Where Was THIS Michigan?

nunya bizCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2008

Michigan football and its fans endured a seemingly endless amount of criticism throughout the 2007 season, ranging ironically from the losses to Appalachian State and Oregon to “spoiled fans” complaining too much about losses.

I have wanted to address the latter criticism for a while now, but waiting to do so turned out to be a great decision—the Capital One Bowl ended up providing the perfect illustration of exactly why so many Michigan fans had been complaining.

The Michigan that won the Capital One Bowl game 41-35 over Florida and their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow is the National Championship-caliber Michigan that fans rarely got to see but always knew they had for four years.

Instead, the Michigan that fans saw over these years demonstrated some combination of injury-hindered, “we are Michigan and thus victories are supposed to just fall in our lap,” sometimes strong, and the-other-team-is-performing better over the last few years. The arrogance of  “We are Michigan” finally caught up with the team in the loss to Appalachian State and is also likely somewhat responsible for Mike Hart’s arrogant putdown of Michigan State being immediately followed by a 16-point loss to Wisconsin after a six-game winning streak.

The injuries killed their 2005 season and their hopes of beating Ohio State to win the Big Ten and get back to the Rose Bowl in 2007. Facing a better opponent put them right at the doorstep of the 2006 National Championship game when the Wolverines lost by a field goal to Ohio State.

In the meantime, some fans always felt that the players and Lloyd Carr had more talent than they were demonstrating or getting credit for, which was costing them victories and opportunities. It seemed that the more credit Michigan did get and the more that was expected from the Wolverines, the worse they performed.

When Michigan was favored to win the 2006 Rose Bowl, they didn’t even come close. When the Wolverines were considered a near shoo-in for the 2007 National Championship game, they handed the football program the most embarrassing piece of its legacy, ruining their chances at the title after just one game. When they were still given the benefit of the doubt and were expected to reveal the Appalachian State game as a fluke, they were blown out by Oregon the very next week.

Michigan had already, at the very least, gotten very close to only being put in the same league with teams like Oklahoma, USC, Florida, and LSU because of history, not because of anything they’d done recently, before they lost to Appalachian State. But before that loss—despite having ended the 2006 season with losses to Ohio State and USC—college football commentators must have still seen in Michigan what the team's fans saw, or else they would have never felt confident that Michigan would be a contender for the Championship title.  

After that loss, not only were Michigan fans forced to continue enduring shattered high but reasonable hopes, they and their football program were now being criticized, scrutinized, and dismissed on a regular basis by ESPN, college football fans across the nation, so-called Michigan and/or Big Ten football fans/commentators online, the Big Ten Network, the SEC, and anyone else you can think of.

Michigan pulled off six straight wins, but it didn’t matter because those wins came in the Big Ten, the conference that everyone—even “objective” and “logical” commentators—had a field day degrading all season, no matter what any player or team in the conference accomplished. All fans heard all season long was that the Big Ten was weak, the SEC is/was/will always be the best conference, the Big Ten doesn’t have the speed or the talent to hang with the SEC, the Big Ten is overrated, Ohio State doesn’t play anybody except Michigan and Michigan sucks, and so on.

No one cared about Mike Hart and Chad Henne’s records or acknowledged that they were among some of the best talent in college football regardless of conference—the same is true for Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington, and Shawn Crable. No one acknowledged the strength and talent Michigan obviously had in order to lose the two most valuable players on the team to injuries and still pull off victories, unlike highly respected teams of the 2007 season such as Oregon, or even USC and Florida losing while playing with valuable injured players as Michigan also sometimes did with Henne.

But the glimpses fans got this season of Michigan’s talent, strength, determination, and ability to win tough games against the best teams in other conferences—the latter two being something we didn’t see to the same degree in 2006—kept validating in some of their minds that Michigan had everything they expected of the Wolverines inside of them but, over the years, often failed to bring those things to the field, even when they were 100 percent healthy.

Then Michigan draws Florida in the Capital One Bowl, and less than 10 percent of the nation and essentially no commentators give Michigan a chance. They had more confidence in Illinois in the Rose Bowl (and look how that turned out). After the year they’d seen Michigan have, some fans didn’t even believe in them—not because Michigan isn’t good enough, but because Michigan doesn’t play good [sic] enough.

But with the exception of four turnovers—turnovers that could have resulted in a mind-boggling 62 to 69 total Wolverine points to Florida’s 35—Michigan did exactly what fans knew they could have been doing in each and every game at full strength. Although that ultimately might not have been enough this season due to injuries, it could have meant a win over Ohio State and a 2006 BCS National Championship title...especially considering that Michigan did something on Jan. 1, 2008 that Ohio State failed to do in last season’s Championship game—beat Florida.

Suddenly commentators and naysayers are flip-flopping, backpedaling, raining praise, and admitting wrongdoing after the unavoidable obvious like they are seasoned politicians. That doesn’t mean Appalachian State is no longer part of Michigan’s legacy or that they’ve won everyone over. It wasn’t even an hour after that bowl win before ESPN and ABC were back to showing the famous blocked field goal—they couldn’t even let Michigan have that one day unspoiled without throwing that in their faces, just as they’ve done all season.

Still, the Michigan/Florida showdown is poised to go down as the best bowl game, with Michigan's game-playing among the best bowl performances along with USC and Georgia, of the season. Suddenly, Henne and Arrington are hot.  

These Michigan players came very close to never redeeming themselves or the Michigan program, or convincing most people that they were wrong about Michigan and maybe even the Big Ten vs the SEC (because, unfortunately and unfairly, the reputation of the Big Ten is based almost solely on Michigan and Ohio State), despite having all the skill and talent in the world to not only do it but to have never put the Michigan program as low as it had gotten in the first place. And sinking to such a relative low despite that talent and skill is what frustrated so many fans.

The sad thing is that if Michigan had been as favored in this bowl game as they were in the Rose Bowl last season and/or if Carr hadn’t retired, they probably wouldn’t have won because they wouldn’t have given their all.

And that’s all those fans who have been criticized ever really wanted—for these Michigan seniors and the rest of the team to give every game everything the fans knew they had. But they rarely ever did—not collectively. This game didn’t ride on Mike Hart; in fact, Hart hurt more than he helped. And it didn’t ride on Henne. The offense did some good and bad things, and the defense did some good and bad things. But, in the end, they were finally in it together and all agreed to lay everything out there and that’s why they looked as if they could hang with any team in the nation.

The truth is, despite the school records and the great plays against schools like Notre Dame in 2006 and Purdue in 2007, we’ve probably never seen these guys like we saw them in the Capital One Bowl. They have never cared about any game that much and they have never wanted to win a game that badly. And the one thing many SEC teams (but not LSU) and other highly-respected teams such as USC, Oklahoma, and even Ohio State do in nearly every game is come prepared and motivated to play aggressively, fight to the death, never give up a big play or get complacent with a lead, and to win every game.

Sadly, that was usually not how the Michigan Wolverines played—particularly against Ohio State and strong teams outside of the Big Ten—and that is really why they never achieved many of their goals and why Michigan has not been as respected as fans feel they deserved to be until this win.

Sadly, with this win comes at the end of an era—not just the Carr, Schembechler, and “Michigan Man” eras, but the Henne-Long-Hart era (which possibly will also include exits by Arrington and Manningham).

That talent and potential that some fans knew could lead Michigan to Big Ten titles, victories over Ohio State, their rightful place among the elite college football teams in the nation, and a National Championship title are now officially gone. It’s back to square one for Michigan. Surely, Rich Rodriguez and his players will do great things for Michigan, but there’s no telling exactly when that will be.  

It is unfortunate that Carr was, essentially, totally blamed for the last few years, because it also seems rather clear that the fault lies with the players themselves, as I sincerely doubt Carr instilled the “We are Michigan, so we don’t have to play tough to win” mindset in them. Thus, give them credit for their achievements, but they are just as responsible for Wolverine (and Big Ten) letdowns as Carr ever was.

Beating Florida should be the biggest victory and best memory for every player leaving that team. They should not care that they never beat Ohio State because, as this season demonstrated, Ohio State is not as respected as the SEC is. On Jan. 1, 2008, Michigan beat a team in the SEC, and the Heisman-Trophy winner was beaten by a team that was beaten by Appalachian State.

On Jan. 7, 2008, many Michigan fans will pull for Ohio State to beat a team in the SEC. Maybe then Michigan, Ohio State, and the rest of the Big Ten can finally get the peace and some of the respect in the 2008 season that they never got this season.