Conventional wisdom heading into this college football season has been that there is unlikely to be much coaching turnover.
Between COVID-19 pandemic-related revenue losses and the complications of trying to evaluate performance under such unusual circumstances, the coaching carousel figured to be quiet.
Then Michigan started 1-2 in its sixth season under coach Jim Harbaugh. The 23rd-ranked Wolverines — yes, they were still ranked — lost 38-21 at No. 13 Indiana on Saturday, snapping a 24-game winning streak against the Hoosiers that dated to 1987.
Harbaugh has only one more season left after this on his original contract, which has made him one of the highest-paid head coaches in college football.
The khaki-clad former Wolverines quarterback's returned to Ann Arbor as a savior, made Michigan better, became a content machine for sports media and lost all five games vs. Ohio State. Whatever shortcomings Harbaugh has had at Michigan, his teams have never won fewer than eight regular-season games and rarely lost to the opponents Michigan is supposed to beat.
Michigan is supposed to beat Indiana. Michigan is supposed to beat a Michigan State team that has now sandwiched losses to Rutgers and Iowa (49-7) around a victory at the Big House.
The Wolverines are scheduled to play Wisconsin next Saturday night, if the Badgers can return from their COVID-19 hiatus.
“You’re playing good teams every week," Harbaugh said. "We’ve got to get there fast.”
The Big Ten is such a mess there is probably a path to a respectable season for Michigan, but it's pretty clear the program is trending in the wrong direction.
Firing Harbaugh after a truncated and odd season does not seem like the Michigan way. The more interesting question at this point: Does Harbaugh want to do this anymore? His contract situation is unheard of in college football, where schools are more likely to rush into a bad extension than let a winning coach get close to walk year.
It's difficult to forecast where this could be going, but a scenario in which Harbaugh decides he has done all he can do with the job and he moves on without hurting Michigan financially seems plausible.
If the Michigan job opens up it is liable to knock over a few dominos.
Is an Ohio State man what Michigan needs? Former Buckeyes player and assistant coach Luke Fickell has No. 6 Cincinnati looking like a legitimate playoff contender. He turned down the Michigan State job when it opened unusually late in the cycle. The better question is: Would Fickell betray his roots to coach the School up North?
The most obvious solution for Michigan might be in the Big 12. Iowa State's Matt Campbell's overall record (30-27 with the Cyclones) might not be enough to impress Michigan fans, but he is having uncommon success in Ames.
What has become apparent is the pandemic is not going to cause the coaching carousel to come to a halt. Already Southern Mississippi and Utah State — as of Saturday — are in the market.
Another one to keep an eye on is Virginia Tech. Justin Fuente's dalliance with Baylor after last season did not sit well in Blacksburg. A good season for the Hokies could have calmed the situation. Instead, Virginia Tech is 4-3 after Fuente and his staff botched the end of a home loss to No. 25 Liberty and Hugh Freeze.
In a normal offseason, Freeze would almost certainly be bouncing to a bigger program — even with all his baggage — after what he has done with the Flames.
Just how silly this silly season gets, though, will be determined by Michigan and Harbaugh.
CLEAR PATH TO A PLAYOFF
No. 4 Notre Dame's victory against No. 1 Clemson seems to set both teams on a pretty clear path to the College Football Playoff if they can take care of business in the regular-season.
Losing without Lawrence and three key starters helps build on some leeway for the Tigers.
But Clemson with DJ Uiagalelei is still one of the best teams in the country. Amazingly, the Tigers' backup is probably a top-five quarterback in college football.
Who gets in over Clemson and Notre Dame after an ACC championship game rematch won by the Tigers that puts both them and the Irish at 11-1?
No. 14 Oklahoma State with only one loss? Maybe, but the Cowboys don't look like a team that can run the table. Especially, with Oklahoma still to come.
An undefeated Pac-12 champion? No. 12 Oregon looked good out of the gate.
It would be fun to see Zach Wilson and No. 9 BYU or Cincinnati get the opportunity, but they're not bumping out the Irish or Tigers.
Texas A&M could put forth an interesting case if it wins out to finish 9-1. And if Florida could knock off an unbeaten Alabama in the SEC championship, now you'd have a really interesting debate.
But for now the most likely scenario is Alabama, Ohio State and the two ACC teams.
AROUND THE COUNTRY: The Pac-12 canceled two games before it played one. Not a great sign, but the conference launched with exactly what it hoped to get out of its breakfast time kickoff in Los Angeles. No. 20 USC's late rally against Arizona State in Fox's noon window was one of the game's of the day. And the presidential race was called early enough so that the broadcast was not interrupted by the day's big names ... But later more tough news out of the Pac-12. Before its prime-time marquee game of the day, Stanford announced quarterback Davis Mills would not play because of COVID-19 protocols against Oregon. ... The recruiting machine is still pumping talent into No. 5 Georgia at a high rate, but Bulldogs fans have to be lamenting a lost season after their team get thumped by No. 8 Florida. What could been for Georgia with a normal offseason and Jamie Newman at quarterback? ... Current state of the Big Ten: Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska are a combined 1-7. Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue: 8-0. .. If Indiana can beat Michigan State next week, the Hoosiers will match a school record with five consecutive Big Ten victories and set up a huge East Division matchup at No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 21. Strange season. ... Keeping players engaged during this strange season could be challenging for coaches. Penn State getting drubbed at home by Maryland might be Exhibit A. ... Ohio State's Justin Fields has thrown 11 incomplete passes and 11 touchdown passes this season.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/
You asked, we answered: 8 key questions about the Wisconsin football team’s COVID-19 outbreak
How many Badgers have contracted COVID-19?
As of Nov. 7, the Badgers football program has 30 active cases of COVID-19 — 17 student-athletes and 13 staff members — since Oct. 21.
The program only identified one of those cases, saying head coach Paul Chryst has contracted the virus. Sources told the State Journal that offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and quarterbacks Graham Mertz (above) and Chase Wolf were among those to test positive.
UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said during a news conference that the program had one positive test in the first few weeks of daily testing. Then one student-athlete tested positive on Wednesday, Oct. 21, followed by 29 more people within the program from Oct. 24-Nov. 7.
Why are the canceled games no contests if the Badgers aren’t at “red/red” levels?
Because UW’s decision was based on its COVID-19 testing numbers, the games are considered no contests and won’t be counted on the team’s records.
Big Ten protocols state that games are considered no contests if they’re canceled due to a program reaching what has been called “red/red” levels. Those levels are defined as a seven-day rolling average of a team’s positivity rate over 5%, and a seven-day rolling average of a team population positivity rate over 7.5%
UW officials have stated that the Badgers are at “orange/red” levels, meaning they have an average team positivity rate between 2-5% and an average team population positivity rate over 7.5%.
Per Big Ten protocols, a program must “proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention” and “consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition” if it reaches “orange/red” levels. Alvarez said UW decided to pause its team activities and cancel the games to stop the spread of the virus and “get their arms around it.”
Will they schedule make-up games?
When the Big Ten debuted its truncated schedule calling for nine games in nine weeks, the lack of open dates eliminated chances to reschedule games during the regular-season window.
Nebraska requested that the Big Ten change its ruling about allowing non-conference games in an attempt to play a game against Tennessee-Chattanooga. The conference denied the request.
The canceled game against Purdue will also not be rescheduled.
Does Illinois’ team have COVID-19 cases after playing the Badgers?
Illinois announced Saturday morning that quarterback Brandon Peters and tight end Griffin Moore tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, Oct. 29. Both players will be out of game action for 21 days.
"Contact tracing also sidelined several other players for (Saturday) and next week's game against Minnesota," a release from the program read.
Illinois lost its season opener 45-7 to UW at Camp Randall Stadium.
Will the Badgers play next week?
To be determined
UW is slated to play at Michigan on Nov. 14. If that game will be played is still being decided.
The Badgers’ pause on team activities was lifted on Nov. 6 and limited on-field conditioning work resumed.
Why do the players who have contracted the virus have to sit out 21 days?
The Big Ten requires that players wait at least 14 days from their initial diagnosis to go through a cardiac screening that can clear them to start working back toward competition. The league also built in seven more days for players to build back toward competition after being cleared in the cardiac testing.
The 21-day break from game action is the longest league protocol among the Power Five conferences.
Jim Borchers, the team physician at Ohio State who was co-chair of the Big Ten’s return to competition medical subcommittee, said experts told the conference that cardiac testing and evaluation couldn’t start until two weeks after diagnosis.
However, this 21-day layoff has come under scrutiny this week.
A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little evidence of myocarditis in COVID-positive college athletes who had mild or no symptoms. The report didn’t recommend cardiac testing to the level the Big Ten is conducting.
Alvarez (above) told Sports Illustrated that the Big Ten should “reevaluate” the protocol.
Can the Badgers still make the Big Ten championship game?
Yes, but they can’t miss any more games.
The conference changed its divisional tiebreakers for this season, and those modifications will now be necessary considering at least two teams — UW and Nebraska — won’t complete the eight-game regular-season slate.
According to a Big Ten policy put in place this season, “a team must play at least six games to be considered for participation in the championship game. However, if the average number of conference games played by all teams falls below six, then teams must play no less than two fewer conference games than the average number of conference games played by all teams to be considered.”
How are the players doing? Are they symptomatic?
UW is not releasing updates regarding individual players’ illness and has not said whether some or all have experienced symptoms of COVID-19. Michael Moll, the program's Chief Infection Officer for the Big Ten, said no players or staff members have had severe symptoms or required hospitalization.
During a Zoom call with reporters, Chryst said he felt fine physically and he completed his isolation period without symptoms.
In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, players are isolating themselves in their living spaces. UW has secured hotel rooms to separate those who live together.