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What we learned from the Michigan Wolverines during the 2021 season

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This is only the beginning.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Washington at Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The dust has settled and the year has changed; hangovers have given way to Sunday scaries and Monday’s will have no reprieve provided by the hope of Michigan football. The Wolverines’ season abruptly ended Friday night in the first round of the College Football Playoff/Orange Bowl, 34-11, at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs.

If you have come for insightful analysis as to why this happened, please allow me to refer you to my colleagues at Maize n Brew, but in my crude summation, this game was a one-sided beating with Georgia head coach Kirby Smart swinging the hammer.

The Wolverines sparked a flame of national belief after beating Ohio State and Iowa to win the Big Ten Championship; a flame that would only grow in the month layoff until the Orange Bowl. Accolades and awards rightfully poured in for Michigan coaches and players, but these superlatives were only useful in as a bucket of kerosene dousing this flame.

Suddenly, the former unranked team never given a chance was becoming a hot pick to claim their first national championship since 1997. But ultimately, the fire burned down the foundation of this team and in a flash, it was over.

Lessons were learned the hard way for Michigan, but sometimes a good old fashioned ass kicking is what it takes to spark a dynasty. In a game where it was favored by three points, Clemson was boat raced by West Virginia, 70-33, in the 2012 Orange Bowl, in a performance that would be known as ‘The South Beach Beat Down.’ This would prove to be sacrificial to future success as it propelled the Tigers to win two national championships and appear in two others over the course of the next eight seasons.

While this is the end for Team 142, this season of alchemy can only be described as the beginning. The Wolverines fell short of the destination, but the journey and the restoration of Wolverine ethos will be felt for seasons to come.

Coming off a 2-4 campaign in 2020, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s coaching obituary was already being written. But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral, as Harbaugh was extended and opposing fan bases rejoiced.

In the first quarter of the Ohio State game this year, a Buckeye fan applauded a Michigan miscue and bellowed, “That’s a Jim Harbaugh coached team, right there.” The opposition had won and Michigan football had accepted mediocrity instead of swinging for greatness.

But Harbaugh did what very few, if any, coaches who have tasted success had done — he changed. He revamped and injected youth into his new coaching staff; he took a step back from the media and stopped being at the center of attention; he lost weight.

While the latter seems playful, former Michigan All-American tight end Jake Butt believes it represented a man looking inward and realizing in order to attain excellence again at this level, one must be excellent in all aspects.

While a media aloof, slim Jim and a bunch of young coaches were a start, empowering key players was the master stroke of Harbaugh’s career.

Center and sixth-year senior Andrew Vastardis who has seen three U.S. presidents during his time at Michigan, became a leader. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson passed on the NFL to come back to Michigan and became a leader. Wide receiver Ronnie Bell, who had once received death threats over a dropped pass, became a leader. Linebacker Josh Ross, who watched his older brother James never beat Ohio State, became a leader. Running back Hassan Haskins, who had once been a linebacker, became a leader. Quarterback Cade McNamara, who came to Michigan to restore the program to prominence, became a leader.

Outside of Schembechler Hall, criticisms were piling higher than the Michigan snow, but these empowered players were slowly changing the culture workout after workout, and day after day.

At Big Ten Media Days, weeks before the season, Hutchinson spoke about why he returned to Ann Arbor and what this season means to him: “I’ve invested so much of my energy — mental energy, physical energy — into giving this all I’ve got. I’m back for my last ride here. When I tell you that I’ve given everything –from in spring ball in coaching guys up, working out in summer conditioning, winter conditioning, rehabbing this ankle — I mean I’ve done everything for my body and what I put in it to insure that we have success this season. I’m just...I’m willing to die for this. I swear. I want it more than anyone, I promise you that.”

Even Harbaugh alluded to death in what this season and toppling Ohio State meant to him: “Well I’m here before you, I’m as enthusiastic excited as I ever am, always am, even more to have at it, to win the championship, to win the, to beat Ohio, your hometown there. Our rival, Michigan State, everybody — that’s what we want to do. And we’re going to do it or die trying, you know.”

With death as the only alternative, Harbaugh and the Wolverines took the field.

Smack Western Michigan, 1-0. Beat Washington in front of a raucous maize crowd, 2-0. Smoke Northern Illinois, 3-0. Escape Rutgers, 4-0. Commandeer a tradition in Wisconsin, 5-0. Hurdle, strip, and kick, to a victory over Nebraska, 6-0. Sleepwalk to a 26-point victory over Northwestern, 7-0.

“But what about Ohio State? When are you guys going to beat the Buckeyes? Doesn’t matter unless you beat Ohio.”

From unranked to now No. 6 in the country, the Wolverines headed to East Lansing and to face the also undefeated No. 8 ranked Spartans. The Wolverines fell 37-33 and the worst feeling began to set back in amongst Michigan fans: familiarity. 7-1.

“Can’t even beat Michigan State, so what happens when you play Ohio State? You guys are never going to beat the Buckeyes! Enjoy third place in your own division again.”

Beat Indiana, 8-1.

“Thank god you guys can beat the worst team in the Big Ten East. Did you see how badly Ohio State beat them?”

Trailing 17-14 against Penn State, that green and white stained familiarity was returning. The Nittany Lions had just seized the lead and all momentum late in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines were on the verge of another collapse. But then something strange happened. Michigan fought back.

McNamara connected with tight end Erick All in what would be the game-winning 47-yard touchdown. Michigan pulled a victory from the jaws of defeat and a new feeling was beginning to set in surrounding this team: resilience.

After the game, McNamara spoke about this team’s resiliency: “When I came to Michigan, especially with the class we came in with — we wanted to be the change, we wanted to make a difference. This is a testament to that. The amount of guys that came in, I’ve said it multiple times before, this team is different. Couldn’t love those guys any more.”

9-1.

“Congrats you beat a team that lost to Illinois at home. Two weeks is all that matters when Ohio State comes to town”

With some trickeration and a plethora of explosive plays, the Wolverines smoked Maryland. 10-1.

“Did you see what Ohio State did to Michigan State today? 49-0 in the first half! You guys are going to get crushed, again!”

All eyes had been on Ohio State since winter conditioning, but now the Buckeyes were on the schedule. What ensued in Ann Arbor will be passed down to the next generation like war heroes recounting great victories by those in attendance (reread my live diary for nostalgia).

“I was there,” shirts littered the Big House as Hutchinson recorded three sacks and Haskins scored five touchdowns behind one of the most dominant offensive line performances in Michigan history. The Wolverines conquered the Buckeyes, 42-27, on the backs of the team leaders who represented the change of the culture and the direction of the program nine months earlier. 11-1.

Well C.J. Stroud had the flu, you know.” Bitter words have never sounded so sweet.

Michigan traveled to Indianapolis for a chance at its first Big Ten Championship since George W. Bush was president. The Wolverines would not be denied and blew out the Iowa Hawkeyes in resounding fashion. 12-1, Big Ten Champions.

This team did not stick the landing in the College Football Playoff, but the landing destination changed week-to-week for the Wolverines. Team 142 was on the precipice of greatness, despite the consensus preseason ceiling firmly set around 8-4. The Wolverines rewrote several narratives and left their mark as one of the greatest teams in program history.

Two cloudy days do not ruin a great season. As Clemson proved, remember the Orange Bowl because greatness awaits those who stay.

In 2021, those who stayed beat Ohio State for the first time in a decade. Those who stayed tied a program record of 12 wins. Those who stayed won the Big Ten for the first time in 17 years. Those who stayed became champions in every facet of the word.

Now that’s a Harbaugh-coached team right there. For Team 143, this is only the beginning.