big reason why. Regardless, it ramps up expectations for Sarkisian, especially now that USC is moving on from the NCAA scholarship restrictions that hampered the program the past few years.
As for Strong, I just listened to two beat reporters attempt to name the program’s most talented players -- and they really struggled.
So understand that this is a longer-term mission for Texas, where Strong is recruiting well but still needs time to elevate the overall talent profile. Strong is even dropping hints around town that that’s the case.
More coaching storylines
Florida: UF was arguably a bigger job opening than Michigan, but maybe that could work out well for Jim McElwain.
While the national focus is locked in on Harbaugh, McElwain can put pieces together to again put Florida back on top in the SEC East. And he’s in the right division to do so. Georgia is the leader in the East right now, and it’s a classic underachiever. With in-state talent, the Gators could quickly -- and quietly -- move back up.
Nebraska: The Huskers traded in a coach who averaged nine-plus wins for someone who is decidedly nicer? That’s a big-time gamble for athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
If Mike Riley gets off to a slow start or loses a couple of games Nebraska shouldn’t, things could get dicey for Eichorst. People might remember Bo Pelini more fondly than when he was in Lincoln.
South Carolina: Is this Steve Spurrier’s final year on a sideline? A lot of coaches, even some who work for Spurrier, are convinced that it is.
I know I hope not. College football is better with the Ball Coach. He teetered on the ledge of retirement this past season; a modestly talented roster needs to overachieve in ’15 to keep him happy and motivated.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies dealt with a silly amount of injuries in 2014, at a variety of positions. Even so, the pressure has been on the rise at Virginia Tech to at least be competitive in a wide-open ACC Coastal.
With better health, that should happen. Should. If it doesn’t, it really could get uncomfortable for Frank Beamer if the Hokies do not rebound in 2015.
High-end offensive coordinators get their programs: Tom Herman (Ohio State) and Chad Morris (Clemson) have both landed in the state of Texas for their first jobs.
How much success will they have in their first seasons? And if they do too well, will they be one-and-done and leave for a bigger job? The odds seem higher for Herman, who at Houston takes over a better talent situation. Morris will have his work cut out for him at SMU, but he could eventually rise to a higher ceiling.