In the preseason college football coaches poll, Michigan started the season ranked 7th, with Michigan State ranked 20th.
Since then they’ve both gone through plenty of ups and downs, with Michigan falling to 17th, and Michigan State falling out of the rankings altogether. But there’s one final twist left: their bowl games.
Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio was expected to fix his anemic offense, but didn’t. The Spartans’ defense, however, earned them six wins – just enough to qualify for one of this year’s 40 bowl games. The Spartans will play in Yankee Stadium in December, but it still beats sitting at home.
The bigger question is what Dantonio will do after they return. He’s 63, he’s already had a heart attack, he’s done just about everything he could do at Michigan State, and he’s going to be deposed in a potentially ugly lawsuit over a former player who was convicted of sexual assault.
With so many reasons to step down, I suspect Dantonio will. But probably not before January 15, when he’s scheduled to receive another $4 million dollars just for continuing to be the head coach that day.
Down the road, the Wolverines struggled the first half of the season. But once quarterback Shea Patterson fully recovered from an injury suffered on the season’s first play, and new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis figured out how to drive this machine, they tore through their next four games until they faced top-ranked Ohio State.
Michigan entered the game as 9-point underdogs, but they managed to do the hard things very well: neutralizing Ohio State defender Chase Young, considered by many to be the nation’s best player, passing for 300 yards, and scoring two touchdowns early on. But they also displayed a knack for doing the easy things poorly, including fumbling the snap near the goal line, dropping nine passes, and taking a few penalties that were as costly as they were stupid.
Add it up, and that’s how you lose to Ohio State 52-27, one of Michigan’s worst losses in this rivalry, which is saying something when the Wolverines have beaten the Buckeyes only twice this century.
But the only thing more unfounded than the perpetual rumors of coach Jim Harbaugh jumping back to the NFL are the pundits’ claims that he’s on the hot seat. It’s not even warm. So long as his team keeps winning 10 or so games every year, fills the stadium, graduates almost 90-percent of his players, and stays out of trouble, his job is completely safe – and should be, or Michigan isn’t what it claims to be. Athletic director Warde Manuel has the only vote that counts, and he isn’t budging.
The Wolverines reward for all this is a return to Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, where they’ll face perennial juggernaut Alabama – a team that has won five national titles under Nick Saban. They last time they met seven years ago Alabama crushed Michigan 41-14.
Most sports writers see this game as a mismatch, which could result in Harbaugh’s fourth-straight bowl loss. If they get blown out again, the off-season won’t be much fun for Michigan fans.
But the game also gives the Wolverines a chance to flip the script if they can eliminate self-inflicted errors, give the Crimson Tide a run, and have nine months to enjoy their redemption.
And that’s a chance worth taking.
John U. Bacon is the author of six national bestsellers and most recently published Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football.