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Discussion: What constitutes a successful season for Michigan Football?

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It’s a sliding scale for a lot of people.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Michigan’s 2021 season kicks off in less than four weeks and the mounting expectations and excitement is more palpable as we get closer to the stat. Camp is open and 2020 is behind them, so it is easy to start thinking about the response the 2021 team will have

College football programs across the country all aim for success. That can be a sliding scale depending on who you are. The ultimate goal — winning football games — remains the same, but fans sometimes stray from typical ideas of success by leaving out the nuance that defines what a successful season might be.

Depending on who you are, you might judge your season by:

  1. A winning record in the regular season
  2. Wins against rivals
  3. Contention for a conference championship
  4. Conference title
  5. Bowl game win
  6. National championship contention
  7. Winning the national championship
  8. Top recruiting in the offseason (top three in the conference)

More often than not, the top six to eight teams are contending for a shot at the College Football Playoff and National Championship at the beginning of the season. Because there are so many more teams than that in Division I — all with differing outlooks and resources — success means different things to different people.

Michigan under Jim Harbaugh has yet to produce a season that is unsuccessful from top to bottom if we are to assume the 2020 season can be thrown out. At the same time, it is hard to define what a successful season has been. It depends on who gets asked.

If we go by the points that were made above, the 2015 season was a success for Harbaugh. We could check off a winning record, a bowl game win and a top recruiting class in the Big Ten. They won more games than they were expected to and set a foundation for the future. Success!

The 2016 campaign was the closest to achieving the most success out of any of Harbaugh’s years with 2018 being the next. While those teams had the firepower and were dripping with potential, they still fell short of what Harbaugh was hired to come to Michigan to do. The Wolverines were paying their head coach to put them into the ranks of the college football elite, yet fell just short a few times.

Given Michigan’s standing and resources, it seems most fans would judge the season based on the following:

  1. Wins against rivals, ideally OSU but definitely MSU
  2. Contention for Big Ten championship/win
  3. Bowl game win OR national championship contention/win

Michigan still had seasons, like in 2017 and 2019, that a lot of programs would see as stable and successful. But those fell short of what the expectations of the fanbase were. Winning records and just making bowl games is a pretty baseline expectation around these parts.

Michigan hasn’t beaten OSU since 2011. Multiple classes of Michigan students graduated without seeing a single win against the Buckeyes. They are the next hurdle to cross to re-enter the successful season category. Achieving the goal of getting to Indianapolis hinges on beating OSU, so it’s a two-for-one deal. One would have to think most years the team that comes out of the East will have the upper hand, so ending up in CFP conversations after winning the Big Ten wouldn’t be unjust.

On the flip side, what happens if Michigan is 3-9, and for whatever fluke in the system, beat OSU? Would that be a successful season based on current standards? It would be cool and all, but Michigan wouldn’t be successful. It wouldn’t meet any other metric.

Michigan has not missed success since Harbaugh took over the program. They have easily finished within the top 25, which is a banner achievement for a lot of programs. It’s just that the standards to meet are statistically harder to break into.

The CFP in its current format is in the top 1% of all Division I college football teams. Before the CFP was initiated, finishing in the top 25 meant contending in some of the top bowl games in all of college football. How quickly we forget.

Michigan has been successful under Harbaugh given the state of the program that he inherited it in. It is still a wonder how Harbaugh has elevated Michigan to its current standard. Hot seat or not, obviously checking off the next boxes are on all of our minds. They win games (again, 2020 aside), they get to bowl games and they still recruit pretty well compared to the rest of the conference. It’s not new for a Michigan page to say we need to beat OSU for everything else to fall into place. It’s important to recognize that they have been successful in some regard, but it’s going to be difficult to reach ultimate success because inherently the current system is hard to move through.

Maybe none of this defines a successful season, so I pose: What do you deem a successful season for Michigan in 2021? Sound off below!