Michigan Football: Charting the Downturn and the State of the U

M.F. DiBellaCorrespondent IDecember 5, 2013

Hoke Floats
Hoke FloatsGregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan's 1997 National Championship (and sorry Cornhusker fans, your co-claim to that title is a shade dubious) was the program's modern high-water mark. In the 21st century, the Maize and Blue have mostly found themselves in treacherous seas.

Fifty-six defeats in 163 games since the year 2000 (107-56) including two dreadful seasons under former head coach Rich Rodriguez (3-9 in 2008 and 5-7 in 2009). Michigan's last losing season before that? 1967 under Bump Elliott (4-6). 

Some four-decades worth of Wolverines rarely witnessed a four-loss season (Bo Schembechler's 6-6 1984 campaign was the only anomaly). Is this fanbase somewhat spoiled by the teams's history of success? Affirmative.

Does that same group of diehards tolerate perennial losses to rivals Michigan State (1-5 since 2008) and Ohio State (3-10 since 2000) whilst failing to compete for the Big Ten title?

Hell to the Block M no.

Some would argue that the boat started capsizing during Lloyd Carr's final season. A certain team from Boone, North Carolina pulled off an unprecedented 34-32 upset on September 1, 2007.

In fairness, Ann Arbor is known for its hydroponics, as conjectured by Rant Sports, but once you've lost to a I-AA school, it's hard not to end up with humble pie on your face (your gentle narrator was living in Philly at the time where BTN wasn't offered; while researching this piece, reluctant eyes finally witnessed the travesty fully unfold). 

Everything was supposed to change in 2011 when Michigan hired a Michigan Man. Well, an Ohio Man who played at Ball State and coached at Michigan. Not the Michigan man who somehow slipped away to NorCal during the RichRod vetting. You might have heard of this fella named Jim Harbaugh. Michigan president Bill Martin was nonplussed by him at the time, apparently.

Thanks, Bill.

In Brady Hoke's debut season as coach, Michigan beat Notre Dame in dramatic fashion. They lost two tough conference games on the road but rallied to beat an admittedly scandal-ridden Ohio State team for the first time since 2003 and post a BCS Bowl win over a decent Virginia Tech team.

11-2. Michigan alums in posh Brooklyn flats to Silicon Valley mansions were finally saying: That's more like it, Blue.

A preseason No. 8 ranking ratcheted up the expectations surrounding the team in the fall of 2012. But the love fest came to an end down in Big D, where Michigan played no D against Nick Saban's super-humans. The 41-14 hiding was a demoralizing wake-up call to open the season: Michigan was far from elite.

While the Okey-Hokeys managed to post a win over MSU for the first time since 2007, the season petered out with losses to Ohio State and South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

Hoke would finally have some of his own recruits in impact spots in 2013 and though the team wasn't expected to win the Big Ten, they were expected to challenge for the Legends Division.

That didn't happen. Great escapes against lowly Akron and UConn portended losses to a barely mediocre Penn State team and a heavily mediocre Nebraska team (at home). 

Throw in a devastating loss at Michigan State, a second-half collapse at Iowa and a valiant attempt at season-redemption against Ohio State and you have another five-plus loss season.

There's a palpable Blame Borges sentiment proliferating through the fanbase but just as many of those stone-throwers want Hoke put on notice. Offensive Line Coach Darrell Funk has also taken some heat and while Hoke and others refuse to scapegoat the staff, hostility levels are nearing RichRod density in Ann Arbor and beyond.

In addition, while it was a nice gesture on behalf of storied halfback Tom Harmon, a quarterback should never wear No. 98—the domain of a Big Ugly. Devin Gardner's naive offensive line was pushed around all season, but the signal-caller often demonstrated the pocket-footwork of a lineman, taking sacks instead of scrambling or throwing the damn ball away.

AD Dave Brandon is having none of the negativity, as reported by the Detroit Free Press, even as the staggering weight of a largely forgettable 21st century for the program continues to bear down on Big Blue.

It all comes down to experience and on-field execution and while Michigan has recruited some top-level talent of late, it's clear the power axis in the Big Ten has shifted away from Southeast Michigan.

A victory in a middling bowl may stifle the bloodthirst in the offseason but if Michigan fails to compete in 2014, Hokeamania will be put to bed and the search for the ever-elusive Michigan Man will begin anew.