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What we learned from Michigan’s second straight Big Ten championship

There is a new standard in Ann Arbor.

Big Ten Championship - Purdue v Michigan Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

As the clock struck zero and the Michigan sideline ran onto the field to begin their celebration of a second consecutive Big Ten championship, something was different. There was no Gatorade bath for head coach Jim Harbaugh and there were no reverent speeches thanking the fans. Unlike 2021, there was zero finality to Michigan’s 43-22 victory over Purdue.

Last season was different. Michigan FINALLY beat Ohio State. Team captain Aidan Hutchinson was crying tears of joy because that single victory meant so much to him and the program. Michigan FINALLY won the Big Ten Championship and acted like it had never been there before, because well, it hadn’t.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 Big Ten Championship Game - Michigan v Iowa Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 42-27 victory over Ohio State felt like the perfect ending to a story that had been dragging on for a decade, and the Big Ten Championship felt like a closing epilogue that tied a perfect bow on the year. The entire scene in Indianapolis last season was complete and utter elation.

Hutchinson went on to be nominated for the Heisman Trophy and finished as the runner-up. The offensive line was named the best in the country with the Joe Moore Award, and Jake Moody was named best kicker with the Lou Groza Award. And head coach Jim Harbaugh — despite not winning Big Ten Coach of the Year — won the AP Coach of the Year.

Fans and players rejoiced throughout the holiday and awards season. It was the most ideal ending to one of the most important seasons in Michigan football history. Except it wasn’t the end. Michigan was the second-ranked team in the country and suddenly had the privilege and obligation to compete for college football’s ultimate prize.

The Wolverines did their best to refocus, but were still throttled in the College Football Playoff (CFP) semifinals against eventual national champion Georgia, 34-11. Michigan’s performance felt like Dante from Clerks lamenting, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”

The Wolverines had already accomplished their two main goals of the season: beat Ohio State and win a Big Ten championship. The goal of playing in the CFP felt like a bridge too far in August, but the champagne problem exposed a flaw in Michigan’s culture: the Wolverines were aiming too low.

The entire offseason, Michigan prepared like it had in 2021, except it included a new end goal. Michigan’s four goals entering the season were:

  1. Beat Michigan State (Accomplished, 29-7)
  2. Beat Ohio State (Accomplished, 45-23)
  3. Win the Big Ten Championship (Accomplished, beat Purdue, 43-22)
  4. Win the National Championship (TBD)

It was hard to glean any insight against the Spartans, but let’s fast forward to Columbus. Every Michigan player expected to dominate Ohio State in the second half and win that game. The Wolverines left the Horseshoe with dry-eyed vindication and the largest Michigan victory in Columbus since the 1970s.

In quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s on-field interview after the game, he ended it with a three-word rallying cry that revealed the true ethos of Team 143: “Job’s not finished.”

Two nights ago, the Wolverines celebrated their conference championship, but every player was already thinking about the College Football Playoff and completing the ultimate revenge tour.

McCarthy spoke to the team’s new mentality in his postgame press conference: “I love our chances. Last year it was kind of the bright lights, everything was new, Big Ten Championship, College Football Playoff. Going into the offseason it gave us so much momentum, and we knew that we could get there and we could get back. Ultimately, this whole offseason it was about winning it.

“So at the end of the day, everything is great that happened today, but (the) job is not finished. We’ve got a lot bigger plans in mind.”

In one year, Michigan has subverted elation for expectation and set a new standard for Michigan football. The 2021 season was never meant to be the end to anything; Harbaugh said it himself following the Ohio State victory, “It feels like the beginning.”

Two wins now separate the Wolverines from their fourth and final goal. A goal they fully expect to accomplish against TCU, Georgia, or even Ohio State again, and FINALLY win their first outright — thanks to a whiny Scott Frost — national championship since 1948.

But until Michigan reaches the summit of college football, job’s not finished.