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How two disappointments powered the Michigan Wolverines to the College Football Playoff

One injury and one loss drove strengthened the resolve of a team on the verge of a historic 13th win.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Michigan Wolverines’ football season has been one of the most enjoyable single seasons in the history of the program. With a chance to win their first outright National Championship since 1948 — although the real ones know 1997 should have been outright — this could become the most memorable and enjoyable for several generations.

However, this season was not without its fair share of trials and tribulations. The Michigan offense only completing one pass in the second half against Rutgers. Rotating five offensive guards and struggling inside the red zone against Nebraska. Not pumping up the respect for tight end Joe Honigford’s drip.

These are a few of the moments the team overcame throughout the season, but two moments rise above the rest in terms of disappointment. These are also the two moments responsible for bringing Team 142 closer to football immortality.

Ronnie Bell’s Injury

This was supposed to be senior captain and wide receiver Ronnie Bell’s year. In his tenure at Michigan, Bell has endured proving his merit as a three-star recruit, death threats from his fourth down drop against Penn State in 2019, and a COVID/Joe Milton impacted junior season.

Bell looked poised for a Biletnikoff Award run in the first game of the season against Western Michigan. The receiver had one catch for a 76-yard touchdown and a spectacular one-handed reception that was negated for “pass interference.”

However, while returning a punt in a similar incredible fashion to previous Michigan greats, Bell went down awkwardly. His agony was visible by all viewers and immediately the worst fears of fans, teammates and coaches were realized. Michigan’s best offensive player was lost for the season less than halfway through the first game.

While Bell would not see the field again, he became more visible and impactful than ever for the Wolverines. Bell did not miss practices or games and despite being reduced to crutches, he continued to carry the burden of being a team captain by leading and coaching teammates from the sidelines.

Does true freshman wide receiver Andrel Anthony develop without the hands-on guidance of Bell? Does Cornelius Johnson remain mentally tough and overcome drops without Bell’s reassurances in his ear? Does Mikey Sainristil block with the ferocity of an offensive linemen without Bell lighting under him?

Offensive coordinator and Broyles Award Winner Josh Gattis doubles as the wide receivers coach. Unofficially in 2021, Bell doubled as player/coach in my estimation.

This was supposed to be Bell’s year, and it still was because of leadership. Due to his participation in the COVID-19 impacted 2020 season, Bell is eligible and is set to return to action in 2022 for the Wolverines.

Losing to Michigan State

Okay, this one hurt and in some not-so-distant alternate reality, the Michigan Wolverines are 13-0 and preparing to play Cincinnati. But then again, maybe another alternative is Michigan beating Michigan State, losing to Ohio State and preparing for the Citrus Bowl again.

In this reality however, the Wolverines blew a 16-point third quarter lead in East Lansing, struggled to move the ball late in the game and fell to the Spartans 37-33. Officiating aside, this loss felt like a rerun of the same seven years. Close, but no cigar; bridesmaid never the bride; Die Hard 2, but never Die Hard.

Team leaders and head coach Jim Harbaugh echoed the same sentiment following the game of how all of the team’s goals remained ahead and how this game could strengthen their resolve. That’s all well and good, but lip service to seasoned fans is nothing more than that. The true measure of a team is in times of adversity and for the seventh straight year, this team had crumbled in the face of it.

But without this loss, does tight end Erick All’s 47-yard touchdown against Penn State happen? Or in the season finale, could the Wolverines hold on to a two-touchdown lead against Ohio State without having blown a similar lead to the Spartans? Without the devastation in East Lansing, the resilience reserved for the initiated would not have been available for the Wolverines.

The flip side to this is if Michigan State loses to the Wolverines, does it lose to Purdue or trail 49-0 at half to Ohio State? Do the Spartans fix their secondary concerns after being exploited by Michigan?

The loss to Michigan State was integral in this team’s growth moving forward and without it, the College Football Playoff may not be present in this reality.

Some times a loss to your little brother is all it takes to spark a fire worthy of the heat in Miami.