Last year’s Michigan squad seemed destined for success before the season.
But the Wolverines fulfilled little of that promise en route to their worst year since 1984.
Michigan’s 7-5 season has been called frustrating, disappointing and embarrassing, among other things.
I think it was the best thing to happen to the program in a long time.
The Wolverines wouldn’t be 11-0 and playing Ohio State for a Big Ten title and a chance at a National Championship without it.
Michigan isn’t supposed to lose five games. I know that. You know that. And the players and coaches definitely know that. The Wolverines are supposed to be far too talented to let that happen.
So when it did, Michigan was forced to take a nice, long look at itself and figure out exactly what went wrong – and how to make sure this year would be different.
That wouldn’t have happened if the Wolverines had finished 8-4 or 9-3.
In the last 10 years of Michigan football, the Wolverines have recorded eight- or nine-win seasons four times. Those seasons were widely regarded as off years, something all great programs inevitably face from time to time.
Last year was a little different.
The Wolverines were just one loss away from their first .500 season in more than 20 years.
They dropped three home contests.
They lost to rivals Notre Dame and Ohio State for the second straight year.
And they suffered their third straight bowl-game defeat in a 32-28 loss to Nebraska, a squad that wasn’t even bowl eligible in 2004.
You can’t chalk that up to an off year, and Michigan knew it.
“There’s no question that when you had the type of season we had, that you’re either going to back down . or you’re going to get up and fight,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “I don’t think there’s any question that it motivated all of us, and that’s what it should have done.”
Eleven wins later, it’s clear the Wolverines decided to get up and fight.
Michigan’s determination to bounce back from last year’s disappointment is the stuff of legends.
The entire team dedicated itself to getting in shape, adhering to a revamped diet and exercise regimen that helped the Wolverines – especially the defense – slim down and play faster.
First-year defensive coordinator Ron English simplified the defense, taking advantage of his players’ improved strength and speed by letting them get out there and make plays.
New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord implemented a zone-blocking scheme, designed to breath new life into Michigan’s running game, which struggled in 2005.
With the new Xs and Os in place, Carr turned to “Cinderella Man” during training camp to inspire his players even more. The Wolverines saw themselves in the story of a once-successful boxer who had fallen on hard times but fought his way back to the top.
Usually a heavy favorite, Michigan embraced the disrespected underdog role and strove to prove its critics wrong.
Needless to say, the efforts paid off – and then some.
“Everybody counted us out, we came in ranked 14th and here we are (playing) for the Big Ten championship,” center Mark Bihl said. “That’s where we wanted to be.”
And they could be playing for even more.
Even though Michigan is a seven-point underdog this week, hardly anyone would dispute that the Wolverines have a legitimate shot of beating the Buckeyes and earning spot in the National Championship game.
That’s quite a turnaround for a team that seemed to be falling apart just 10 months ago.
And it wouldn’t have happened if Michigan had simply had an off year.
It took a 7-5 collapse to compel the Wolverines to change. As strange as it sounds, the Maize and Blue faithful should thank Michigan for last season – because they wouldn’t be on this fairy-tale ride without it.
Win or lose, the Wolverines’ comeback should be seen as nothing less than a smashing success.
Let’s hope they never need that kind of motivation again.
– Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.