Michigan put together one good offensive drive against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl on Monday.
Quarterback Brandon Peters whipped four straight completions to receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Kekoa Crawford. Running back Karan Higdon burst around the edge for 16 yards, and fullback Ben Mason finished the drive with a 1-yard barge up the middle.
Seven plays, 75 yards and a 16-3 lead to start the second half.
What happened next? A full-fledged meltdown. Five second-half turnovers? A garden variety of drops, fumbles and interceptions and across-the-board-dysfunction led to a 26-19 loss to South Carolina that typified the offensive ineptitude in an 8-5 season under Jim Harbaugh.
It's that ineptitude that increases the urgency in Ann Arbor heading into Year 4.
Harbaugh isn't on the hot seat, but he will be if there isn't a turnaround on that side of the ball before the Wolverines open at Notre Dame in prime time on Sept. 1 to start 2018.
Harbaugh draws more criticism than any coach in the FBS right now because of the social media hype machine he created with his arrival in Ann Arbor in 2014. He's the best target for that criticism. Butch Jones isn't around at Tennessee anymore; everybody loves Lane Kiffin, and everybody over-reacts to the results win or losse.
Harbaugh's offense will be in the cross-hairs in 2018 with a schedule that includes Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State on the road and Nebraska, Wisconsin and Penn State at home. If it doesn't improve at every level, then Michigan will lose more than half of those games. The Wolverines also will finish in that third or fourth spot in the Big Ten East that has become the most-frequently submitted knock on social media, especially in SEC country.
The other ones are easy to spot. The 1-5 record against Ohio State and Michigan State. The spring break trips. The comparisons to Brady Hoke. For what it's worth, Harbaugh is 28-11 after three seasons, two games better than Hoke's record of 26-13 after three years. Hoke bottomed out at 5-7 in Year 4, two years after a very similar 33-28 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. If Michigan does that in Year 4, then have at it.
All those criticisms distract from the biggest problem at Michigan: The Wolverines don't have an offense to pair with a defense that has proven capable of winning Big Ten championships the last two years under Don Brown.
Michigan didn't have it at quarterback, the skill positions, offensive line and didn't or with a well-compensated offensive coaching staff. That was exposed one last time in brutal fashion at every level in sloppy conditions against the Gamecocks.
Peters finished 20 of 44 passing for 186 yards and two interceptions; the last act in a three-way shuffle with Wilton Speight and John O'Korn. Michigan quarterbacks combined for nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The addition of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson will alleviate that if he's cleared to play in 2018, but how much pressure can you put on one player?
Crawford, Peoples-Jones, Collins and Tarik Black, who missed most of the season with a foot injury, have to take that collective next step. Michigan's leading receiver had 307 yards. Peoples-Jones and Black have shown big-time potential, but again, that's a lot of pressure for a group of mostly sophomores.
Higdon flirted with 1,000 yards this season, but a familiar trend emerged. Look at the rushing offense in those five losses:
It adds up to 437 yards on 187 carries — an average of 2.3 yards per carry. Michigan can't win big games if it can't run the ball in big games. Which leads to the two areas that need the biggest improvement: Where are the NFL offensive linemen? The Wolverines used to run away with games like that, but this unit didn't take over this game. Michigan was 2 of 17 on third down against the Gamecocks.
All Big Ten championship teams start up front. There will be similar results until that changes, which means this offseason is critical from a coaching and development standpoint. Harbaugh has a high-paid offensive staff that includes offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton. They need to show something better in 2018 on that side of the ball, because there are few excuses left.
Harbaugh and Patterson won't fix all that alone, and all those tough games will keep Michigan in the prime time spotlight. Win or lose, Harbaugh sells.
That hasn't changed since he arrived in 2014, when he said "no promises" in his opening news conference. That won't stop people from asking him to deliver, however, given the presence he commands at this level. To get there, all those units need an overhaul. The scheme is fine, but the execution is nowhere near where it needs to be.
Year 4 is time to deliver something more at all levels.
It will take a lot more than one good drive.