Jim Harbaugh, Lovie Smith Haven’t Translated NFL Success to College Ball

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This past weekend saw Lovie Smith and the Illinois Fighting Illini defeat the #6 Wisconsin Badgers, a team that was favored by 30.5 points. And with this glorious victory, Smith matched Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh in victories over a top ten opponent while being a head coach in the Big Ten. 

That total number, is one. Yes, Harbaugh, head coach in Ann Arbor since 2015 is just 1-10 versus top ten opponents. As for Smith, he’s right when he referred to the Wisconsin conquest as “a signature win,” but league his record is an abominable 5-26. He’s 3-25 against Big Ten teams not named Rutgers.

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These are two extremely accomplished head coaches, who were very successful in the NFL, but neither has been able to do at the college level what they are expected/paid handsomely to do. Those who make free NFL expert picks would not have envisioned these Super Bowl two coaches struggling to adapt to the college game. Harbaugh won the 2011 NFL Coach of the Year award and National Football Conference title. 

In four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, he led them to three playoff appearances and two NFC West division titles. At Michigan, where he’s 0-8 all time as an underdog, he’s failed at all four of the main objectives for which he has been tasked.

He hasn’t accomplished any of the following: beaten Ohio State, won the Big Ten East division, won the Big Ten conference, brought Michigan back into the national championship conversation.

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Overall, his marks are very good, just not by the standards and expectations of a Michigan man. Halfway through year five, he’s 43-16, with a 29-11 record in conference play. The khakied one has three double digit win seasons, but he’s also gone 1-3 in bowl games. He has another chance for a signature win on Saturday night, when UM hosts #7 Notre Dame. Astonishingly, Michigan is favored in this one. 

He returned to Ann Arbor with astronomical hype, but just hasn’t lived up to it. He hasn’t been able to stop a skid that was in place long before he took the gig. In losing last week at Penn State, the Wolverines have now lost 16 in a row on the road against teams ranked in the top 15. Their last win against a Big Ten team ranked in the top 7 ranked came way back in 1999; when Tom Brady was still the quarterback.

They did beat Lovie and the Illini though, two weeks ago in (to borrow a basketball phrase) a game of runs. Michigan came to Champaign and raced out to a 28-0 lead, before the Illini fought back and made it a 28-25 game. The Wolverines won 42-25.

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The following week saw Smith achieve the second-largest upset victory in a Big Ten game over the course of the last 40 years. Only Northwestern’s win over Minnesota as a 32-point underdog in 1981 was a bigger spread in a Big Ten game where the favorite lost.

The fact that Illinois was such a big underdog to begin with tells you just about everything you need to know how the struggles of this program during the Smith era. The 2005 NFL Coach of the Year and the first African-American Head Coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl has had a miserable time of it at Illinois. His Tampa 2 scheme, which is based around a Cover 2, worked so well in the NFL. However, it just doesn’t translate to college football in 2019.

Saturday brings a new hope however as Illinois travel to Purdue in a winnable game that could spring them up on the path towards a bowl game appearance.

(We preview this game on the SB Nation Hammer and Rails podcast embedded above)

If Illinois wins in West Lafayette on Saturday, they’ll have four Ws, needing just two more for a bowl appearance, and they still have the league’s two worst teams, Northwestern and Rutgers, still on the schedule.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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