Jim Harbaugh + Jim McElwain makes Michigan a national title contender? We’ll take that bet

Does Jim + Jim = Magic? Michigan’s coaching staff appears to be set — finally — with the reported addition of former Florida and Colorado State coach Jim McElwain as the 10 th, and newest, member of Jim Harbaugh’s team.

The move is curious on a couple of fronts and is more than a little ironic, given that McElwain went out of his way to jab Harbaugh and Michigan before the Wolverines and Gators met in Arlington, Texas, to open the 2017 campaign. The Maize and Blue rolled Florida, 33-17, and McElwain left the program on Oct. 29 after a 42-7 thrashing by rival Georgia left the Gators with a 3-4 mark.

Football makes for interesting bedfellows, sometimes — and even more interesting projections, especially where Las Vegas is concerned. Westgate Casino’s SuperBook last month was hitting the Harbaugh Kool-Aid harder than most:

You want to roll with that bet? Former Michigan and NFL running back Chris Howard and Land of 10 writer-columnist Sean Keeler decided to check their respective wallets and see if they could get each other to pony up …

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Q: Las Vegas Westgate gives Michigan the fifth-best odds in the country to win a national title in 2018 at 10-1. Do you take that bet?

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SEAN KEELER: YES

We believe in The Power of Jim McElwain.

Well, OK, not completely. Not yet.

Sean Keeler

But we do believe in this little nugget: McElwain’s last three offenses as the coordinator at Alabama averaged 2.57 points per possession (2009), 3.14 points per possession (2010) and 2.92 points per possession (2011), for an average of 2.88.

RELATED: Former Michigan running back Chris Howard says he’s keeping his wallet shut

Michigan’s last three offenses under Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno averaged 2.52 PPP (2015), 2.97 PPP (2016), and 1.81 PPP (2017), for an average of 2.43.

The Wolverines averaged 13.92 possessions per tilt last fall. Let’s round that up to 14 a contest. If you add plus-0.45 points to each of those possessions, that’s a difference of plus-6.3 points per game.

Five of Michigan’s last eight losses since November 2016 have come by just 7 points or less.

So yeah, sure, we’ll take that bet. In the words of Jefferson Starship’s Grace Slick, let ’em say we’re crazy. What do they know? And we’ll tell ya why:

1. Don Brown

Fun fact No. 1: The first four College Fooball Playoff champs all boasted top 25 scoring efficiency defenses, and the last three — 2014-15 Ohio State, ironically, being the outlier — all ranked among the top 6 the year they won the title:

2014-15 — Ohio State: 1.64 Opponent Points Per Possession/National Rank: 21

2015-16 — Alabama: 1.05 OPP/Rank: 2

2016-17 — Clemson: 1.26 OPP/Rank: 6

2017-18 — Alabama: 0.95 OPP/Rank: 1

Average — 1.23 OPP/Rank: 4.3

Fun fact No. 2: Here’s how defensive coordinator Don Brown’s units have fared in scoring efficiency the last two autumns, one crew with loaded with veterans and NFL draft picks (2016) and one loaded with kids (2017):

016-17 — Michigan: 1.04 OPP/Rank: 2

2017-18 — Michigan: 1.36 OPP/Rank: 9

Average — 1.20 OPP/Rank: 5.5

It starts on defense, comes back to defense. Always has. Always will. The Wolverines returned just a lone starter from Brown’s excellent 2016 crew last fall. Michigan returns nine for 2018, including young guns Rashan Gary and Devin Bush.

The kids can play, y’all. And they’re only just getting started.  

2. Precedent

Harbaugh Year 3 at Stanford: 8-5 record, 6-3 league mark, bowl loss.

Harbaugh Year 3 at Michigan: 8-5 record, 5-4 league mark, bowl loss.

Harbaugh Year 4 at Stanford: 12-1 record, 8-1 league mark, Orange Bowl win.

Harbaugh Year 4 at Michigan?

Now history is a fickle mistress and all, and as it says in the fine print on our 401(k) statements, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

And, yes, the Stanford victory line for Captain Comeback was a diagonal that trended upward each year, as opposed to the Year 3 dip we just witnessed in Ann Arbor.

And, yes, the Cardinal back then happened to feature a cat named Andrew Luck behind center. More on that in a minute.

3. The schedule

There are two ways to spin a fight card that features road treks to Notre Dame (Sept. 1), Northwestern (Sept. 29), Michigan State (Oct. 20) and Ohio State (Nov. 24) and home tests against SMU (Sept. 15), Nebraska (Sept. 22), Maryland (Oct. 6), Wisconsin (Oct. 13) and Penn State (Nov. 3), all of which are either certain or, at worst, very likely, to reach the postseason this fall.

The first: HOLY EXPLETIVE!

The second, of course, is that if the CFP selection committee really does give a hoot about schedule strength, Michigan’s slate is the kind of gauntlet that turns heads. To say nothing of coaches’ stomachs. You come out of that mess with fewer than 2 losses, the sky’s the limit.

4. Low-risk losses

Of course, if the committee underscored anything last fall, it’s that one egregious loss, a very bad day at the office — hello, Iowa 55, Ohio State 24 — can torpedo an otherwise solid CFP résumé.

Lesson A: Try not to lose to a double-digit underdog.

Lesson B: And if you do, don’t lose by 31.

Of Harbaugh’s 11 defeats over the past three seasons, only two were by more than 14 points — vs. Ohio State in 2015 and at Penn State in 2017. The average margin in all setbacks is exactly 10 points, and if you take out the aforementioned Buckeyes and Nittany Lions bashings, the average for the other nine setbacks dips to a more committee-palatable 5.8 points per loss.

Unhappy accidents happen. That’s the beauty of the game. The elite teams try not to compound them by getting pounded in the process.

5. Shea Patterson — or whomever

It can’t get any worse at quarterback.

Check that.

It won’t get any worse.

Because if it does, there are going to be a crapload of assistants and analysts and assorted hangers-on looking for work next winter.

Whomever wins the Michigan quarterback job — or shares it — is going to complete more than 53.5 percent of his throws and combine for more than 9 passing scores.

If the Wolverines had even remotely average quarterback play last year, they might have turned two, possibly three or four, of their five setbacks around.

If it’s Brandon Peters, it’s probably better.

If it’s Dylan McCaffrey, it’s probably better.

If it’s some combo of Peters and McCaffrey, it’s probably better.

If it’s Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, the most popular in-limbo quarterback north of the Waffle House line, it’s almost certainly better.

And if you don’t believe us, believe longtime recruitnik Tom Lemming, who told Land of 10 recently:

“If they get a guy like Shea Patterson, Ohio State is going to have to watch out for Michigan.”

He wasn’t crossing his fingers when he said it.

If you don’t believe us, believe ESPN draftnik Mel Kiper:

“When you look at the defensive side, with Gary and [Chase] Winovich and [Devin] Bush and [David] Long and [Lavert] Hill, they got a lot of good players,” Kiper noted during a recent installment of his Dari & Mel podcast. “And I know the recruiting classes haven’t wowed anybody over. But I think if Shea Patterson is under center, Michigan could catapult into the top 10, maybe the top 6.”

Preach, Mel. Preach. If Patterson is half the answer Kiper thinks he is, Michigan fans will be the ones laughing. All the way to the bank.

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