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What we learned from Michigan’s 15-0 National Championship season

The Wolverines are definitively, unquestionably the best team in the country.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 08 CFP National Championship - Michigan vs Washington Photo by David Buono/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Those who stay will be champions.

This mantra has echoed the halls of Michigan since 1969 when legendary head coach Bo Schembechler took the reins of the program. Schembechler guided the Wolverines out of a period of obscurity and back into the national spotlight for 21 seasons. However, those who stayed were only ever Big Ten Champions under Bo.

Although Schembechler came close several times – from 1971-1974, Bo lost three total games by a combined six points, and the 1985 team was one of the best in Michigan history led by a young Jimmy Harbaugh at quarterback – he was never able to bring that elusive national championship home to Ann Arbor.

Gary Moeller succeeded Schembechler and kept the train rolling with three consecutive Big Ten Championships to begin his tenure, but like Bo, the national title escaped him. After Moeller was unceremoniously dismissed before the 1995 season, the unlikeliest of coaches took over the program.

Lloyd Carr had been an assistant coach at Michigan since 1980 and the defensive coordinator since 1987. Carr was happy being a coordinator and Michigan was happy with him. But, to quote William Shakespeare, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Carr was the latter two.

Under his guidance, Carr, the leader Michigan didn’t know it needed, restored the program to its previous glory, and then took it a step further. In 1997, Carr and the Wolverines reached the mountaintop of college football with a perfect 12-0 record and the top spot in the AP Poll. However, thanks to Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost’s public pandering, those who stayed were only shared champions due to Nebraska being ranked No. 1 in the Coaches Poll.

A “shared” title does not diminish their accomplishment in my eyes by any means. There will never be another 1997 Michigan team, and if you ask any members of that team, they unequivocally view themselves as the best team in the country that season and are still pissed about Frost’s glorified begging. But to the rest of the country – especially to younger fans who aren’t privy to the history of the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance of the 90s – it does diminish its importance. It’s viewed as a half-title; something that isn’t definitive or without question.

For the next 26 seasons, Michigan chased the opportunity to be the definitive, unquestioned national champion of college football and on several occasions, came within a play or two. The 2006 Wolverines fell three points short in Columbus in the first-ever match-up of two 11-0 teams in “The Game.” The 2016 Wolverines fell two inches short in double overtime against Ohio State in Columbus (sensing a theme here) and the 2018 Revenge Tour team ripped off 10 wins in a row and entered Columbus as favorites before they were routed 62-39.

Michigan had a massive roadblock from the state of Ohio that seemed insurmountable. At this point, those who stayed only seemed destined to lose to Ohio State in an increasingly more devastating fashion.

Entering the 2021 season, confidence wasn’t sky-high in Ann Arbor coming off a 2-4 season, especially with Ohio State fresh off a national championship appearance. The Wolverines had lost eight straight to the Buckeyes and 15 of the last 16 with no relief in sight. However, that offseason leading into the year, something changed. Of course, the coaching staff, approach, and schematics underwent a massive overhaul, but it was something deeper than that. It’s impossible to not write in romantic cliches when describing what changed, but it started with belief.

Led by All-American edge Aidan Hutchinson, Team 142 believed that they were different and destined for greatness. In Week 2, they began to provide proof of concept. The Wolverines debuted their all-blue uniforms and beat Washington by 21 points, and in the coming months, this team would take it even further by jumping around at Madison and serving up last-minute heartbreak to now-Nebraska head coach Scott Frost.

Michigan would stumble in East Lansing against Kenneth Walker, but would bounce back from the dead against Penn State when Erick All took a crossing route 47 yards to the house. The final test that season would be the same as always, the Ohio State Buckeyes. In the summer before the season, head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “Michigan was going to beat Ohio State or die trying.” Most took it as lip service, but most didn’t understand what that belief had evolved this team into.

Through a relentless rushing attack led by running back Hassan Haskins and a physically dominating defense led by Hutchinson, Michigan vanquished Ohio State in the snow, 42-27. The Wolverines would go on to win the Big Ten Championship – their first since 2004 – and reach their first-ever College Football Playoff (CFP) before falling to emerging SEC powerhouse Georgia. Although Team 142 was unable to match the bar set by Carr in ‘97, similar to the 1969 Wolverines, this team laid a foundation of belief, and now it was up to Team 143 to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

After winning one of the strangest quarterback battles in recent memory, J.J. McCarthy took the helm for the team and raised the ceiling on what it could be. With McCarthy’s big arm and the running back duo of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, Michigan rolled through the majority of the season en route to a perfect 11-0 record.

These victories included the always-tough trip to Kinnick Stadium, a historic team rushing performance in a blowout against Penn State, and revenge against Michigan State. After an unfortunate knee injury to Corum in Week 11, undefeated Ohio State and a trip to Columbus was waiting.

For the second time in the rivalry’s history, both teams would be 11-0 and for the second time, the game would be in Columbus. But Team 143 wasn’t the team that lost in 2006. Founded on the belief that it was destined for greatness, Michigan and running back Donovan Edwards blew the doors off the Buckeyes in the second half of The Game to win 45-23.

Michigan would defeat Purdue for its second consecutive Big Ten Championship and return to the CFP as heavy favorites against TCU. The Horned Frogs were plucky underdogs with an explosive offense and the AP Coach of the Year, but even without Corum, no one expected the Wolverines to struggle. While Michigan proved its 2021 success wasn’t a fluke, a heartbreaking 51-45 loss to TCU only reaffirmed that those who stay will only be conference champions.

Following the loss, McCarthy said, “We’ll be back,” in his press conference, and most took it as lip service. But most weren’t aware of how powerful the belief that started in 2021 really was in this team.

Despite losing Harbaugh for the first three games of the season due to “cheeseburger-gate,” McCarthy, Corum, and Michigan cruised through its non-conference schedule before ripping through the middle-to-bottom Big Ten teams. But once allegations of “sign-stealing” entered the picture the week of the Michigan State game, everything changed. The Wolverines blocked it out initially and embarrassed the Spartans worse than Mel Tucker did, 49-0.

But on the plane ride to Penn State, it was announced that Harbaugh would be suspended for the final three games of the season. Bet. The team rallied behind each other and the coaching staff and embraced a ‘Michigan vs. Everybody’ mantra. Despite losing their head coach less than 24 hours before kickoff, Corum iced the game and the Wolverines beat Penn State by two possessions.

The following week, the team overcame unexpected adversity against Maryland when its quarterback, who had not practiced all week, could barely put weight on an injured ankle. Bet. Michigan, still without Harbaugh, found a way to win by a touchdown. Once again in the last weekend of the season, an 11-0 Ohio State team was coming to Ann Arbor to face a Harbaugh-less Michigan team with a one-legged McCarthy. Bet.

Michigan would shut the door on Ohio State with a late Corum touchdown and a game-sealing Rod Moore interception. The Wolverines proceeded to roll through Iowa in the Big Ten Championship the next week and punched its ticket to the playoff as the No. 1 seed. Despite Michigan’s top ranking, Team 144 was given one of the most daunting tasks in all of college football: Alabama and head coach Nick Saban in the Rose Bowl with a month to prepare. Bet.

After overcoming sloppy special teams play and inconsistent second-half offense, the Wolverines strung together a drive for the ages to force overtime, Corum scored in the extra period, and the Michigan defense sealed the game with a goal-line stand. The Wolverines finally took the next step as a program and awaiting them was the same team Michigan beat to unofficially start this journey: Washington.

The Huskies were the only other remaining undefeated team and possessed the most feared passing attack in all of college football. Bet. Michigan shut the water off on the Washington offense and used a dominant first quarter to win its first outright national championship since 1948, 34-13. A journey that was reignited in 1969 finally came to a close through one of the most difficult final stretches possible.

In the CFP era (2014-present), no national champion had won five games against ranked opponents – four in the top ten – in its last six games until the Wolverines. Michigan was able to beat three top-10 defenses down the stretch of the regular season and two of the country’s most dynamic (and completely different) quarterbacks in the playoff. Michigan exorcised all CFP demons by defeating SEC powerhouse Alabama in the first round and plucky underdog Washington with an explosive offense and the AP Coach of the Year in the title game.

What we learned last night is that the win over Washington validated everything from the last three years. Monday night was a culmination of “The team, the team, the team” because it took everything from Team 142, 143, and 144 to win it all. It proved that this team and program could overcome anything and everything to reach the top of college football.

It started with the belief that Michigan was destined for greatness, wearing its all-blue uniforms in a 21-point victory over Washington. It ended with perfection. Definitive, unquestioned perfection as Michigan, wearing its all-blue uniforms in a 21-point victory over Washington, won the national championship.

Those who stayed are not only champions, they are now National Champions.