As we continue to work through another ugly ending of the season for Michigan football, I thought I would explore an area I think contributes to the anger, disappointment and even ennui for fans. Trying to find reasonable expectations and the impact of emotional wins.
The expectations game has been debated to death on the site, so I am not going to rehash that in detail. Instead, I wanted to explore how emotionally satisfying wins help temper expectations and how Michigan's lack of such wins is in a significant way driving so much of the unhappiness.
My argument is basically that winning rivalry games and other high-profile games builds a reserve of goodwill that can be drawn on in tough times thus balancing out some of the fan dissatisfaction as a program has its natural ups and downs.
For example, Ohio State has had some inexplicable losses (Iowa 2017, Michigan State 2015) and some bad ones (Clemson 2016), but they have a National Championship, have dominated Michigan, and have 8 total losses in Urban Meyer's tenure. Michigan State had a disastrous year in 2016, but beat Michigan and Penn State and won their bowl game handily. This overshadows losses to ND, Northwestern and an embarrassing loss to Ohio State. Penn State had heartbreaking losses to Ohio State and Michigan State but won 11 games and ended with a win.
We do need to take a few minutes to discuss the expectations that should set the context for our discussion. If you thought Harbaugh was going to step in and bring Michigan to the level of Urban Meyer or Nick Saban in three years, I can't help you. A cursory glance at the record of the schools for the last ten years would disabuse you of this notion. Ohio State has been playing in title games and winning conference championships. In contrast, even before RichRod and Hoke, Michigan lost 3-5 games with regularity.
Since 2000 Ohio State has averaged 2.27 losses a year while Michigan has averaged 4.22. So that should temper expectations. Ohio State has consistently been better than Michigan for a couple of decades and the last five have been dominant. Urban Meyer has never lost more than 2 games at OSU.
And the program that Harbaugh inherited was not exactly trending upward. RichRod had three consecutive losing seasons. Hoke started great (11-2), had a season remarkably like this year (8-5 with a bowl loss to SC), before two losing seasons. The two coaches prior to Harbaugh were a combined 41-35.
And going back to Lloyd Carr things were not at Meyer or Saban levels. Carr’s tenure at Michigan averages out to roughly 9-3. Obviously, the 1997 season stands out as the high point and the ending of the 2006 season as the start of the slide to mediocrity and below. Heck, Bo’s record is basically 9-2 with a losing record (5-12) in bowl games and no national titles.
This background indicates that in his first three years Harbaugh has brought Michigan back to what it was in the 90s and early 2000s. I would argue what he hasn’t achieved is some emotionally satisfying wins that would make this accomplishment FEEL better to Michigan fans. This recap of recent history may seem redundant for fans but bear with me.
Harbaugh’s first season started out with a tough but in many ways understandable loss to Utah but then won five games by a combined score of 160-14. The next game, however, was the heartbreaking and maddening loss to Michigan State. The Wolverines won the next four games including a goal line stand to win against Minnesota, an OT win against Indiana, and a sold 28-16 win against Penn State in Happy Valley. After a blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big House, Michigan thumped Florida 41-7 in the Gator Bowl.
Despite the pattern of painful losses to rivals, Harbaugh first season brought some emotional satisfaction. Ten wins and a blowout bowl win felt like a great start. Plus, the wins against Minnesota and Indiana provided some excitement and confidence that Michigan could win conference games on the road.
Michigan reeled off 9 straight wins in 2016 and other than the comeback against Colorado and a three missed field goals game against Wisconsin, none of them were particularly close. You know the story from there. Painful loss on the road to Iowa, snow game escape against Indiana, and then heartbreaking losses to Ohio State and Florida State.
This is where the emotional damage was done. A few plays, and one atrocious call, away from a playoff appearance and a great season; potentially one for the ages. So much promise and potential and yet fans came away with nothing but heartbreak.
The ending was particularly rough not just because it robbed Michigan of a great season, but it erased satisfying wins against not only Colorado and Wisconsin, but also Michigan State and Penn State. Win one of those three losses and the season feels very different. To use a cliché, fans were deprived of the type of closure or ending that can make a season feel satisfying even if disappointing. The end colors the whole season.
This year was the year of youth, particularly on defense. But an opening win against what was thought to be a solid Florida team seem to portend good things. The offense struggled but the defense was playing at last year levels despite losing a ton of talent and that was exciting. A comeback win against Purdue on the road with John O’Korn at QB had fans thinking that the injury to Wilton Speight would not doom the season.
A sloppy loss in a second half monsoon to Michigan State at home drove home the indication that QB and OL play would remain an issue for Michigan; a turnover fest would spell doom. The feeling of being snake bitten against Michigan State also continued. The team managed to sneak past Indiana but then were blown out in the second half by a Penn State team who seemed to have it all figured out.
Michigan went on to thump Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland with a suddenly quite good running game. And it seemed as if Brandon Peters might be the QB that Michigan so desperately needed. But a concussion against Wisconsin ended that possibility and the end of season losses followed. This included a torturous loss to Ohio State at home that included a 14-0 lead at one point. But the lack of a competent QB, O’Korn had lost whatever competence he once possessed, doomed the Wolverines to yet another loss in The Game.
So even before the bowl game, Michigan fans were struggling to make sense of the team and season. On the one hand, the defense seemed to be beating expectations given their youth and the running game come alive. The offensive play calling against Ohio State was brilliant even if the QB couldn’t hit an open receiver with the game on the line. On the other hand, the OL couldn’t protect the QB and seemed to find any stunt an unsolvable mystery. The WRs were young and failing to help the QB when given the chance.
What the bowl game represented was a chance to reset the expectations and reach a plateau on which to build. South Carolina was a bad team, worse than their 8-4 record. This was a chance to prove that Michigan could beat a team with a winning record. The Big Ten was undefeated in bowl games and had a chance to really stick it to the arrogant SEC. Michigan was favored to win and most felt comfortable then would do so handily.
When you combine the incredible frustration built up in 2016 from being a few plays, and an atrocious call, from greatness with the continuing losses to our rivals in painful fashion (and the media drumbeat on this point), this was a pool of gasoline waiting for a match.
The last quarter and a half against South Carolina provided not a spark but a flamethrower.
In the first half Michigan had the ball on the South Carolina 17, 8, and 27 and came away with filed goals each time. SC had a muffed punt and a fumble but were only down 9-3. Michigan looked poised to put the game away in the second half, however. After a 7 play 72-yard TD drive and a SC interception Michigan was driving for a score to put the game out of reach. Karan Higdon fumbled at the 4, seemed to recover it, only to have the defensive lineman rip it away. The defense held but a chance to deliver the knockout punch slipped by. Up 23-3 midway through the 3rd quarter would have been a great place to be.
The mistakes from there just multiplied. SC drove for a TD aided by a stupid personal foul penalty. Then facing 3rd and 1 at their own 23, Michigan ran the by now infamous play where TE Sean McKeon was lined up as a FB and promptly fumbled the handoff. The very next play was a SC TD and the collapse was on.
SC overcame a 3rd and 18 and then hit on a 53-yard bomb for their third straight possession with a TD.
Trailing for the first time Michigan drove to the five only to have Brandon Peters throw an interception in the endzone.
Donovan Peoples-Jones muffs a punt.
The defense holds SC to a FG despite having the ball on the 14. Peters throws four straight incompletions and Michigan turns the ball over on downs.
Again, defense holds, and SC misses a FG. 2nd and 2 at the 39 and Peters inexplicably slides instead of running for the first down. Two plays later, interception to end the game.
The litany is familiar: five(!) turnovers, 23 unanswered points, results in a blown 19-3 lead midway through the third quarter. An embarrassing loss. The only Big Ten team to lose a bowl game (to an SEC team).
I recap all of this, not because you are not aware of what happened but to try to capture the emotional rollercoaster and how it likely destroyed any semblance of balance and rationality many Michigan fans had.
In 2016 Michigan fans were deprived of the opportunity to prove they could be great. Instead, a season on the precipice of greatness was cruelly snatched away by the thinnest of margins and by a fate that seems intent on punishing Michigan repeatedly.
Having digested this pain, well mostly, Michigan fans simply wanted to believe that a very young team was still competent enough to win games they were supposed to win. After coming tantalizing close against quality opponents, they wanted to beat a winning team, hold up their part of the Big Ten reputation and slap down the SEC.
Instead, they got an epic collapse. Players they had hoped were coming into their own in the 13th game of the season made critical mistakes. Players they thought were the future, looked unable to handle the spotlight. And the coaches seemed unable to stop the bleeding or find a way to win.
You can say that Michigan’s history of failing to hold a lead in important games is not relevant to whether Harbaugh knows how to coach or the talent level on the 2018 team. You can say this year was roughly what was expected. But the history is there emotionally, and it FEELS important. Monday made it feel like that history was destiny, that Michigan would forever be the underachieving team. Without a great season to fall back on the future feels like a continuation of heartbreaking losses and mediocrity.
So where do we go from here? I think you must acknowledge this history and understand that it warps expectations and exaggerates the emotions. Living in Columbus, I know what winning once in 15 years against OSU feels like. You can’t have a hyped, media dominating, coach who gets paid ungodly sums, and a coaching staff who are also paid among the highest in the country, and not have expectations grow. And you can’t just wave away the emotions and baggage.
But you also need to realize that Harbaugh is digging out of a hole in terms of recruiting and winning. And he is doing this at a time when Ohio State is one of the best programs in the country, when Penn State is recruiting at a high level and Michigan State has a coach whose life goal is to beat Michigan even if that is all he accomplishes. This is an uphill climb.
It is also important to note, that Michigan isn’t trying to get BACK to the level of Meyer or Saban or Dabo. It was never at that level. Those programs have five years of top five recruiting classes under their belt. They have climbed to the highest level and stayed there. Michigan is trying to build a foundation from which they can reach that level.
That said, 2018 has the feel of a turning point. Michigan will need to find a way to give fans some significant wins so that they can feel like all the money and hype means something. Another season of losses to rivals and missing the conference championship game will drive the angry voices to newfound heights.
The good, and bad, news is that Michigan will have plenty of opportunities to get big wins. As everyone is aware, the schedule is not easy. Games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State on the road and visits from Wisconsin and Penn State. 10 wins, including wins against ND, MSU and/or OSU, would be quite an accomplishment. It would also give fans enough satisfaction to look to 2019 with excitement. A 4 or 5 loss season would seem to put even Harbaugh on the hot seat.