The Michigan sign-stealing scandal is the biggest story in college football, and the daily updates with new developments have created a dizzying effect for fans trying to grasp what exactly happened and — more importantly — what the outcome will be for the Wolverines, coach Jim Harbaugh and the College Football Playoff picture in 2023.
Michigan is currently the favorite, co-favorite or listed just behind Georgia on the odds to win the national championship, yet allegations of a wide-ranging scheme to capture opponent signals in violation of NCAA rules has the program under the microscope of both the NCAA and the Big Ten. There have been title-contending teams to face scandal on the path to a national championship before, but most of those recent stories dealt with individual players and legal or eligibility issues, not a systemic skirting of rules intended to create a competitive advantage.
The scandal has also been an eye-opening experience for fans unaware of the art of sign stealing in college football, how it differs from other sports, and why this is an issue at the college level and not in the NFL. The confusion has produced reactions ranging from “why is this such a big deal?” to “shut the program down,” and the passion provided on every side is fueled by the fact that we’re talking about Michigan.
The blue-blood program that has often framed itself as one that “does it the right way” more than its rivals now has some egg on its face and a scandal at its door. And this scandal appears to have much greater scope and impact than issues that have led to vacated wins, suspensions and more at rival schools. That passion has made the discussion of this scandal extremely loud, and the distracting volume has made it easy to lose track of its most immediate impact: Michigan’s 2023 campaign.
Let’s focus on what, exactly, has elevated this unprecedented scandal from coaching rumor to national story and what, if anything, might happen to the Wolverines that could disrupt their pursuit of a national championship.
Extent of Michigan’s alleged scheme
The NCAAthis week and began scouring the electronics of football staff members. The NCAA rules that are alleged to have been broken involve “off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents,” including “employing or paying the expenses of someone else” to perform those in-person scouting duties. The NCAA’s rule book also prohibits using an electronic device to record signals.
Initially, the idea that Michigan designated a staffer — analyst Conor Stalions, who has been suspended since the beginning of the investigation — to steal signs did not get as much reaction from inside the coaching community as it did from fans. Stealing signs is not against NCAA rules, permitted they are done using the TV broadcast or game film, and modern power-conference coaching staffs with an army of analysts will compile information to help gain an edge on Saturdays.
As more details have been reported, however, the response even from sign-stealing experts has changed in tone. ESPN reported that Stalions purchased tickets to games at 12 different Big Ten schools, the 2021 and 2022 SEC Championship Games, and four other non-Big Ten games involving possible College Football Playoff contenders in the 2022 season. In total, Stalions reportedly “left a paper trial of at least 35 games in 17 stadiums” since the start of 2021.
The scope — that Stalions would have such an elaborate and wide-ranging plan for gathering information on future opponents — is what’s daunting here. At this point, the reporting on the scandal suggests that Stalions and the Michigan football program are vulnerable to being charged with violations and face potential punishments from the NCAA. Rules appear to have been broken, but what impact will (or should) that have on the 2023 season?
NCAA vs. Big Ten jurisdiction
The NCAA does not often move swiftly with its enforcement cases, and Michigan does still have the ongoing case involving recruiting allegations during the COVID-19 dead period. Michigan self-imposed a suspension for Harbaugh at the start of the 2023 season for his part in the violations, which included misleading investigators, but the NCAA continues to finalize the details of that case while also investigating the sign-stealing allegations.
Even if you ignore the heavy workload for the enforcement staff, there is a specified timeline established by NCAA bylaws that would make a final resolution — in other words, an enforceable punishment — highly unlikely until well after the conclusion of the 2023 season. The NCAA would need to conclude its ongoing investigation, present the findings to Michigan in a Notice of Allegations, and then Michigan would have 90 days to respond. That means even if the NCAA has wrapped up its investigation at the time of this writing, Michigan would not have to offer its response to any alleged violations until late January.
In terms of impact on the 2023 season, it seems like the NCAA issues will be something that’s litigated after the year.
The Big Ten, however, has a little bit more leniency could play a more immediate role in terms of punishment if commissioner Tony Petitti and the league office want to take action. The league’s sportsmanship policy states that “actions that are offensive to the integrity of the competition” are punishable. Petitti has the power to either issue minor punishments straight from the league office or propose more aggressive discipline to an executive committee made up with representatives from Big Ten schools.
At the moment, it seems the Big Ten will allow the NCAA to lead the charge on the investigative process. However, if details from the case are presented in such a way that the conference feels it needs to act in the name of the sportsmanship policy, Michigan won’t have the same bylaw-mandated 90-day window to hold off any kind of disciplinary action.
The most important question to be determined by the NCAA’s investigation is whether Harbaugh and/or prominent members of the coaching staff knew or even instructed Stalions to arrange for the in-person advance scouting of future opponents. Harbaugh has denied wrongdoing, but if the NCAA can prove violations by members of the coaching staff he could still face an additional head coach responsibility charge — a Level I violation. The NCAA charged Harbaugh with head coach responsibility and failure to cooperate in its recruiting allegations.
How Michigan can control scandal’s impact on 2023 season
First, let’s take a break from all the wonky procedural aspects to this and focus on something a little bit more human. Harbaugh and his coaching staff face one of the most important stretches of football that they’ll likely ever have while working for the University of Michigan.
While off this week, Michigan returns to action on Nov. 4 against Purdue before a three-game run that will determine the Big Ten East. The Wolverines start at Penn State on Nov. 11, then travel to College Park to play Maryland on Nov. 18 before hosting Ohio State on Nov. 25 looking to get the best of the Buckeyes for the third straight season. After that, there’s a potential Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 4, the early signing period on Dec. 20 and potentially a College Football Playoff appearance on Jan. 1.
Assuming NCAA issues remain through the end of the season (based on our understanding of the legislative timeline), this will be the time of year when Michigan is expected to fulfill the promise of being a national championship contender. How does it go about winning the biggest games of the season, ones that will ultimately determine this group’s on-field legacy, with a noisy and distracting scandal buzzing in the background?
Keep the main thing the main thing (or insert your favorite coaching cliché here).
There are hundreds of coaching clichés about noise, clutter and associated distractions because it can be the most impactful detriment to a team’s performance. Michigan might have the largest scoring margin in the country, but the margins for excellence are going to get smaller if there’s any slip in focus as a result of this scandal. And slip-ups will not be tolerated by the College Football Playoff selection committee; the Wolverines enter the month of November with one of the worst strength of schedule ratings among all of the top playoff contenders. Michigan’s schedule ratings will improve with upcoming games against top-10 teams, but it lacks the nonconference résumé that Ohio State, Florida State and Texas can claim if the committee is debating the final spots in the playoff.
Plus, if any committee member decides that the ongoing scandal calls into question the integrity of early-season results, those margins once again become more narrow. Michigan needs to keep winning and leave no doubt regarding its status as one of the best teams in the country regardless of off-field issues.
Finally, there is the off-field portion when it comes to Michigan’s agency in how this all plays out. If the school wants to play hardball with the NCAA, there is already an adversarial relationship there that might not be repaired regardless of cooperation. Still, even through back channels, it would be in Michigan’s best interest to keep the Big Ten abreast of the latest in the investigation. The league office and its executive committee are, after all, the one body that appears to have the power to issue punishment that could impact the 2023 season in a major way. If there’s evidence to prove Stalions’ scheme doesn’t reach the levels of Harbaugh’s knowledge, for example, that would be particularly valuable information if Petitti faces calls for discipline from other league members.
There will be a lot to sort out when all of the ongoing investigations and cases conclude, it just looks like most — if not all — of that will happen after the 2023 season. The sign-stealing scandal could still have an impact on this season, and it’s up to Michigan’s coaches, players and administration to give the Wolverines their best chance to take advantage of what’s in front of them right now.