MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — When the gates to Hard Rock Stadium swung open Friday afternoon, flocks of Michigan fans spilled onto the concourse, splashed in Florida sunshine and boasting Maize. They looked at home in foreign territory, equal parts nervous and eager for the Wolverines’ most consequential game in decades: their inaugural appearance in the College Football Playoff.
For that, on this night, they were going to explode.
If only they got the chance.
As a vaunted Georgia team bulldozed its way to a triumphant win, that pregame scene began to feel like a mirage. A thinned-out Michigan contingent watched along, mercilessly, as the Bulldogs shed blocks with ease and found the endzone on loop. They hung their heads, crossed their arms and scrunched their faces.
Friday’s thrashing leaves those fans, and this program, in an odd in-between: How are they supposed to feel?
“I think obviously it’s very disappointing right now,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara, who threw for a pair of interceptions and a meager 106 yards, said. “We gave everything we got, and we got beat tonight. But I think once we give it a little time, we’ll be able to appreciate a lot of the great things we were able to accomplish this season.
“But after a loss you’re obviously going to take it hard, and we’re a competitive group, but that’s not going to take away from the great things that we had this season, as well.”
McNamara’s ambivalence reflects the agonizing dichotomy.
Michigan’s season was nothing short of remarkable. On the heels of a grisly 2-4 season, the Wolverines entered the year unranked and removed from national narratives.
The thought of them punching a ticket to the College Football Playoff, as one of the four best teams in the country, seemed fantastical. And yet, they dusted all reasonable expectations, at last toppling Ohio State and capturing the program’s first Big Ten Championship in 17 years.
Entering Friday night’s game, everything was rosy.
Georgia jammed a spear into that disposition, vanquishing the feel-good mojo that engulfed this team for the past month. The fans, the very ones giddy with excitement just hours earlier, left their seats in droves, fleeing the nightmare ongoing inside.
Some were stunned. Others demoralized. Perhaps a small few found some sort of Nirvana, at peace with the season’s overall outcome.
Postgame, players found themselves wrestling with the same predicament.
“We did do great things this year, and we can’t forget about that,” fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross said postgame. “Today we got outplayed, and it wasn’t the best game for us, but as far as this season, as far as a whole, we had so many great moments with our group.”
Games like these — utter beatdowns on the sport’s grandest stage — breed overreactions. Enter a slew of takes on McNamara, Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Most are rash; There’s a mighty fine 13-game body of work to disprove them.
But sports operate through recency bias, and seasons are judged based on the ultimate outcome. Goalposts shift. Aspirations grow. Preseason expectations are buried and forgotten.
It’s okay, though, to acknowledge that Michigan’s season crashed and burned, while also conceding that this season flew closer to the sun than ever thought possible.
“Sucks it’s got to end this way, but nothing’s going to take away our accomplishments this year, what we achieved for what we were expected,” senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said.
On Friday night, Georgia dominated from start to finish. Its generational defense, boasting 17 NFL prospects, pummeled and punished. The offense picked apart Michigan’s much-improved defense with little resistance.
At the same time, the Wolverines’ myriad of wounds were self-inflicted. Uncharacteristic miscues — the likes of which had been mitigated throughout the season — again reared their heads. The defense struggled to communicate, linebackers were thrown on running backs in coverage and sloppy turnovers proved costly.
In spite of all that, the sky hasn’t fallen.
“Even looking past tonight, just being a part of this team, I couldn’t be more blessed,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis said, fighting his way through ungiving tears. “I know that looking back, it’s going to be the relationships and I love these guys.
“No one ever quit fighting, no one ever gave up, no one ever gave in. For that, I’m proud.”
He has plenty more to be proud of, too.
This is the kind of season that Michigan needed to turnaround its program and restore its national luster. It can use it as a launching pad to replenish its roster with the sort of depth and talent that, ultimately, can beat SEC powerhouses like Georgia.
The Bulldogs, for instance, are dominated by upperclassmen; their starters on defense are entirely juniors and seniors. In 2018 and 2019, Georgia reeled in the nation’s first and second-ranked recruiting classes, according to 247Sports. Those two tidbits aren’t unrelated.
This year, Michigan played ahead of schedule. Seasons like these breed success down the road. Everything — from the revitalized culture to a Big Ten Championship — paves the way for more to come. It’s a foundation.
“To me, it feels like a start,” Harbaugh said. “It feels like the beginning.”
So while sullen countenances and grim faces told the story of Friday night’s game, it doesn’t paint the picture of this season.
“This 2021 Michigan football team will forever be remembered,” fifth-year safety Brad Hawkins said, his voice rising.
And it won’t be for the way it ended.