If the Michigan football team’s season can be captured in a single moment, it’s the one that occurred with 30 seconds left in Saturday’s loss to Ohio State.

Cardale Jones, the third-string quarterback who had somehow engineered a game-sealing drive with his legs against the Wolverines’ top-10 rush defense, lined up in the victory formation. Meanwhile, the video board at Ohio Stadium panned to Brady Hoke, arms folded across a Michigan polo with a manila envelope shoved into the back right pocket of his khakis.

And here’s the funny thing: Instead of booing or jeering, as Buckeye fans had done all afternoon, they laughed. They laughed and they pointed and they clapped sarcastically.

Minutes later, quarterback Devin Gardner sat in the media room near the outskirts of the stadium and put words to a moment Michigan fans have been expecting for months: “It’s the end.”

Isn’t it a relief to hear that?

But here’s another funny thing: Even in a season of embarrassment and disappointment, Michigan gave us a reason to believe in something truly special.

Maybe it began in the first quarter Saturday, when the Wolverines finally targeted Devin Funchess deep. The pass gained 45 yards, and Gardner found Jake Butt on the next play for a touchdown.

Maybe it started during Michigan’s following possession, a 95-yard touchdown drive, or when it answered an Ohio State touchdown with another of its own in the third quarter.

Maybe it took until J.T. Barrett fractured his ankle in the fourth quarter and the Buckeyes punted. Suddenly, the Wolverines only trailed by seven with plenty of time to mount a comeback.

You believed, didn’t you? It was futile, and you probably knew that, but deep down, you thought maybe there was a chance.

Even though you had sat through the brutal losses to rivals Notre Dame and Michigan State, or the bewildering defeats to Maryland and Rutgers, or waited out the two-hour rain delay against Utah, you somehow still had hope.

And you’ll have it again during the offseason, regardless of whether Hoke is fired or Jim Hackett becomes the permanent athletic director or how many recruits decommit. Hope is the beauty of sports and collegiate athletics in particular, where there’s so much annual turnover.

Hope will come from Drake Johnson, the redshirt sophomore running back who played like an elusive battering ram against the Buckeyes. It will come from Mason Cole, the true freshman left tackle who held his own against Big Ten defensive linemen. It will come from Jabrill Peppers and Ty Isaac, five-star recruits with untapped potential.

Hope springs eternal, even when it shouldn’t, even when you know Michigan might have further to fall before it rises again. Hope gives us a reason to keep caring, even in something as relatively insignificant as football. It helps us believe that a once-great program can climb from the ashes.

Ohio State fans saw Hoke and laughed. Let them laugh. Better yet, join them, because 5-7 feels a lot better when you think of it as a comedy. It’s just another season, after all.

But as you place this painful year in the past, don’t be afraid to believe in the future.

Remember 2011, when maybe you didn’t believe in Hoke, but he still won the Sugar Bowl. Remember 2006, when maybe you didn’t believe in Lloyd Carr, but his team started 11-0 and reached the Rose Bowl. Remember 1997, when maybe four consecutive four-loss seasons had worried you, but then Michigan won a national title.

The 2014 campaign has ended, which means you can start counting down the months, days and hours until Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, when Michigan kicks off against Utah.

Maybe things will be different than they were this fall.

The Wolverines will be undefeated when they travel to Salt Lake City. They’ll have an inexperienced quarterback, but veterans at nearly every other position. They’ll have either new coaches or a supporting staff with two-plus years together on the job.

Until there’s reason to feel otherwise, why not believe?

Zúñiga can be reached at azs@umich.edu and on Twitter @ByAZuniga.

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