MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — For the Michigan football team, the Orange Bowl presented another opportunity to prove its transformation was legitimate. 

As the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff, the Wolverines (12-2 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) were ranked higher than No. 3 Georgia (13-1 overall, 8-0 SEC), but still, they were doubted. Vegas oddsmakers gave the Bulldogs a 7.5-point edge, and experts across the board went with Georgia — thinking it impossible that a one-year success story could stand a chance against an SEC powerhouse. 

With a win, the Wolverines could prove that they were ready not only to compete at a conference level, but also entrench themselves on a national stage.

That didn’t come to fruition. The Bulldogs thwacked Michigan, 34-11, putting an end to a remarkable season that, in August, seemed impossible. In the end, the game displayed the gap between one program that has spent years at the top of college football and another still clawing to get back there.

“It was a great season,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “To me, it’s one of the best seasons in Michigan football history. We were trying to make it greater. … This team won’t be together fully next year, (but) it’s still a beginning for this team.”

From the start, the Wolverines struggled to contain Georgia’s superior athleticism. On the first drive of the game, Bulldog quarterback Stetson Bennett spotted Brock Bowers — one of the best tight ends in the country — guarded by sophomore outside linebacker Jaylen Harrell, connecting for a 35-yard completion that set up a touchdown. 

Meanwhile, Georgia’s defensive front seven decisively won the heavily hyped “strength-on-strength” battle against Michigan’s offensive line. On nearly every down, the Bulldogs were in the backfield almost immediately, and the Wolverines’ offense struggled to find any rhythm as a result. As the sacks and stuffed runs continued to pile up, it became clear that Michigan would have to capitalize on practically every opportunity to stay in the game. 

It didn’t. On defense, the Wolverines failed to get off the field, allowing Georgia to convert on 6-of-8 third downs in the first half, including a backbreaking 53-yard pass on a 3rd-and-4 that could have been a three-and-out. On offense, promising drives were derailed by passes off fingertips, slow-developing plays or blitzes missed by the offensive line. As such, Michigan entered halftime nursing a 27-3 deficit that, frankly, didn’t even feel that close. 

“They did a very good job early in the game — first half especially — of extending drives,” Harbaugh said. “They were able to bleed out yards on the perimeter with some of the bubbles and swing routes, then hit the big play. … (We) weren’t able to convert, make the big play, get the ball into scoring territory.”

From there, the pressing continued. Though the Wolverines’ defense cleaned up to start the second half, the offense turned the ball over on each of its first two drives, first with an interception in the endzone from junior quarterback Cade McNamara followed by a fumble near midfield from sophomore running back Blake Corum. 

Georgia, meanwhile, took all of the punches that Michigan mustered in stride. Despite failing to score in the third quarter — thanks in part to a more conservative, clock-eating scheme — the Bulldogs’ defense refused to snap, adding to its turnovers with a pair of third quarter sacks. When the offense finally broke through on a 39-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, it put the final nail in the coffin of the Wolverines’ season.

“We definitely didn’t play our best game,” junior tight end Erick All said. “We had a lot of mistakes. Especially in a game like this against an opponent like Georgia, you can’t afford to make mistakes. The margin of error is really low — we found that out today.”

The sting of Friday’s loss is a sensation familiar to the Michigan program. Even in the wake of an improbable season that featured the program’s first conference championship since 2004, the disappointment of falling woefully short after coming so close to the pinnacle of the sport will remain. 

Still, it’s a reality most teams face, especially those trying to break into the sport’s upper echelon. The moments were there — from that Big Ten title, to comeback wins against Nebraska and Penn State, to the upset victory over Ohio State. 

“We climbed mountains this season that no one thought we could,” senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson said. “We did some things that nobody expected this Michigan team to do. I think we set the standard for the future of Michigan football, and we really helped this program tremendously for the future.”

Football is cruel, its conclusions almost universally unpoetic. As is the truth for all but one program at the end of the season, the Wolverines will be left wondering how close they were and what could have been.