On a team that featured so much youth and inexperience (cf. USC, about which Ivan Maisel claims one PAC-10 coach states USC's four-loss season is attributable to their youth, despite having a virtual NFL-quality roster), the absence of talented and experienced upperclassmen can’t be ignored (e.g., Minor, Molk, Hemingway, Odoms, Johnson, etc.) as well as nagging injuries by regular players.
However, I wonder if in retrospect a case can be made that –- subsequent to the Big 10’s showing in the bowl games –- Michigan’s second half “collapse” was in large measure a consequence of the caliber of competition we now know they played. At the time, it seems many assumed our team was losing to overrated conference teams. As it turns out, the top half of our conference was brutal, and yet:
• We lost by 2 (30-28) to an Iowa team that shut down #9 Georgia Tech 24-14 in the Orange Bowl and finished #7 in the rankings.
• We lost by 6 (26-20) to a Michigan State team that was minus 14 players yet still had a 4th quarter lead against an emotional 9-4 #24 Texas Tech team in the Alamo Bowl.
• We lost by 2 (38-36) to a Purdue team we were beating 24-10 at halftime. (For that three-game stretch we were being outscored 21-3 in the second half.)
The only three games in which Michigan was clearly outmatched – at least in the second half of the game (Illinois doesn’t count) – were to #9 Penn State (lost by 25), #15 Wisconsin (by 21) and #5 Ohio State (by 11). Those were losses to legitimately powerful (Top 15) teams who proved it to us and everyone else in their bowl games:
• Penn State defeated #12 LSU 19-17 in the Capital One Bowl,
• Wisconsin overpowered #15 Miami 20-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl, and
• Ohio State defeated #7 Oregon 26-17 in the Rose Bowl.
Despite the back end of the schedule featuring our toughest opponents, we consistently closed the margin of defeat. It certainly doesn’t change the outcome, but does it perhaps demonstrate that -- with more experience, a bit more talent at key positions, more maturity in a single defensive system, and a little luck (re: relative strength of conference opponents, health, etc.) we may not be as far away from approaching top-25-caliber status as we initially thought?