It’s not often the Orange Bowl seems like a consolation prize.
It’s one of the most storied bowls in college football, guarantees a trip to Miami and has a prestige few others can match. But it feels like a consolation, doesn’t it? After everything the Michigan football team looked like it could be a month ago, this isn’t the big game in Florida the Wolverines looked like they might be headed for.
But that’s the reality now. Four points between two games kept Michigan from Indianapolis, which left the Wolverines with no recourse when the teams above them won on the final weekend of the season.
Michigan fans tuned into the Pac-12 Championship on Friday night to cheer on Colorado, a team the Wolverines beat in Spetember. They needed the Buffaloes to win to have a shot. When Colorado made a big play, the hope started to creep in. But the big payoff never came. Washington controlled its own fate, and it didn’t squander its chance. That’s what makes the Huskies a playoff team.
They may not actually be better than the Wolverines — nor might Clemson, which won six of its games by seven points or fewer — but both did what they had to, when they had to. And that’s the difference.
Michigan had a special team this year. One of its best ever. The Wolverines started the season on a nearly point-a-minute pace, and their defense was the rare unit that was actually as good as advertised. To know that, you could look at Jabrill Peppers’ scoop and score against Michigan State or Jourdan Lewis’ interception against Wisconsin. But perhaps the best way to understand how unrelenting this defense was would be to look at one time it actually gave up a first down.
As J.T. Barrett fell forward toward the 15-yard line in double overtime, something stopped him. It was Chris Wormley’s arm. Barrett still ended up getting the first-down call, but without Wormley, there would have been no doubt. Even being blocked to the ground by a Buckeye, Wormley reached out and shoved Barrett back. The strength it takes to generate enough force in that motion must be astounding, but nothing compared to the will it demands.
When the season was on the line, Wormley found a way to do more than seemed possible. He didn’t get the call. But damned if it didn’t tell you everything you needed to know about the Wolverines.
That’s the way the unit played all year, with just a couple of quarters excepted. The first against Colorado and the fourth against Michigan State both could have gone better. But the Wolverines still won.
For the offense, the tough quarters proved more costly. Five yards against Ohio State simply wasn’t enough to hold off the Buckeyes. A road game at Kinnick Stadium was the wrong time for the offense to catch the yips. And yes, penalties factored heavily into both games. But as the Wolverines themselves would tell you, when you control your destiny, you have to actually control it. Leaving your fate up to referees and other teams is not a fun way to live.
“We take care of business, we’re in,” Jabrill Peppers tweeted Sunday. “We don’t, we’re not.. & we didn’t. Can’t knock the teams that did.”
It’s a sage attitude from a player who may not have another chance at this in college.
But the part that must cause the most heartbreak is that, deserved or not, this was a team that could have won it all. It’s not so much that the Wolverines looked like one of the nation’s four best teams, but that they were a team that looked good enough to win it all in most years.
Yes, Alabama exists. It was no guarantee. But Michigan had the look, the feel, the talent and the moxie of a team that wins it all. That’s why Sunday’s announcement feels so odd. The fact that the Wolverines didn’t get in is not a surprise given their resume. It’s that, for as dominant as they were, they still couldn’t do enough. It makes you wonder what it really takes to win a national title.
But that’s what college football is. It’s a sport that allows teams like Colorado and Washington to surge forward at any given time and plant a flag in a season. It lets the Clemsons of the world rise to dominance in just a couple of years. You control your own destiny until the minute you relinquish it.
Michigan relinquished it.
That’s why, standing in an unusually subdued press room Sunday afternoon, senior tight end Jake Butt was left trying to explain his acceptance of an obviously disappointing fate.
“Do I feel like we’re one of the best four teams in the country?” Butt asked, “Absolutely I do. But that’s on us. We had chances to prove that. And we didn’t.”
Max Bultman can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @m_bultman. Please @ him.