It's such a simple thing to say and to read. It's a number. It's arbitrary. It has no significance by itself other than its place between seven and nine when you learn to count as a child. But when put in the proper context, eight means so much to Michigan, and in particular to this Michigan senior class.
Think about it. It's been four years since Michigan reached eight wins. The last time anyone on this team, anyone, saw eight wins they were a red-shirting freshman. But for almost all of this senior class, they've never really been close to eight. As freshmen, they won three games. As sophomores they won five. As juniors they had three cracks at eight, but ended up getting thumped by Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Mississippi State consecutively. As juniors, they finished at seven with eight never truly being a legitimate option. But as seniors... as seniors, it's different.
On Saturday, the 2011 Michigan football team did what its three previous incarnations could not. Win an eighth game. And unlike this team's previous incarnations, they won it on the road, with defense. A defense that for the three previous years couldn't stifle a sneeze, much less the offenses that lined up across from them.
The transformation of this defense has been astounding. Through 10 games Michigan has 21 sacks. This compared to a paltry 18 sacks through 13 games last season. Over the past three years Michigan's defense has allowed Juice Williams, Justin Siller, and Matt McGloin to torch it. Read that again and try not to cry. But today... man... it's just amazing. This is now a defense that corralled a mobile, talented quarterback to the tune of four sacks and a pick. Even more impressive, they held Illinois to just 37 yards rushing. 37 yards. That's almost a 10th of the 315 rushing yards they gave up a year ago. The difference is night and day. And the difference is shown in the win column. Eight.
I think the surprising thing about eight is that this isn't a particularly dominant team. It's an offense that is deeply flawed, with an electric quarterback who is just as capable of frying his own team as he is the opposition. This isn't a team that knows for sure whether it has a primary back. Not because Fitzgerald Toussaint hasn't earned the starting job, it's because no one knows if he can remain healthy. Then there is the offensive system, or lack thereof. Al Borges is still struggling to figure out how to use his best, but most erratic player. It's a team in transition from one philosophy to another, replete with the speed bumps just a transition entails.
Just not as many as we saw over the last three years.
And that brings us to Saturday. Eight. Eight was the number of wins that Michigan reeled off in 2007 after two embarrassing losses to start its season. Eight was the combined win total for 2008 and 2009. Eight was the number the 2010 squad could never quite reach. Eight is the number we're at today.
As I think about this season compared to the last four (2007 included) there is a different feeling going into Michigan's final two conference games. Since 2007, the last two games of the season have been a death march into the offseason. In 2007 Michigan was manhandled by Wisconsin and Ohio State. In 2008 Michigan was manhandled by... well... everyone. 2009 closed with five straight losses, and the last two to Wisconsin and Ohio State weren't even close. 2010... more of the same. Over the last four years Michigan has been a ship taking on water when the eleventh game finally rolled onto the calendar. Defense, offense, special teams, and (especially) coaching, all seemed to be collapsing on themselves.
But not this year. For all of Michigan's struggles they still hung 31 points on Illinois. This despite turning the ball over three times on Illinois' side of the field, missing a 38 yard field goal, and gacking up a fourth and goal. If Michigan's offense had executed they could've hung 50 on the Illini. But, let's be honest here, 31 was more than enough because of Michigan's defense. The Defense is the no longer the reason Michigan isn't winning games. The Defense IS the reason Michigan has eight wins to its credit. The Defense is the strength of this team right now, and it's clear that it takes that role and responsibility seriously.
As times have changed so have we. Eight used to mean something different to Michigan fans. Eight used to mean a back slide. A step toward mediocrity. At one point we looked at the 7-5 2005 team as the benchmark for how bad Michigan could possibly be. Times have changed.
Today, Eight means a step back toward the lofty goals Michigan holds for itself. Eight means the last four years are finally, mercifully, over. Eight means Michigan has three more games to play and the chance, mind you the chance, to finish the season with more wins than any Michigan team of this century save the 2006 squad. And also keep in mind that if they match the 2006 squad it means they'll do something the 2006 team wasn't able to do, end the season with a win.
That is what Eight means. Eight means Michigan is no longer fighting to escape its demons, "Three and Out", Rodriguez, Bill Martin, the "Process". Eight means Michigan has more important things to worry about than its own mental roadblocks. Eight means Michigan is on even footing with Nebraska and Ohio State when the Cornhuskers and Buckeyes come to town in consecutive weekends.
Eight means the question is no longer "can they win eight games?" Eight means the question is "how many more can they win!?" Eight, all by itself doesn't mean a lot. But when you put it in context it becomes something else. Eight becomes something special.
Just like this team. Just like these seniors.