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BREAKING NEWS: The claimed actions of Michigan football staff member Connor Stalions were done with the sole intent of obtaining a……

If Michigan’s alleged sign-stealing is as bad as it looks, Wolverines will pay a big price

What Michigan football staffer Connor Stalions allegedly did was 100-percent intended to gain a competitive advantage that everyone in the sport understands is wrong.

The scandal at Michigan erupted Monday, morphing from a vague story with an unclear path forward to a blatant and elaborate cheating operation that clearly crossed lines anyone in college football would consider a gray area.

As reported by ESPN, low-level Michigan staffer Connor Stalions — who is at the center of an NCAA probe about whether he broke rules prohibiting in-person scouting of opponents — bought tickets in his own name to games at 11 different schools in the Big Ten over the course of three seasons.

It’s all confirmed by credit card and ticket tracking data.

There’s apparently video evidence of people in those seats using electronic devices to record what’s happening on the sidelines of future Michigan opponents, which would have presumably been relayed back to Stalions to help him decode play calls.

And if that’s true, it’s pretty much game, set and match in favor of the NCAA enforcement staff. After all the cheaters who have gotten away over decades and decades, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain and Naval Academy graduate has handed them the golden ticket to smack one of college football’s super powers and the current No. 2 team in the country.

The problem is, just like last week when this issue first bubbled up publicly, the path forward and what it means for this season is still very much unclear.

In the history of NCAA enforcement, this is truly uncharted territory with a lot of questions that still need to be answered.

Who else at Michigan knew? Was this a solo operation, or were other coaches in on it? Did head coach Jim Harbaugh have any idea why one of his staffers was so good at stealing signs, and did he ever think to ask why?

OPINION:Time for Jim Harbaugh to drop his self-righteous act

The last point, in terms of the NCAA manual, may not matter that much. By rule, Harbaugh will be presumed responsible for the actions of his staff members whether he was aware they took place or not. And given that he’s already under the NCAA microscope for other alleged violations that stemmed from in-person recruiting contacts during the COVID-19 dead period when nobody was supposed to be doing that, trying to argue that he promoted a so-called “atmosphere of compliance” will be a challenge, to say the least.

In other words, if this is what it looks like — and it sure does seem there’s a lot of rock-solid evidence on this one — Michigan is certainly going to be penalized.

Harbaugh, if he even sticks around, is going to be penalized. And anyone else who was in on it is probably going to have their career significantly altered or ruined.

Doesn’t matter whether you think this is funny, gray area, gamesmanship, inane NCAA rules-type stuff. Within the coaching fraternity, this is a serious breach.

Stealing signs happens all the time. Trying to figure out what play your opponent is calling falls squarely under the “part of the game” category.

But there’s a clear line, both ethically and in the rules. If you can decipher the code based on the game film, nobody’s going to stop you. Tip the cap and move on.

That’s why, when you watch a college football game, you often see multiple people holding up placards with weird images or wind screens to shield signals, or coaches covering their mouth when they talk on the headset.

They’re trying to make sure that whatever does show up on film, it’s hard for an opponent to see which signals correlate with which plays.

But the right person strategically placed in a stadium with the right recording equipment trained on the sideline who knows what they’re looking for can glean a lot more information. Is that what has made Michigan really good the last three years? Almost certainly not.

But is it a highly targeted way to gain a competitive advantage that is outside the rulebook? There’s no question about it.

Could this stop Michigan from winning national title?

So what happens from here?

When any big NCAA scandal breaks, it’s usually after a season is over and a championship has been won. There’s not much anyone can do about that, so if they can prove the violations occurred, the NCAA wipes those records off the books.

It would be hard to believe espionage played much of a role in Michigan dominating all eight of its opponents so far this year.

But if illegal information obtained by Stalions was used to build game plans, it would be consistent with NCAA protocol for Michigan to be forced to vacate those wins.

There’s not much of a track record, however, of this kind of thing with this much evidence becoming public during the middle of a season. In reality, these cases take months, if not years, to play out.

But even if the NCAA hypothetically had a way to fast-track this case over the next month, would those vacated wins mean Michigan was ineligible for the College Football Playoff? Without the NCAA handing down a postseason ban, would the CFP — which is a separate entity from the NCAA — even acknowledge or care about vacated wins? And would Michigan, knowing it is guilty of a pretty blatant violation, have the fortitude to fall on its sword and remove itself from CFP consideration?

Ha. Fat chance of that.

But the uniqueness of this whole situation brings up some really interesting questions and scenarios, including the very real possibility that Michigan will be playing in the national championship game on Jan. 8 with the entire country still trying to litigate how much taint should be put on its title.

Sure, everybody loves to hate the NCAA these days and its history of petty rules violations. But most of those big scandals in the past revolved around players taking money, which doesn’t affect the competition.

What Stalions allegedly and seemingly did was 100-percent intended to gain a competitive advantage that everyone in the sport understands is wrong.

It violates even the lowest standard of ethics; it spits on sportsmanship and it’s just a cut-and-dried line you can’t cross.

There will be a big price to pay for Michigan and perhaps for a lot of people inside that program. But will it stop the Wolverines from winning the national championship this year? It’s difficult to see that happening unless the University of Michigan’s embarrassment is greater than its ambition.

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