The Wolverine

February 2022

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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66 THE WOLVERINE FEBRUARY 2022 M ichigan football's unex- pected, one-year turn- a ro u n d wa s n o t h i n g short of remarkable. In the pre- season, the Wolverines were given only a two percent chance of win- ning the Big Ten East Division and less than a one percent probability of capturing their first conference title since 2004. They entered with a first-year starter at quarterback, a revamped defense with a new coordinator and low expectations. Unless someone had a crystal ball or was the eternal optimist (or both), they couldn't have pre- dicted a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff appearance for this squad. No team that began the season outside the top 25, like Michigan, had ever reached the playoff. But that's exactly what they ac- complished, including a No. 3 na- tional finish … and to head coach Jim Harbaugh, it felt like the start of some- thing big. "It feels like the beginning," Har- baugh said after a 42-27 win over Ohio State. And in the moment, it certainly did. But the beginning of what, exactly? Was he talking about the start of a sec- ond season in which the Wolverines would make some noise in the pre- season? If so, he may have been on to some- thing. The Wolverines trounced Iowa 42-3 in the Big Ten championship game and became one of only four teams in contention for the national title. Though they came up short in a 34-11 loss to Georgia, the progress was palpable. But this isn't about one season — or at least it's not supposed to be at Michi- gan. Many teams could win a conference title and earn a playoff berth occasion- ally. The usual suspects (Clemson, Ala- bama, Ohio State, Oklahoma) are often in the mix, but there are party crashers. Washington's been there as a sacri- ficial lamb (2016-17). After a few more solid seasons under Chris Peterson, the Huskies are looking for a new coach. LSU caught lightning in a bottle with transfer Joe Burrow a few years ago, proving even a poor coach could win with an elite signal-caller. And in the "absolutely anyone can do it once" cat- egory — well, yeah, Cincinnati in 2021, and Michigan State used "the horse- shoe in the rear" against Michigan in the "punt" game to become the 2016 sacrificial lamb. For a program with U-M's resources and aspirations, once a decade probably isn't enough. That begs the question — was this year an anomaly, or can the Wolverines be a perennial contender (or close)? Or, putting it more simply, and look- ing to the distant past for you histori- ans — is this closer to 1964 Michigan or 1969? We've often compared the recent era (2005-20) to the 1950s (1951-63, specifically). Bennie Oosterbaan and Bump Elliott's teams went 13 years without a title. There were good teams and great players at times, as there were during the more recent 16- year drought. The 2011 team was really good, and Denard Robinson, Jabrill Pep- pers, etc., rivaled talent like Ron Kramer in the '50s. In speaking with several vet- erans from the 1964 team for "Where Are They Now?" articles in this magazine over the years, it was like listening to the seniors on this year's squad. They'd had enough, and they were determined to be the team that got Michigan back on top. The following year, though, the 1965 team went 4-6 on the way to a .500 record over the next three years. They lost some key contrib- utors and couldn't find the same magic. The 1969 squad beat an out- standing Ohio State team and went toe to toe with them for the next 10 years on the way to several cham- pionships. So which path will this group follow? We could see it going either way. And the difference is huge. The Wolverines lose a ton of leadership, starting with captains Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Ross and Andrew Vastardis, and plenty of talent on defense. Hutchinson, Ross, linebacker David Ojabo, safety Daxton Hill, defensive tackle Christopher Hin- ton … all will have to be replaced. "This team won't be together fully next year," Harbaugh said after the loss to Georgia. "It's still a beginning for this team. This is when it began last year, and it will begin anew this year. "It's the start of a new year." But is it the start of a new era? That remains to be seen. We do know, though, that the 2021 squad set the table. It's up to the young guys to eat now. Having had a taste of it, there should be plenty of hungry Wol- verines in 2022. ❏ Chris Balas has been with The Wolver- ine since 1997. Contact him at cbalas@ and follow him on Twitter @Balas_Wolverine. INSIDE MICHIGAN   CHRIS BALAS Is This Really The Beginning? The next task for head coach Jim Harbaugh is to turn Michigan into a perennial contender, despite losing a ton of leadership and talent from the 2021 team. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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