ATLANTA — Chase Winovich took a deep breath and thought. Really, truly thought.
He had been asked by a reporter — shortly after Michigan was dismantled by Florida, 41-15, in the Peach Bowl — to assess the state of the program.
A fifth-year senior, Winovich is often pegged to speak to these types of big-picture questions, both because he understands the program better than just about anybody and because Jim Harbaugh, the man at the top, won’t engage them.
So they get thrown on Winovich. All year. And to his credit, less than an hour after his college career ended in a distasteful crescendo, the de facto spokesman obliged. Just weeks prior, Winovich chose to describe the loss at Ohio State as a “mirage” and, well, that explanation was no longer on the table. Where does that leave this program now?
“I caught a lot of flak a couple weeks ago because I said ‘We’re building a powerhouse.’ I used some pretty heavy words,” Winovich said, striking an uncharacteristically tepid tone. “My motivation behind that was really trying to get a recruit that decommitted to come back. So, it worked. I meant what I said, just not—we’re building a great team. This thing takes time. In hindsight, coming to Michigan, I maybe underestimated the amount of time and effort it would take to get over that hump. We’ve been chasing this for quite some time.”
Then a sigh.
“We’re close. We’re clawing at it.”
Then a question brings Winovich back to the present. The Gators posted 427 total yards — 257 on the ground — on Saturday, outscoring Michigan 35-5 after the first quarter. What surprised him about the 26-point loss?
“I’m kinda stoic in the sense that a lot of this stuff, especially playing as many years as I have, kinda stoic in the sense that a lot of this stuff is already accounted for,” he said. “I’ve already accounted in my head that certain things might happen.”
His response was in the context of what the Gators did on the field Saturday. But it’s hard not to extrapolate that to the bigger picture. Chase Winovich played at Michigan five years, and in that span experienced more highs and lows than most programs go through in a decade.
His first year on campus, a tight end at the time, Michigan went 5-7 and fired the coach that recruited him. Then the Savior Of The Program came in and turned the place upside down. In Harbaugh’s first year, the Wolverines won 10 games. The next year, inches of JT Barrett’s extended arm separated Michigan from a Big Ten title game.
All the while, Winovich somehow blossomed into an All-Big Ten defensive end. Then, slowly but surely, the outward face of the team. He came back to school unabashedly clear about his Big Ten title and College Football Playoff goals. He coined the now-infamous Revenge Tour.
Which brings us to Saturday — an unceremonious end to a one-of-a-kind career, and the unequivocal plateau of a program seemingly incapable of climbing higher.
Just minutes prior, a couple hundred feet down the hallway, Harbaugh had expounded the obvious.
“My feeling about the team is we’re right there to the top, but we have to put it over the top,” said the coach who has lost his final two games each of the last three seasons. “Especially in the big games at the end of the year.”
He’s not wrong, of course. Michigan under Harbaugh has the seventh most wins in that span in the country. Prior to his arrival, the Wolverines had just four seasons with double-digit wins since the turn of the century. Under Harbaugh, Michigan now has three in the last four years.
But after the undressing that has been the last month of Michigan football, those win totals ring hollow. Michigan hasn’t won a game later than Nov. 19 since the Citrus Bowl after the 2015 season. Its signature win of the last 4 years is … Wisconsin in 2016? Penn State this year? Bueller?
“Next year, we’re not going to try to go backwards,” Winovich said, speaking of the program he’s now leaving.
While Winovich might be correct that regression seems unlikely, the Harbaugh era has become increasingly defined by one question: Is progression really any more likely?