It was over. Michigan had won. Michigan had beaten Michigan State. Willie Henry had sped around the edge to force Connor Cook to fling a fourth-down pass to a covered Macgarrett Kings, Jr., and Dymonte Thomas had knocked it aside. Michigan had run the clock down to 10 seconds. All Michigan needed to do was punt it.
Instead, the unthinkable, the unimaginable happened. And, as I watched punter Blake O'Neill mishandle the snap only for the ball to end up in the hands of Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson, my jaw only could drop in horror as the Spartans rumbled into the end zone as the final second ticked off the clock. Michigan State 27, Michigan 23.
My brain went numb. I sent out a tweet as soon as it happened, but that was only because of muscle memory. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. The only thing my brain could do was attempt to tell myself that this actually cannot be happening, that this must be some sort of terrible nightmare and I will wake up from it soon. Because how? How?!
Almost 48 hours later, I still haven't fully processed what happened. I still haven't come to terms with it. And that's because I'm immersed in the five stages of grief. Denial was instantaneous, and anger followed soon thereafter. And, right now, I'm somewhere between bargaining and depression. My guess is that you are somewhere there, too.
And, as I shift between those two stages, I can't help but feel like the season is over.
But here's the truth of the matter: it's not.
This still is a very good -- likely even great -- Michigan team. Saturday's result doesn't change that. The Wolverines are 5-2. In their five wins, they have overwhelmed their opponents, two of which were ranked at the time even if Northwestern has been exposed as a not-top-25 team. In those games, Michigan outscored its opponents, 160-14, and out-gained them, 1,988-751. That is complete and utter domination. That is what one of the nation's best teams does. And Michigan's two losses? A road loss to No. 3 Utah in which a pick-six was the difference and a home loss to No. 7 Michigan State in which the Wolverines had, for all intents and purposes, won the game. Until, somehow, they hadn't.
There is a reason why Michigan moved up to No. 2 in Bill Connelly's S&P+ rankings despite the loss. The S&P+ algorithm is derived from play-by-play data, eliminates garbage-time stats, and adjusts for opponents. It evaluates teams on a down-by-down basis and isn't influenced by plays it finds fluky or lucky. And there's nothing flukier or (un)luckier than a bobbled snap on a punt on the final play that decides the outcome.
Is Michigan the second-best team in college football? I won't say that. Michigan has too many flaws offensively that cannot be ignored. In its stiffest test of the season, Michigan's offensive line struggled to block Michigan State's talented, aggressive front. The result: Michigan averaged only 2.4 yards per carry on non-sack run attempts and allowed Jake Rudock to be sacked three times. And, speaking of Rudock, he continues not to make the throws downfield. He doesn't trust his receivers to make the play in one-on-one match-ups and fails to connect with them when they streak down the field wide open. But, with the best defense in the nation, Michigan can compete with any team.
And that's why Michigan can still make a run at a Big Ten championship and New Year's Six bowl. Michigan is 2-1 in the Big Ten and trails Ohio State and Michigan State by one game in the East division. In their next four games, the Wolverines square off against Minnesota, Rutgers, Indiana, and Penn State. Even though three of those will be on the road, Michigan will be a sizable favorite in all of them. The one that will give Michigan the most problems will be at Penn State. The Nittany Lions boast a menacing defense, and Happy Valley will be hopping for its "White Out" game. Nonetheless, the Wolverines should be no worse than a touchdown favorite when that one arrives in mid-November.
Michigan winning its next four isn't just in of the realm of possibility. It's probable.
Some Michigan fans have argued that Michigan won't win its next four games. And you know what? That may be the case. But I wonder if those same fans would have argued that if O'Neill didn't bobble the snap and Michigan had won. Why? Because the bobbled snap didn't affect how Michigan performed against MSU. Like Jim Harbaugh said in his post-game press conference, Michigan "played winning football." Unfortunately, it affected the outcome. But, if you thought that Michigan would win out when Michigan was about to beat Michigan State before the bobbled snap, that shouldn't change after the bobbled snap. The only reason why that should change is if you think that Michigan will not be able to rebound from this soul-crushing, gut-punching loss. That's fair and understandable. This will be a loss that will linger in the staff and players' minds longer than others. However, this is where I think the bye week helps. It'd be difficult to move past this with a one-week turnaround. In two weeks, though? Michigan will be hungry.
So let's say the Wolverines do what they're supposed to do. The Wolverines would be 9-2 (6-1 B1G) when Ohio State rolls into Ann Arbor -- a game in which Michigan should not be a significant underdog. That game could have Big Ten-championship ramifications. The most likely scenario will be that the Buckeyes are 11-0 (7-0 B1G) entering that weekend with a home win over Michigan State. If that's Michigan State's only loss of the season, Michigan could beat Ohio State and force a three-team tie at the top of the Big Ten East with the Wolverines, Buckeyes, and Spartans each at 7-1. Because each would be 1-1 against the other two, the tiebreaker would be won by the team ranked highest in the College Football Playoff committee poll that is released after the final week of the regular season. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan are No. 1, No. 7, and No. 15 in the AP poll, respectively, and let's assume that's where each would be if the CFP poll was released this week. Could Michigan jump past the other two if it wins its next five games with both the Spartans and the Buckeyes losing during that span? It's possible.
And let's not act like Michigan State has been world-beaters either. Yes, the Spartans just played well enough to beat Michigan in the Big House, but they have needed some fortuitous bounces and luck to remain undefeated. They are susceptible to dropping a game or two that they shouldn't. If they lose a game in addition to one at Ohio State -- for example, at night against Nebraska in Lincoln or against Penn State -- Michigan would not need to worry about the polls. Michigan would win the Big Ten East tiebreaker over Ohio State based on its head-to-head result. On the other hand, if MSU does go into Columbus and emerges with a win, that would all but eliminate Michigan's title hopes.
So, yes, there are more obstacles in Michigan's path to a Big Ten title and New Year's Six bowl with the loss, but by no means is the path closed off. This team is talented enough to win out, and, with the right breaks, participate in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Will that happen? I don't know. We'll find out together in the coming weeks.
May you continue to wallow in the misery of the MSU loss? Of course. It sucked. A lot.
But should you give up on this season? No. Because it's far from over.