On Saturday, the Michigan Wolverines suffered a historic loss to arch-rival Ohio State, 62-39, causing despair among many Michigan fans. As bad as it was, however, the program is a lot better than it was four years ago, and will get better still.
After the Michigan football finished a disappointing 8-and-5 last year, most pundits figured the Wolverines wouldn’t be much better this year. Worse, they had one of the toughest schedules in the country.
When Notre Dame beat Michigan in the season opener, the Wolverines dropped from 14thto 21st place. Expectations dropped even lower. But the Wolverines started knocking off teams one by one, including a three-game gauntlet against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State, all ranked teams.
After the Wolverines crushed them all, they found themselves ranked fourth in the country — in perfect position to earn a spot in the four-team national playoff, which would be a first for the Wolverines. The only tough opponent left was the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Of course, that’s a pretty big obstacle for the Wolverines, who have only beaten the Buckeyes twice this century. But the Buckeyes had been creamed by Purdue, 49-20, and got lucky against mediocre Maryland to win in overtime. The Buckeyes looked uncharacteristically shaky, and came into the Michigan game as underdogs at home.
But they say in rivalries, the previous games don’t matter – and boy was that true Saturday. Ohio State seemed supremely confident, while Michigan Michigan’s offense seemed too conservative, and its defense too aggressive.
Still, the Wolverines still trailed by only eight points in the third quarter, when they dropped a pass, and had to punt. The Buckeyes blocked that punt and returned it for a touchdown, and the floodgates opened.
The Buckeyes shredded Michigan’s vaunted defense for 62 points, more than any opponent has ever scored against Michigan in regulation since Michigan started playing football in 1879.
Michigan picked a bad day to play its worst game of the season, and Ohio State picked a great day to play its best.
Perspective is not a great attribute of college football fans generally, and perhaps Michigan’s in particular. The Wolverines have won more titles than any other Big Ten school, and more games than anyone, anywhere.
If you told Michigan fans after the Notre Dame game that the Wolverines would win ten games, they’d be ecstatic. And if you added that their team would score 39 points against Ohio State, they’d be thrilled – and would probably assume their team would blow out the Buckeyes.
It’s true that in Harbaugh’s four years at Michigan, he has yet to beat the Buckeyes, or win a Big Ten title. But the three previous coaches failed to win a crown for a decade. This is not a hole that Harbaugh dug. But the shovel is in his hands now.
And it’s in good hands: In the 11 years before Harbaugh returned, Michigan managed to win 10 games exactly twice. Harbaugh has won 10 games in three of his first four seasons – the first Michigan coach to do that in more than a century. And he’s building it to last, on and off the field.
Michigan will lose some key players next year, mainly on defense, but they just reload. And on offense, almost all Michigan’s starters will be returning. Next year’s schedule is more favorable, too, with Michigan’s three main rivals — Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State – all coming to Ann Arbor.
Michigan fans take losing hard, and losing to Ohio State the hardest. But you watch. After a few days of breathing deeply, and visualizing a sunset, they’ll come to their senses and realize Harbaugh has done a pretty amazing job turning around their team around.
And if not Harbaugh, who?
That’s what I thought.