This is the darkest it's ever felt for me as a Michigan fan.
It's not like I've been spoiled in my time as a Michigan fan either. I began following Michigan athletics in the fall of 2007 when I enrolled at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate student. The very first football game I attended at Michigan Stadium was The Horror. The second was Dennis Dixon's coming-out party. The Wolverines won only 10 games in my first basketball season in Ann Arbor. This was followed up by the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras, during which, in seven seasons, Michigan football won more than eight games only once, had a losing record three times, and was a combined 2-12 against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. And Michigan hockey's 22-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances was snapped two seasons ago.
I'm not claiming that I have been deprived of moments of euphoria as a Michigan fan. I'll always take glee in how Tate Forcier (2009), Denard Robinson (2010-11), and Devin Gardner (2013) went NOVA against Notre Dame. I'll never forget Michigan football's fortuitous season in 2011 that ended with a Sugar Bowl victory. Not only has Michigan basketball won two Big Ten championships in the past three seasons, their run to the national title game in 2013 was a three-week high I've never before experienced as a sports fan. And witnessing Shawn Hunwick (a.k.a. "Tiny Jesus") transform from a diminutive third-stringer into one of college hockey's best goaltenders was wonderful.
But there have been more downs than ups. And I've never been more down than now.
Look at what's happened in Michigan's main three sports -- football, men's basketball, and ice hockey -- thus far in the 2014-15 season. In football, Michigan began the season excluded from the polls, but, with an acclaimed offensive coordinator in Doug Nussmeier on staff, a senior quarterback in Devin Gardner, one of the nation's most physically gifted wide receivers in Devin Funchess, another year of experience for a young offensive line, and the most balanced defensive depth chart in years, Michigan was primed for what many predicted would be no worse than an eight- to nine-win season.
Instead, the season derailed in Week 2, when Notre Dame spanked Michigan, 31-0, and handed the Wolverines their first shutout loss since 1984, snapping an NCAA-record streak. It only worsened from there. Michigan's offense didn't reach the red zone against a Power 5 school, let alone score a touchdown, until Week 5. Michigan didn't beat a Power 5 school until Week 7. The game Michigan played in Week 11 was ranked as the second-worst game of the college football season by Sports Illustrated. The three Power 5 schools Michigan did beat were a combined 6-18 in the Big Ten. Michigan lost to its three rivals -- Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State -- by a combined 69 points. And, after a regular season full of head-scratching mistakes and plagued by injuries, Michigan skipped out on the bowl season with a 5-7 record and sat at home, watching the Buckeyes win the 2015 national championship with its third-string quarterback and the Spartans mount a 20-point, fourth-quarter comeback to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl and earn its fourth 11-plus-win season in the past five years.
And that was only what happened on the gridiron. That doesn't even hint at all of the off-the-field controversies: the Coke ticket promotion, Shane Morris reentering the Minnesota game with a concussion, former athletic director Dave Brandon delaying and bungling the disclosure of Morris' concussion diagnosis, the students' frayed relationship with the athletic department, Stakegate, and Frank Clark's dismissal.
Then there's men's basketball, the sport all Michigan fans counted down to as the football season flatlined. Coming off three seasons which saw Michigan basketball win two Big Ten titles and appear in two Elite Eights and a national championship game, the Wolverines were No. 24 in the preseason AP poll and expected to be a Big Ten contender even though Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, and Jordan Morgan left to play professional basketball and Jon Horford transferred to Florida.
However, after improving to 6-1 with a thrilling win against Syracuse, Michigan completely unraveled in December. The Wolverines lost their next four games, which included one of the decade's most improbable upsets to NJIT and another less-historic upset to Eastern Michigan. Michigan has dropped only two games since then, but the Wolverines have yet to rediscover their rhythm, consistently posting inconsistent performances that end in either dramatic wins against meh teams or convincing defeats. Contributing to this decline in performance is the fact that Michigan has been ravaged by injuries and health concerns. Caris LeVert is out for the rest of the season with a fractured left foot. Derrick Walton has dealt with a sprained toe much of the season. Kameron Chatman and D.J. Wilson have had knee issues, which will force the latter to redshirt. And multiple Wolverines are ailing with upper respiratory infections. The result is Michigan's odds to be an NCAA Tournament team have all but been eliminated.
Finally, there's ice hockey, which is the only beacon of hope for Michigan's main three sports this season. The Wolverines opened the season with a 2-5-0 record. Though Michigan earned a road win against a tough Massachusetts-Lowell team and three of those losses were on the road against top-10 teams (Boston and Michigan Tech), it seemed Michigan was destined to miss the NCAA Tournament for its third straight season. However, lately, the Wolverines have been on a tear, turning into an offensive juggernaut and winning nine of their last 10 games. Thus, Michigan is only one point behind Penn State with two games in hand and in great position to win the Big Ten.
However, winning the Big Ten may not be enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. At the moment, Michigan is 15th in the PairWise rankings, which is the tool the selection committee uses, and Michigan likely will need to be around 12th or 13th to feel secure. As Brian Cook of MGoBlog noted, the problem, though, is that the Big Ten is bad. Very bad. And, if Michigan doesn't run through the Big Ten season, there is a very good possibility that the Big Ten may be only a one-bid league, which would be given to the winner of the single-elimination, crapshoot Big Ten Tournament, not the winner of the regular-season title. Michigan's tournament hopes could come down to the wire.
With the 2014 Michigan football season being a tire fire, the air being let out of the 2014-15 Michigan men's basketball team's balloon, and the uncertainty surrounding the 2014-15 Michigan ice hockey team's postseason hopes, this has been a very dark time to be a fan of Michigan athletics. So much so, in fact, that, after compiling some research, I realized that this actually could be Michigan's worst athletic season in at least 30 years.
I created a table to evaluate how Michigan has performed across its three main sports -- football, men's basketball, and ice hockey -- in each season since 1984-85 when the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament expanded to 64 teams. In each of these three sports, there are four general team goals. The number of these team goals that are accomplished determine how successful a season has been. These team goals are to (1) participate in a bowl game or NCAA Tournament, (2) win a conference championship, (3) earn an invite to what was formerly a BCS Bowl and is now a New Year's Six Bowl, or advance to a Final or Frozen Four, and (4) capture a national championship. Because it is much more difficult to win a national championship than it is to make a postseason, I assigned a different point total for each team goal. A bowl game or NCAA Tournament appearance is worth one point. A conference championship is worth two points. A BCS Bowl, New Year's Six Bowl, Final Four, or Frozen Four appearance is worth three points. And a national championship is worth four points. Yes, these assigned point totals are arbitrary, but, when each season's point totals are added together, the sum still paints a pretty detailed picture of how well Michigan athletics performed in that particular season:
The first thing that jumps out is that the decade from the 1988-89 season to the 1997-98 season was golden. In those ten seasons, Michigan football went to five Rose Bowls and won a national championship, Michigan basketball appeared in three Final Fours and won a national championship, and Michigan hockey participated in six Frozen Fours and won two national championships. And there is no doubt that, of those ten seasons, the absolute best was 1997-98, when Michigan football, with the help of Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, and Michigan hockey each finished as national champions.
Unfortunately, the purpose of this column is not to reflect on the good times.
The second thing that jumps out is that, in each season from 1984-85 to 2013-14, at least one of Michigan football, Michigan men's basketball, and Michigan ice hockey appeared in either a bowl game or an NCAA Tournament. The closest Michigan came to striking out on the postseason in all three sports was not too long ago. In 2009-10, the Michigan football team failed to attain bowl eligibility after the five-win Wolverines lost their final five regular-season games, and, despite a preseason ranking of No. 15 in the AP poll, the Michigan men's basketball team finished with a losing record after Evan Turner ended their season with a half-court shot in the Big Ten Tournament. It seemed Michigan ice hockey would soon join them, too. After opening the season as the No. 3 team in the nation, the Wolverines entered the CCHA Tournament as the No. 7 seed and without their starting netminder, Bryan Hogan, who suffered a groin injury in the second-to-last regular-season game. Michigan's only hope to extend its NCAA Tournament streak to 20 seasons was to make a magical run through the CCHA Tournament with its undersized walk-on goalie, Hunwick. And, somehow, someway, that's what the Wolverines did, winning their next six games to earn the CCHA Tournament title and CCHA's auto-bid before falling just short of a Frozen Four after an early whistle by a referee waived off what should have been Michigan's overtime winner against No. 1 Miami (OH).
Michigan finds itself in a very similar situation right now. The football team was ineligible for a bowl after finishing 5-7. Barring a miracle, the men's basketball team will miss the NCAA Tournament although Michigan was in the preseason polls. So, once again, it's on the ice hockey team to salvage the athletic season for Michigan. The only difference this time is that the ice hockey team is in better shape to win its conference championship and earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. But that's no guarantee given how weak Big Ten hockey is. If Michigan slips up down the stretch and doesn't win the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan could be 0-for-12 in accomplishing its team goals.
That'd be a first for Michigan since the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament expanded to 64 teams. Or, in other words, 2014-15 would be Michigan's worst season in over 30 years.
But, whether or not Michigan ice hockey plays in the NCAA Tournament or wins the Big Ten, it's important to remember that it's always darkest before the dawn. Though he won't affect Michigan's on-the-field results during the 2014-15 season, Michigan has Jim Harbaugh, one of the top-10 coaches at any level of football, leading its program. John Beilein is still an elite college basketball coach. And, though his retirement isn't far off, Red Berenson is still a hockey legend. All of Michigan football, Michigan basketball, and Michigan hockey will be back on top of the Big Ten and national landscapes shortly.
So, when these three Michigan programs begin their seasons in 2015-16, look east.
You'll see the sun peeking over the horizon.