More that one person has called Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh the Donald Trump of college football. There’s probably at least some reason to make that comparison based on the fact that Trump is currently running a presidential campaign unlike any ever seen before, and the same thing almost certainly could be said for Harbaugh’s handling of the Wolverines program — with his planned satellite camps, traveling spring practice, and nonstop Twitter wars.
One of the most recent targets of Harbaugh’s social media jabs was UGA coach Kirby Smart — who like Harbaugh last year — is a high-profile coach in his first season at a major program. However, Smart so far appears content to handle his business a little differently than the Michigan coach.
For instance, when Harbaugh called out Smart on Twitter after the Bulldogs coach expressed some concerns about Michigan’s plans to hold part of its spring practice in Florida, Smart refused to respond. Yet while Smart might think it wise to ignore Harbaugh’s off-field antics, he probably should pay at least some attention to his on-field performance, because Michigan accomplished something last year that UGA hopes to do this year.
Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a dramatic increase in offensive output in 2015. According to Football Insiders, Michigan jumped to 33rd in the country in offensive efficiency last year after having ranked 100th in that same metric in 2014 — the year before Harbaugh took the job.
It won’t be easy to match that level of improvement in Smart’s first year at UGA, but there is certainly plenty of room for it. The Bulldogs were 64th in offensive efficiency last season.
So how can UGA make a Michigan-like leap toward respectability on offense?
It starts — as one would imagine — with the quarterback position. The Wolverines got solid play from Iowa transfer Jake Rudock last season, but his numbers were not spectacular. He threw for just 3,017 yards and only 20 touchdowns. Those numbers were better than what UGA’s own transfer quarterback — Greyson Lambert — produced last season, but it isn’t inconceivable that Lambert could equal those totals this season, nor is it impossible to believe one of the other quarterbacks competing for the UGA starting job — true freshman Jacob Eason or junior Brice Ramsey — could do the same. Likewise, Michigan’s rushing attack wasn’t all that special either; the Wolverines ran for 441 fewer yards than the Bulldogs in 2015.
Where Michigan stands out in comparison to UGA, and provides a possible blueprint for the Bulldogs’ own offensive resurrection, is at the wide receiver position. Last year, Harbaugh oversaw an offense that spread the football among three different passing targets quite effectively. The Wolverines had three different receivers with more than 600 yards receiving for the year. Seniors Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh had 764 and 727 yards respectively, and tight end Jake Butt added 654.
That level of balance among receivers has been decidedly absent from UGA’s offense.
Last year, senior wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell led the Bulldogs with 865 receiving yards, but his next closest teammate was freshman Terry Godwin, who had only 379 yards. UGA’s No. 3 target was running back Sony Michel, who had 270 yards. That one-dimensional passing attack goes a long way to explain why UGA scored 13 or fewer points four times last season.
The biggest contrast between the Michigan and UGA passing attacks was found in last season’s bowl games. The Wolverines ransacked SEC East champ Florida 41-7 in a Citrus Bowl game, where eight different Michigan receivers recorded a catch. On the other hand, UGA slipped by Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl 24-17 — with only four Bulldogs notching receptions and UGA’s second-leading receiver (Godwin) having just 34 yards for the game.
That’s an example of just how badly UGA’s offense needed fixing after last season, and it’s a big reason why Smart and his staff were hired.
The good news is raw receiving talent would seem to be in place for the coaching staff. Incoming freshmen like five-star signee Mecole Hardman Jr., Riley Ridley — the brother of Alabama’s star receiver, Calvin — and Tyler Simmons — a signing day surprise that Smart flipped from a previous commitment to Alabama — all appear poised to provide early value to the program. Not to mention, returning players like Godwin, junior Isaiah McKenzie and sophomore Michael Chigbu were all once highly-regarded prospects as well.
Of course, all that is left to do is take those talented recruits and turn them into successful players, and Donald Trump comparisons aside, that’s what Harbaugh was able to do last year for Michigan. So while Smart probably won’t be too eager to emulate Harbaugh as a model for how to run a program, when it comes to what happens between the lines, that might not be such a bad idea.