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From Heartbreak to Houston: How Michigan overcame all odds to become national champions

Here is how the Wolverines overcame adversity and established a winning culture.

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Erik Bean Erik is a lifelong Wolverines fan born and raised in West Michigan. He covers a variety of topics related to Michigan football including game analysis and recruiting.

The Michigan Wolverines have done it — reaching the peak of the mountain and winning a National Championship. What makes this victory so sweet is not only the drought since 1997, but the journey the Wolverines endured to reach the top of college football.

The road has not been easy. In a competitive conference, winning out in the regular season alone is a huge accomplishment. To truly appreciate this title, we must first look back at the winding road that guided the Wolverines to this championship season.

Game of inches

The Wolverines got off to a hot start in the 2016 season. They were regularly torching teams on offense and didn’t score less than 45 points in a matchup until their fifth game against the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers, winning at home, 14-7. Michigan was humming on both sides of the ball all season. Although it dropped a heartbreaker against Iowa in Kinnick on a walk-off field goal, it still controlled its own destiny.

A trip to Indy hung in the balance if the Wolverines could finish the season strong and knock off Ohio State. The back-and-forth game ended regulation in a tie, forcing overtime in Columbus. Both teams scored touchdowns in the first overtime, with the Wolverines settling for a field goal in the second. The defense held strong and forced a fourth-and-one, leaving Urban Meyer with a decision to make.

The Buckeyes elected to go for it, securing the first down on a J.T. Barrett run with a controversial spot by the officials. The Wolverines would fold on the very next play, giving up a 15-yard touchdown run to seal the game. Michigan then lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl to cap off a disappointing ending to an otherwise good season.

So close, yet so far.

A season to forget

The 2017 season got off to a good start, with the Wolverines defeating the Florida Gators, 33-17, at AT&T Stadium. This win was a springboard that guided them through conference play before their first real road game of the season against the Purdue Boilermakers.

The Wolverines were tied 0-0 in the first quarter when Speight dropped back on a third-and-five and was sacked. When the senior did not pop back up, the Michigan faithful watched the season crumble before their eyes. Speight was taken to a nearby hospital and it was later confirmed that the awkward hit by the second defender had broken three of his vertebrate and he would be out the remainder of the season. John O’Korn took over as the starter and guided Michigan to 28-10 victory over the Boilermakers.

After that, the wheels began to fall off. The Wolverines were a double-digit favorite over the Michigan State Spartans in Ann Arbor and O’Korn’s first game as the starting quarterback that season. The forecast indicated the second half of the game was going to be a windy downpour, making the first 30 minutes all that more important. Michigan failed to execute in the first half, taking a 14-3 deficit into halftime. With points and gaining positive yardage hard to come by in the monsoon filled second half, the Wolverines were unable to claw back, losing 14-10.

Michigan’s season continued to slide from there. They got blown out, 42-13, in Happy Valley against the Penn State Nittany Lions just two weeks later. They won a few games against inferior conference opponents before losing their last three against Wisconsin, OSU, and a fourth-quarter meltdown against South Carolina. Michigan went 8-5 with plenty of questions to answer.

Close, but no cigar

The Wolverines decently rebounded in 2018. They dropped their season opener against Notre Dame before rattling off 10 straight victories. With a trip to Indy hanging in the balance once again, Michigan made the trip down to Columbus. Don Brown’s squad was shutting every team down before Urban Meyer exploited weaknesses in Michigan’s blitz-heavy defense.

Dwayne Haskins torched the Wolverines to the tune of 396 yards and six touchdowns. Michigan was unable to stop crossing routes and get to Haskins fast enough. The game was competitive in the first half before Ohio State rattled off 17 unanswered points in the third-quarter to pull away with a 62-39 victory. Michigan was once again ousted from the conference championship and ultimately drew Florida in the Peach Bowl, which got their revenge on the Wolverines from the year before, 41-15.

The program then took a step back in 2019, dropping conference games to Wisconsin and Penn State. Michigan carried a 9-2 record into its home showdown against OSU. Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins combined for more than 500 yards to rout the Wolverines, 56-27. Michigan then lost in the Citrus Bowl to Alabama, 35-16.

The 2020 nightmare

Michigan began its season in late October, due to the pandemic, with a victory over what was supposed to be a very good Minnesota team. The Wolverines had an extremely athletic new quarterback in Joe Milton and crushed the Golden Gophers 49-24.

But it all came to a crashing halt the very next week against MSU. Rocky Lombardi threw for more than 300 yards, and Milton began struggling with his accuracy. The Wolverines lost the rivalry matchup, 27-24, at home.

The slide continued for the Wolverines — losing to Indiana for the first time since 1987, and then getting steamrolled by Wisconsin before Cade McNamara rallied the team in the fourth quarter to force a triple-overtime victory in Piscataway. Michigan lost its final game of the year to Penn State before canceling the remainder of their games due to COVID. The Wolverines went 2-4, and questions surrounding Harbaugh’s status as head coach of the team began to swirl.

The climb to the summit

Harbaugh returned as head coach, despite rumors saying he’d get fired, and Michigan rebounded in a very unexpected way in 2021. The Wolverines lone loss of the regular season was on the road against MSU, and little did we know the heartbreaking loss at Spartan Stadium would be the last conference loss for the Michigan Wolverines to date.

Michigan finally ended its eight-game skid against the Buckeyes and won its first Big Ten title game before losing to a loaded Georgia squad in the College Football Playoff.

Michigan cruised to another conference championship in 2022 behind a dominant rushing attack and a more disciplined defense. What was thought to be an excellent matchup against the TCU Horned Frogs in their second trip to the CFP turned out to be a mistake-ridden shootout that sent the Wolverines packing.

This 2023 season, though, was different. Michigan returned many players who had their eyes set on a national championship and didn’t want to end their careers with the Fiesta Bowl loss. J.J. McCarthy vowed the Wolverines would be back, and Corum declared the season as natty or bust. Both statements proved to be true, as the Wolverines became the first Big Ten team to go 15-0 and secure a title.

In year’s past, Michigan was unable to get over the hump and often fade in the biggest moments. From heartbreaking moments like “trouble with the snap” to downright embarrassing losses, the Wolverines were unable to overcome adversity.

It became apparent after Michigan’s first Big Ten Championship victory in 2021 that a culture change had taken place in Ann Arbor. The team was hungry for more and was not content with just being the kings of the conference. They began believing no game was over until the clock hit zero, ultimately propelling them to victories in games where they would have crumbled in previous seasons.

The silver lining to these dreaded times in Michigan football history is how they molded the Wolverines into national champions. Jim Harbaugh’s son said it best, without those moments, this title wouldn’t mean as much as it does.