Next season is going to be a pivotal year for head coach Brady Hoke and the Michigan football program. Another mediocre campaign will likely result in more than a few pink slips. After the Wolverines' inspired effort on Saturday against No. 3 Ohio State, though, there is no question Hoke deserves a fourth year in Ann Arbor.
Athletic director Dave Brandon already cleared up any notion Hoke was on the hot seat heading into the offseason via his blog on MGoBlue. He further backed his head coach in an interview with Doug Karsch of WXYT 97.1 FM.
"Brady Hoke is the right guy to lead Michigan football. I am as sure of that as I am of anything," Brandon said.
However, it would have been a much harder sell to the Maize and Blue faithful had everything in the Big House gone as some experts expected. A blowout loss would have kept a cloud of pessimism over the program.
Instead, Michigan's narrow defeat has brought a bright ray of hope to a fanbase desperately in need of something positive.
A loss is still a loss. There are no moral victories for the Wolverines. Not when it comes to the program with the most Big Ten Conference titles and more wins than anyone else in the history of college football.
Still, in defeat, Hoke validated Brandon's belief that he is the right man to coach Michigan in 2014.
This was a game Ohio State was expected to dominate from start to finish, leaving the Wolverines begging Urban Meyer to stop running up the score. How could anyone expect anything less from a team that had lost three of its last four contests? Keep in mind, Michigan was held under 200 yards of total offense in those three defeats as well.
Following a loss at Iowa in which the Wolverines blew a 21-7 lead, they had absolutely no momentum entering The Game.
Somehow, Hoke and Co. lit a fire under this team.
Even when Michigan's hopes of an upset appeared to be gone after a failed 4th-and-2 deep in Buckeye territory, which led to Ohio State taking a 35-21 lead in the final quarter, the Wolverines refused to roll over. Eventually they tied things up at 35-35. No one stopped believing.
Furthermore, Hoke put on display how much he has grown as a head coach since the beginning of the year.
Earlier in the season against Penn State, he was more than content to let fifth-year senior kicker Brendan Gibbons decide a game. It is still difficult to argue with his logic given the fact Gibbons was 23-of-23 on field goals of 40 yards and more in entering the contest.
Of course, Michigan went down in Happy Valley and the fans were critical of Hoke and Co.'s conservative decision-making.
Nothing would be left up to a kicker against the vaunted Buckeyes. Hoke went for it twice on fourth downs when the Wolverines needed a touchdown to knot the score. He also made the right call to go for two after an 11-play, 84-yard touchdown drive gave them a chance to pull off an upset no one would have seen coming.
If these two games were compared to boxing matches, Hoke was willing to let the first end in a decision. The second time, he learned his lesson, opted to throw haymakers and went for the knockout. No one can say he was scared of the moment, which is not something people would have said a few months ago.
Plain and simple, Hoke played to win.
Taylor Lewan, on the 2-point attempt, "Coach Hoke asked us seniors, do you want to go for it, we all said yes."— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) November 30, 2013
The young talent this staff has brought in is starting to shine as well. True freshman linebacker Ben Gedeon impressed in his first start. Freshman defensive linemen Willie Henry and Chris Wormley were making an impact by season's end. The same was true for freshman tight end Jake Butt and sophomore wide receiver Devin Funchess.
Freshmen running backs De'Veon Smith and Derrick Green should be a solid downhill tandem once the offensive line gets sorted out.
That kind of growth is another reason why Hoke deserves another year.
All that being said, his fate is tied to an upcoming decision pertaining to offensive coordinator Al Borges. Michigan finished No. 82 nationally in total offense (382.8 yards per game) and No. 99 in rushing yards (130.8 per contest).
I am not going to call for Borges' job. That is for Hoke to decide.
Improvement is a necessity for 2014, though, and with the personnel changes Michigan will have to make over the offseason, it seems unlikely Borges is the answer.
Assuming the interior offensive line sorts itself out, which is far from a guarantee, the Wolverines still have to replace an All-American left tackle and an experienced right tackle. Their top receiver, Jeremy Gallon, will be gone.
Again, Hoke must decide whether he believes Borges gives Michigan's offense the best chance to succeed, or if someone else can do more with the talent he has recruited. His choice and the outcome of that decision will determine how much longer he sticks around Schembechler Hall.
This past Saturday, though, Hoke gave the people what they wanted: a gritty performance and gutsy play calls when belief in these Wolverines was at an all-time low.
He has earned the right to prove Brandon's faith is not misplaced for at least one more year and to have the support of every Michigan fan.
Want to talk more Michigan football? Follow me on Twitter @Zach_Dirlam.