Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Michigan 41, Florida 7: Never in doubt

Only until something comes to an end can you take a breath and really understand the things that have happened.

In 2015, Michigan doubled its 2014 win total. It did that with a collection of running backs that cobbled together might make a solid feature back, a low-upside quarterback beaten out in Iowa City, a defense that lost what might have been its best frontline player before the season (next year we'll know for sure).

It did it with a cloud of doubt lingering above, like carbon monoxide, surreptitious and deadly. Maybe Michigan could never be again. Maybe it was all just a feverish mirage, the Michigan we once knew.

But against No. 19 Florida in Orlando on Saturday, Michigan put on its most dominant bowl-game performance we've seen in some time. Forget about all the losses, of course, and even the relatively "recent" bowl wins -- 2008 against Florida, 2003 against Florida, the trio of wins from 1999-2001 against Arkansas, Alabama and Auburn -- were relatively close. Michigan beat Arkansas by 14, but you'd have to go back to the 42-7 Hall of Fame Bowl win against N.C. State on Jan. 1, 1994, for a bowl win as dominant as this one. You'd have to go back to the 1991 thumping of Ole Miss by Desmond Howard and Co. for a bowl win against an SEC team as dominant as this one.

I suppose that a season marked by "it's been a while since" statements should conclude so fittingly.

Sans two runs by Treon Harris and Kelvin Taylor for 22 and 21 yards, respectively, Michigan held the Gators to 75 yards rushing on 25 carries (3 YPC). Harris completed just eight of 21 passes for 146 yards, one interception into the breadbasket of Jarrod Wilson and no touchdown passes.

Coming into this one, it was obvious that UF's offense wouldn't be able to consistently challenge Michigan's injury-affected defense, even after the confidence-shakers that were the Indiana and Ohio State games.

Even so, the Wolverines exceeded even the already lofty expectations many fans had. Florida players compared Michigan's front to Alabama's, which, in this world of Harbaugh, isn't as hyperbolic as one might think. The Wolverines held UF to fewer points than the Crimson Tide, and Harris, while not great by any means, was slightly more effective against Alabama. Sure, UF had issues on the offensive line, to say the least, but to even approach a reasonable juxtaposition with an Alabama defense is an accomplishment in and of itself.

What can you say about this game? Like a movie with a 90-plus percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it's a masterpiece that doesn't need much exposition.

The performances, the script, the cinematography, the score (that's always good): all perfect.

This wasn't about the SEC and the Big Ten -- this was about one team simply being leagues ahead of another. Michigan was better in every facet of the game, and it wasn't even close.

It's one thing to feel that way after a home win against BYU, or a road win at Penn State, or even a what-could've-been loss against eventual Big Ten champion and playoff participant Michigan State. It's another to so seamlessly transition from the regular season to the second season and then thoroughly handle a team that was elite on one side of the ball, at least, in its own state.

Now, comes the hard part.

Before moving on, after Alabama and Clemson have played to conclude the season in earnest, the realization that some players won't be coming back will set in.

When Michigan recruited Sione Houma, for example, I had high hopes for him, just like I do every recruit. I know they all can't be starters, or even contributors, but you root for every one of them to succeed.

And for three years, Houma was a little-noticed piece of the team. It wasn't until this year that he became a serious contributor -- if Michigan had not gotten Harbaugh, perhaps he wouldn't have had this chance at all.

When all was said and done, Houma carried it 43 times this season for 184 yards and five touchdowns, including a majestic 27-yard romp against Michigan State. The fullback dive isn't just some ironic dinosaur -- it is intent, personified. This year, it was Houma and Joe Kerridge.

Going forward, it'll be someone else.

If there's anything to take from this season, it's the revisiting of old things: the fullback dive, the line stacked like a two-story peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a defensive line shuffling incessantly and without mercy.

Of course, Houma's not the only one. If anyone predicted Rudock's revival, they are a clairvoyant, because early returns were not promising.

But take Mark Donnal's recent surge on the hardwood, multiply it by several orders of magnitude and degrees of difficulty, and you have something like what Rudock accomplished this season.

As you probably know, Rudock became just the second quarterback in Michigan history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a single season. Fittingly, the first, John Navarre, was another guy who started somewhat unimpressively but rounded out into one of the best Michigan signal-callers on paper -- a Big Ten title to his name didn't hurt, either.

In fan lore, Rudock is a strange case. A grad transfer, we didn't really have that incubatory "getting to know you" phase, in which recruits become players become favorites. Even so, by his play alone and his demeanor on the field and after the game, assisted by Harbaugh's coaching, it's as if we saw a full career arc, accelerated. Early struggles, a light going on ... then?

Never in doubt.


Every final chapter requires an epilogue. This isn't the final chapter, but the first.

Michigan tallied its first 10-win season since 2011, and its ninth since Bo Schembechler coached his last season in 1989.

Something tells me double-digit win seasons will become the norm rather than something that happens, on average, about once every three years.

And this was in year 1, with somebody else's players, a supposed "stopgap" quarterback and an assemblage of skill players that didn't inspire confidence heading into the season.

But Jehu Chesson pulled his best 2006-Mario-Manningham-oh-wide-open impression against Florida, De'Veon Smith refuses to be tackled by defensive backs and the offensive line has transformed from severe liability to pretty good.

And most of these guys are back. Other than Rudock and Houma, Michigan loses Wilson, Desmond Morgan, Joe Bolden and James Ross, plus Royce-Jenkins Stone and, of course, Mario Ojemudia. Linebacker is a question mark, but Michigan returns a knockout defensive line, a talented secondary, and, you know, Jabrill Peppers, who can play everything from corner to long snapper (I mean, probably). Throw in a dash of talented young players and you're cooking once again, as Harbaugh continues to participate in the world's longest and most intense episode of football Chopped. 

The schedule next year is tough -- there'll be more than enough time to talk about that between now and as mentioned, the roster won't be without holes to start the year.

With that said, 2015 was an exercise in belief. Michigan might not make the playoffs next year -- really, who knows.

But whatever happens, there's no doubt that it'll have a chance. That's an assertion that can only emanate from one source: the very top.

Despite losing a nonconference game and two rivalry games -- both in excruciating fashion -- things are good.

This is only the beginning -- and what is more tantalizing, more captivating, more hopeful, than beginnings?


  1. Nice article, but the 10 win season thing is overblown in today's world. Almost any decent team will play 13 games in a season. In the 1960's and before, you played 10 games or less and maybe a bowl game, so you could only lose one game maximum to hit 10 wins.