After nearly suffering an embarrassing defeat to Akron in September, Michigan's All-American offensive lineman Taylor Lewan broke down what it means to be a Wolverine football player.
"This is your job," Lewan told the media. "You came here to be a student-athlete. You go to school, get your degree and win Big Ten championships. If we prepare like we did this week, we won’t win another game."
After that narrow escape, Michigan was still 3-0 with those Big Ten Conference title hopes alive and well. But whether it was due to poor preparation, a lack of talent or subpar coaching, they would fall well short of the league crown.
Michigan's 31-14 season finale loss in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl to Kansas State was a fitting end to a promising season that just wasn't to come to fruition in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines gave up a long touchdown drive to open the game and trailed the entire contest. KSU quarterback Jake Waters gashed Michigan, finishing 21-of-27 passing for 313 total yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile the Michigan offense struggled mightily, rushing for just 65 yards—40 of which came on one run by backup quarterback James Morris late in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided. Outside of that run, Michigan's rushing attack did very little.
That failure to produce on the ground was a recurring theme for the Wolverines this season, and it played a major role once again in the defeat to the Wildcats.
The loss also moved UM back to No. 2 behind Notre Dame in all-time winning percentage, as CBS Sports' Tom Fornelli tweeted:
Important: After its win today, Notre Dame would pass Michigan in all-time win percentage should the Wolverines lose tonight.— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) December 29, 2013
That just further soured a season that once carried so much hope.
Michigan's aspirations were at their highest in Week 2. The Wolverines posted one of the biggest wins of the early season, taking down Notre Dame in front of a record crowd at the Big House.
That win vaulted them into national contention. They seemed destined to tangle with Ohio State at season's end for the Big Ten crown—a game that looked like it might also carry national title implications for both teams.
But then Akron happened. A week later, Connecticut happened and UM again needed a late rally to top a pedestrian opponent.
All of a sudden, the national title contender that beat the Fighting Irish was gone.
A few weeks later, the Wolverines suffered their first loss—a 43-40 overtime defeat to Penn State. That road defeat wasn't the end, but it was certainly the beginning of the end. Michigan dropped five of its last six games, topping only Northwestern in overtime.
The stretch also included consecutive games with negative rushing yards against Michigan State and Nebraska. That lack of both push up front and protection for quarterback Devin Gardner would prove to be the Wolverines' biggest downfalls.
Those weaknesses showed up throughout the season and in the bowl defeat to K-State. And after months of woes up front, the whole season ended as just one big "what if?"
On one hand: What if the ball had bounced in Michigan's favor a few more times?
Four of the Wolverines' regular-season losses came by four points or fewer, including a heartbreaking 42-41 defeat to archrival Ohio State. Looking at the season from that angle, Michigan was oh-so-close to being in Big Ten title contention.
On the other hand: What if Michigan had lost those close games to Akron and Connecticut?
If Michigan wants to be an elite program again, it needs to upgrade its athletes ... and get a new coaching staff.— BCS Guru (@BCSGuru) December 29, 2013
Through that lens, the season could've been much worse—the Wolverines could've finished 5-7 and out of a bowl completely.
Michigan was supposed to compete for a Big Ten title. Gardner, Lewan and others were to lead the program to prosperity.
But for a multitude of reasons, that didn't happen.
And now, more and more fingers will be pointed at head coach Brady Hoke and his regression over his first three seasons.
With this impending loss Brady Hoke will join Beenie Oosterbann as the only two #MICH HC's to get progressively worse in their first 3 years— Brian Wudkwych (@brianwudkwych) December 29, 2013
Michigan, under Brady Hoke the past two seasons, has been a tissue-soft bunch of pansies. There's just no charitable, polite way to say it.— Matt Zemek (@MattZemek_CFN) December 29, 2013
For Hoke, there is some hope for the future. Gardner will return in 2014, as will the majority of the UM defense. With plenty of key players coming back, Michigan will again bring promise into its season.
However, in 2014, the Wolverines must translate that promise into production, or it could cost Hoke his job.