While it appears that Jim Harbaugh is finally (slowly) bringing the Michigan football program back to where it needs to be, the past 15 or so years have been a struggle. From The Horror to Rich Rod to the downfall of Brady Hoke and Dave Brandon to The Punt to the current losing streak in The Game...there is no shortage of reasons for why this stretch in Michigan history has been a disaster.
Eras like these do not begin at a single moment, but it is hard to ignore how the 2006 season ended. It may seem like a distant memory to the newest generation of fans, but in a lot of ways, everything the Wolverines have suffered through in recent years can be traced back to the last couple weeks of 2006.
Setting the stage: 11-0
Though Michigan finished 2005 just 7-5, arrows were pointing up for the 2006 team. The Wolverines began the year ranked No. 14, thanks to the return of Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Steve Breaston, and Mario Manningham on offense and the dominant trio of LaMarr Woodley, David Harris and Leon Hall on defense.
Michigan cruised through its first 11 games, overwhelming nearly everyone on the schedule. A 47-21 demolishing of No. 2 Notre Dame in South Bend boosted the maize and blue into the top 10, and a night game win in Happy Valley pushed the Wolverines into the No. 2 spot in the polls, behind just Ohio State. All season long it seemed like the rivals were destined for a huge showdown, and sure enough, a No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle would close out the schedule.
The Game of the Century
Everyone knows what happens next; in fact, even if someone was fortunate enough to not know what happened, they could probably guess how Michigan fared in an extremely important instant classic. The Buckeyes wound up winning a 42-39 shootout over the vaulted Wolverines defense just one day after the death of Bo Schembechler. There are a lot of moments in the game that could have changed the outcome, but ultimately Michigan lost a heartbreaker in the Horseshoe.
Impressively, the Wolverines stayed at No. 2 in the BCS rankings after the loss. On paper it made sense: losing by three points to your rival on the road — who also happens to be the No. 1 team in the country — is not something that should be severely punished, and on a neutral field the outcome would project to be very close. But while the regular season was over for Michigan, that was not the case for everyone else.
The good ole BCS
The BCS was a convoluted system that was supposed to make rankings more fair by using some complex computer algorithm, but really all it did was make people mad and confused. Of course, the new College Football Playoff committee system is not perfect either, but at least it a little more straightforward. Ultimately it was human voters who were responsible for Michigan’s snubbing, but the BCS’s confusing math only added to the fanbase’s frustration.
What happened was simple: one week after The Game, USC beat Notre Dame to claim the No. 2 spot, pushing the Wolverines down to No. 3. The Trojans then fell the next week, but No. 4 Florida would win the SEC Championship Game, and the Gators took the No. 2 spot and a place in the National Championship Game, leaving Michigan stuck at No. 3.
Was this fair? It may be impossible to say. Some voters clearly did not want to see a rematch between Ohio State and Michigan, believing that the Wolverines already had their chance to beat the Buckeyes (which is a ludicrous line of thinking). Others may have thought that Florida was more deserving because it won its conference while Michigan did not. It could have just come down to which team played most recently and got the last update in the polls: the Gators won their final game before the rankings; the Wolverines sat at home for two weeks after losing their last contest.
Some people will point to the results of the ensuing bowl games to justify the rankings, but that is a poor example of revisionist history. Florida would go on to trounce Ohio State, beginning a string of seven-straight SEC National Champions and 10 of the last 14. Meanwhile, a disappointed Michigan team was clearly not ready to play USC, losing 32-18 in the Rose Bowl.
Perhaps history would have been exactly the same even if Michigan kept its No. 2 place in the final BCS rankings. A second loss to Ohio State — this time for the National Championship — would be hard to recover from, and Lloyd Carr’s career might have been on the way out either way.
However, it is difficult to sit back and not wonder ‘what if.’ The Wolverines had every chance to win that game in Columbus and fell short with the chance to control their own destiny. But to lose a game that close on the road and then watch two other schools jump them in the polls simply because they had games later into the season and conference championship games (which the Big Ten did not at the time) felt like a robbery.
A lot of things have gone wrong for Michigan this century, but much of this misery can be traced back to a single game and a 0.0101 gap in the BCS rankings.