Michigan football in no-win situation facing Ohio State game

Rainer Sabin
Detroit Free Press

In this bizarre year, when conspiracy theories have trickled from the backchannels of the Internet into the mainstream, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit presented one of his own Tuesday night on live television as the latest College Football Playoff rankings were revealed.

Providing no evidence to support his claim, the former Ohio State quarterback said Michigan football could use a COVID-19 outbreak as an excuse to opt out of its Dec. 12 matchup with the Buckeyes to avoid an expected loss and impair its rival’s chances of qualifying for the Big Ten championship game.

The rationale guiding Herbstreit’s thinking, even absent any corroboration, was not illogical. Ohio State, after all, has only played four times in 2020 and is in danger of being sidelined for the chase for a national title because it hasn’t competed enough.

[ Warde Manuel blasts Herbstreit's implication that Wolverines would duck Buckeyes ]

U-M, meanwhile, is 2-4 and would take its worst team of the Jim Harbaugh era to Columbus.

But considering Herbstreit’s stature as the sport’s lead commentator, his baseless comments prompted immediate backlash that, in turn, caused him to apologize.

ESPN 's Kirk Herbstreit.

Less than 24 hours after Herbstreit begged for forgiveness, Michigan canceled its game Saturday against Maryland because of an increase in the number of positive coronavirus tests among players and contact tracing. The earliest the Wolverines plan to return to the field is Monday, which would allow the team to hold a maximum of five practices before it makes the trip across the state border to face an opponent they've beaten once in their last 16 meetings.

Because Herbstreit said the quiet part out loud and lent legitimacy to message-board speculation, U-M finds itself in a lose-lose situation as it tries to deal with more serious matters and mitigate the spread of a deadly virus within its program.

In a society that now leans into misinformation and questions facts, there will be a group of skeptics that believes Herbstreit's claim and accuses the Wolverines of ducking Ohio State if they can’t reduce the number of infections by this time next week. But even if U-M is able to reinstate in-person team activities, it will do so as a wounded program with players who may not be mentally ready for the challenge that awaits them.

[ Michigan benched by positive COVID-19 cases; AD waiting for 'over 100 tests' ]

“It’s hard to put everything into a game,” Harbaugh acknowledged Monday. “You’re emotionally invested, you’re physically invested. You’re playing your heart out and you’re not getting the rewards of winning. That’s tough. It’s hard. Football is challenging. Life is challenging. You respond to that challenge. I think our guys are doing that.”

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh looks down at his notes during a timeout in the second half against Ohio State at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.

Others who have watched the Wolverines play this season would beg to differ. Michigan has absorbed so many blows that it resembles a punch-drunk fighter wobbling in the 11th round trying to stave off the inevitable coup de grâce. The shocking upset defeat to Michigan State hit the Wolverines’ square on the jaw. The first loss to Indiana in 33 years felt like an uppercut to the gut. The 38-point beatdown administered by Wisconsin staggered them. And the setback against winless Penn State was one more teeth-rattling shot they endured.

Would it be that unreasonable for Michigan to throw in the towel now that it has been brought to its knees with this shutdown?

A person with no stake in the fight would probably say go ahead and toss it.

But it’s hard to imagine Harbaugh taking this position even though he stares at the very real possibility of losing to Ohio State for the sixth consecutive time and suffering his third-straight lopsided defeat. As the latest edition of the rivalry loomed last year, Harbaugh said, “I love competition.”

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Before this season went sideways, Harbaugh marched through the streets in September campaigning for the opportunity to play.

Anytime, anywhere he’d be there, he vowed then.

"We play whoever is in front of us," athletic director Warde Manuel said Wednesday. "And the only way we want to keep anybody from moving on is to beat them on the fields of play. To insinuate that, to say something other than that, is a statement by a fool."

Crazier still — in the eyes of many — is the thought of Harbaugh and Michigan showing up in Columbus on Dec. 12 and being on the wrong end of yet another haymaker just to prove the doubters wrong.

With one year left on his contract, his long-term future is uncertain and the criticism of his leadership is mounting.

“Enough is enough!” Michigan’s national championship-winning quarterback Brian Griese tweeted Saturday night next to a graphic listing all of Harbaugh’s failures.

But it’s not over just yet. The game against Ohio State is still on tap.

Whether it goes on as scheduled or is canceled, Michigan will find itself in a no-win scenario thanks to Herbstreit giving life to a conspiracy theory. It will be a fitting coda during an anguished year that has brought few victories for the Wolverines.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter