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What do the Jim Harbaugh-NFL rumors mean for Penn State football?

After the Wolverines’ 13-1 season wrapped up, Jim Harbaugh is rumored to be interested in heading to the NFL. What does this mean for Penn State?

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Oct 19, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts to calling a time-out against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the first quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two years, Michigan has managed to take a step forward that Penn State football is yet to accomplish. The Wolverines went from being a “good/great” program to an “elite” one after a horrid 2-4 season in 2020. Now, the architect of it all — Jim Harbaugh — is rumored to want out of Ann Arbor in favor of an NFL gig.

Right now, the Nittany Lions are coming off of an incredible 11-2 season that ended with a 35-21 win over No. 8 Utah in the Rose Bowl. Still, the Nittany Lions suffered an embarrassing blowout loss in Ann Arbor at the hands of Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines in mid-October. James Franklin is 3-6 against Michigan at Penn State and 3-5 against Jim Harbaugh, with his last win over Michigan coming during the COVID-19 season.

Despite Michigan’s program being one of the top programs in the country right now, all of that could change if Harbaugh is to leave. On top of that, James Franklin, Drew Allar, Nick Singleton, and the rest of the Nittany Lions could be gearing up to strip the Wolverines of their top spot regardless of what Harbaugh does. If Jim Harbaugh is to leave Michigan, what could that mean for Penn State football?

Franklin’s history against Jim Harbaugh

In January of 2014, Penn State football hired James Franklin as its newest head football coach. For Franklin’s first two seasons at the helm in State College, his program was still under crippling sanctions due to the Sandusky scandal that broke in 2011. Over this span, Penn State saw back-to-back losses to the Wolverines, including a 28-16 loss to U-M in Jim Harbaugh’s first season (2015). Since then, the series has gotten a bit closer, though the last two years are not favorable.

In 2016 — the year Penn State football won the Big Ten Championship — the Nittany Lions suffered a 49-10 loss in Ann Arbor. The year after, Penn State got its revenge with a 42-13 win over the Wolverines. The year after that, in 2018, Penn State once again got blown out in Ann Arbor as Michigan cruised to a 42-7 win. In 2019 and 2020, Penn State got its first back-to-back wins over the Wolverines since 2010 and 2013 when PSU knocked off Michigan in non-consecutive years.

In 2021, the first year that Michigan went from being “good” to “elite” under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines went into Beaver Stadium and beat Penn State 21-17 with a last-minute touchdown. That PSU team went on to finish 7-6 overall, while the Wolverines finished 12-2 with a Big Ten Championship. In 2021, both teams had revamped rosters and met in Ann Arbor as top-10 teams. Both were undefeated, and it was looking like UM-PSU could be the game of the year.

Sadly, that was not the case, as the Wolverines ran away with a 41-17 blowout win — arguably the worst loss of the James Franklin era. In fairness, Michigan went on to plow through the rest of the Big Ten, including Ohio State (OSU lost at home to Michigan, 45-23). Over the past two years, Jim Harbaugh has won 25 of his 28 games, is 19-1 in Big Ten play, holds two Big Ten Championships and has gone to the CFP twice in a row. Harbaugh’s results this decade are frustratingly good, and the possibility of him departing U-M would be huge for Penn State football.

Jim Harbaugh leaving would be ideal

I know the saying goes, “In order to be the best you have to beat the best,” but I do not care. If Jim Harbaugh leaves U-M, it essentially eliminates Michigan from Big Ten Championship contention and only leaves Ohio State in the Nittany Lions’ way. As we head into the Drew Allar era — a timeframe that is expected to be the “golden years” of James Franklin’s tenure — this would be an ideal situation.

While Michigan is less-talented than the the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, they play a brand of football that is hard for PSU and OSU to stop. Michigan is 1-6 in bowl games under Jim Harbaugh for a reason (including 0-2 in the CFP), yet seem to be dominating the Big Ten right now. Even as two of the best teams in the country, Ohio State and Penn State could not fend off the Wolverines’ over the past two years, and lost in blowout fashion in 2022.

If Harbaugh leaves, all of Michigan’s talent will likely leave with him. U-M would also likely go after a more-modern head coach that doesn’t stick to smashmouth football all the time, which would make these games easier for Michigan’s Big Ten foes — including Penn State football.

While nothing appears to be set in stone just yet, these rumors are picking up steam and we could see Harbaugh bolt in the coming weeks. As the Nittany Lions head into the 2023 season, the absence of Jim Harbaugh would only improve Penn State’s Big Ten Championship and CFP chances.

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