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Taking a closer look at Michigan’s history in the Rose Bowl

The Wolverines have a long and storied relationship with the grandaddy of them all.

1987 Rose Bowl Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images

Michigan’s relationship with the Rose Bowl goes all the way back to the beginning.

The Michigan Wolverines played in the first-ever Rose Bowl in 1902 and were beating Stanford so badly that the Cardinal quit in the third quarter trailing 49-0. To add insult to embarrassment, the game was so uncompetitive that the Tournament of Roses replaced the football contest for the next 13 years with chariot and ostrich races – you read that correctly – and other contests for more competitive entertainment. Imagine getting beaten so badly that organizers break out the ostriches...might be something those in East Lansing look into. I digress.

Since 1916, football has been the preferred contest of the Tournament of Roses and since 1923, apart from war and pandemic-impacted seasons, the game has taken place in the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, a stadium that Michigan has frequented over the last 100 years.

Of Michigan’s 46 bowl appearances, 20 have been Rose Bowls (the most of any Big Ten team), where the Wolverines have posted a record of 8-12 (2-4 since Bo Schembechler retired). In those 20 games, here is how Michigan has stacked up against every opponent:

USC: 2-6
Washington: 2-2
Stanford: 1-1
California: 1-0
Oregon State: 1-0
UCLA: 0-1
Arizona State: 0-1
Washington State: 1-0
Texas: 0-1

Entering this year’s game, Michigan will be looking to snap a three-game Rose Bowl losing streak. The Wolverines’ last trip to Pasadena resulted in a 32-18 loss to USC in 2007 and Michigan hasn’t won the “Grandaddy of them all” since the 1998 New Year’s Day victory over Washington State and quarterback Ryan Leaf which earned a national championship.

With title aspirations hanging in the air for the Wolverines, it is only fitting that they return to the Rose Bowl. Going back beyond ‘98, the 1948 Rose Bowl cemented the 1947 “Mad Magicians” Michigan team as a perfect 10-0 and, while ranked second in the AP Poll, the Wolverines were voted national champions by every other existing body and claimed a national championship.

Quick aside: If you ever wonder why your grandpa hates Notre Dame, remember this from 1947. Notre Dame was crowned national champions before teams played in their bowl games. This obviously invited criticism when Michigan destroyed USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl and finished the season undefeated.

In an unprecedented move, the AP handed out an unofficial post-bowl ballot with only two options, Michigan or Notre Dame. The Wolverines more than doubled the votes of the Irish, but because of the way things were, Notre Dame is still recognized as the “official” 1947 AP Champion. One last note, Michigan and the Irish had three common opponents that season: Pitt, Northwestern, and USC. Notre Dame outscored these three teams 104-32; the Wolverines outscored the same three teams 167-21.

Michigan’s next Rose Bowl opponent, Alabama, has played in seven games in Pasadena and has posted a strong 5-1-1 record. The Wolverines have never faced Alabama in the Rose Bowl and the two teams have split their bowl games at two apiece. The two teams’ most recent meeting came in the 2020 Citrus Bowl with the Tide prevailing 35-16.

The next chapter will be written on January 1, and thankfully, no unofficial AP votes will be needed.