On the drive home from what turned out to be an epic overtime Sugar Bowl victory for Michigan, I couldn't help but looking back on not only the past season, but also the last few years. Sure, Michigan had just won its first bowl game since the 2008 Capital One Bowl and its first BCS game since 2000, but this win seemed to solidify a lot more than just that. This was not a perfect team, but when Brendan Gibbon's field goal cleared the uprights, the finish felt perfect.
Since Michigan's loss to Ohio State in 2006, almost nothing has been the same. Michigan went through, without doubt, the worst period in its history. Not only did the team end the season with a loss to Ohio State and the loss of long-time coach Bo Schembechler, which is bad enough, but they followed with a loss in the Rose Bowl. Losing in the Rose Bowl isn't necessarily something to be ashamed of, especially because Michigan faced a great team, but losing by a significant margin is never something that should cause pride.
However, what followed this loss was really what changed Michigan and its culture. Michigan opened its season ranked #5 and appeared to be set for a great year. There were some tough opponents on the schedule, but with Notre Dame and Ohio State at home, things looked bright. Michigan may have collapsed to end the year, but there was no way that happened again. However, we all know the story. Michigan loses its first two games to Appalachian State and Oregon and remains un-ranked for much of the year. The team recovered to finish 9-4 with a victory over Florida and Tim Tebow in the 2008 Capital One Bowl, but afterward Michigan lost a great senior class and Lloyd Carr.
Rich Rodriguez entered the scene and frankly, never had a relevant team after September. He finished with the horrid career record of 15-22. Along with this, he never beat Michigan State or Ohio State. The only ranked teams he managed to beat collapsed over the course of the year, removing all relevance. The defense and special teams were in ruins and even the hailed offense didn't put up as many points as desired and seemed to rely far too much on one single player (though it was still a solid unit).
So what's the story? Why am I bringing up things that happened in 2006? Michigan entered "The Game" ranked #2 and undefeated (11-0). However, from that game until Brady Hoke's first game at Michigan this season, the team was 24-28. Over that period Michigan never finished with more than 9 wins, were 1-2 in bowl games, never defeated Ohio State, and ultimately finished 4-9 in rivalry games. I bring up these facts not to torture Michigan fans, but because I want to show the significance of this team.. Over that period, the culture of winning had largely faded from Schembechler Hall. The team and fans wanted to win, but their expectations seemed to drop every year. The team had national championship hopes in 2007, which faded to bowl hopes in 2010.
So what changed for a team that went a combined 24-28 from the 2006 Ohio State game to 2011? Well, that culture changed. The team finished 11-2 this year. Along with this, the team went 2-1 in rivalry games (beating Notre Dame and Ohio State) and beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. This team certainly wasn't perfect, losing to Michigan State and Iowa, but they were exactly what Michigan needed. Michigan desperately needed something to return the team to its winning ways and Team 132 fit the bill.
To me, the losses against Michigan State and Iowa do nothing to taint what was a spectacular season. Sure, it would have been great to play in the Big Ten Championship Game for a shot to go to the Rose Bowl, but this team still made a great bowl and capitalized on that opportunity. In fact, Michigan actually finished with the best winning percentage of any Big Ten team. Yes, Michigan State also finished with 11 wins, but they also had 3 losses, giving Michigan the best winning percentage. I doubt this will do anything to remove some of the hurt from the loss to Michigan State, but it's still significant.
So what was this team? Bottom line, it was a WINNING team. Something Ann Arbor hasn't seen since November 11, 2006 against Indiana. I fully admit that the 2007 Michigan Wolverines were not a complete failure, but a 9-4 season with losses to Ohio State and Appalachian State are certainly not something to be proud of, at least in my opinion. Will next year's team win like the Team 132? I'm not sure, a tough schedule with a lot of road games may interfere with that, but what's great is I believe they can. To me, that's what this team brought back to Michigan, that "belief" in winning. Most people used to assume and expect Michigan victories. However, that seemed to fade away over the last few years.
By not only winning, but winning with players the media and previous coaches have referred to as "busts" or "un-coachable", it made this season even better. Doesn't it say something when the roster is virtually identical yet the results largely differ? I say so. I believe in Brady Hoke and this coaching staff and I believe in Michigan. I think most fans supported the team even during the darkest times, but it's even better when the team is assumed to win. To steal a quote from the infamous Charlie Sheen, I think Brady Hoke will be doing a lot of "winning" in the future. This team has returned the bright future to a trouble fan base and frankly restored order.
Photo Credit: Michigan Daily