Come late November, the Michigan fanbase is used to singing the same melancholy song:
There’s always next year.
But, as the Wolverines have espoused since the first day of the season, this year — and this team — is different.
On Saturday, when Michigan led Ohio State at the half, fans started to believe that it could be true. The 14-13 score was hardly an indication of the dominance to come, but rather a hint that this time, maybe, their confidence wasn’t misplaced.
The momentum in the stands continued to grow with each ensuing touchdown. When senior running back Hassan Haskins brought the score to 34-20 with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter — his fourth of the day — the feeling turned from excitement to one of surreal acceptance. Fans might not have to wait any longer.
By the time Haskins ran into the end zone with the Wolverines’ sixth and final touchdown with just over two minutes left on the clock, the spots of red began to disappear from the stadium as Ohio State fans tried to avoid the inevitable. Michigan was going to win and the field would fill with maize and blue.
The fanbase that has sustained itself on blind hope and willpower for nearly a decade has finally gotten what it wants: a win against Ohio State.
But what happens from here?
When you’ve already surpassed your own bar for success, how do you gauge what comes after? It’s a question Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has surely had to ask himself several times this year.
“Just everything about the team,” Harbaugh said. “Every day, every week, every month. Going back to the beginning of this year, it’s always felt like the beginning. Accomplish one goal then go to the next and the next and the next.”
Coming into the season carrying mediocre expectations, the Wolverines have raised their ceiling with each win. On Saturday, they shattered it completely.
The win opened doors for the remainder of the season, doors Harbaugh has never walked through. A Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff berth are well within reach.
It’s been said before every big game in Harbaugh’s seven-year tenure, but this time the notion rings true more than ever:
This is very possibly the turning point in the Harbaugh era, the moment the former-Michigan quarterback has been waiting for, a chance to elevate this program into the upper echelon of college football.
Or it could be a repeat of 2011, a good team and a good season that ended one Ohio State drought just to start another.
The difference between this being a different Michigan team and a different Michigan program will be decided in the coming weeks.
A different Michigan team can end the season 11-2 with a win over the Buckeyes and an appearance at a Big Ten Championship. A different Michigan program has to prove to recruits that Harbaugh has made good on his promise and made the Wolverines a real national contender. That would mean capturing the program’s first Big Ten Championship since 2004 and notching its first-ever berth in the playoff.
When Harbaugh said in his postgame press conference that this felt more like the beginning than the culmination, this was what he meant. Michigan has moved past its biggest hurdle under Harbaugh — and its largest barrier to success since the turn of the century — opening a whole new box of challenges.
There’s a different feeling about this team, obviously. If anyone can pass through the challenges ahead, it’s this team. A team that’s kept its fans on their feet and sent them out onto the field at the end of the game.
And players feel confident that they can keep it going.
“Long term, we’ve set the expectation now,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “It’s been so long since we beat Ohio State, but we did that today. For the guys coming back, now we’ve got to do that every single year. We know what it took.”
The Wolverines proved they knew what it took to turn the page on Ohio State. In the coming weeks, we will find out if they have what it takes to start a whole new chapter of Michigan football.
Managing Sports Editor Lane Kizziah can be reached on Twitter @KizziahLane.