ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Back-to-back 10-win seasons, capped by a 10-2 regular-season finish in 2016, affirm a simple but powerful point: Once again nationally relevant, Michigan continues to prove that it’s on the way to reclaiming its former status among college football giants.
Those slip-ups at Iowa.
Those several miscues at Ohio State.
Those small clusters of mistakes erased the Wolverines’ chances of a 12-0 run through the fall, but 2016 was far from a failure for second-year coach Jim Harbaugh, who has won 20 of 25 games since returning to his old stomping grounds.
Based on face value, it’d be easy to slap a grade of “A-” on Michigan’s season. If not for a 14-13 road loss to Iowa and a 30-27 double-overtime loss to Ohio State, a grade of “A+” would be more than appropriate. The Hawkeyes finished with a No. 22 ranking; Ohio State at No. 2.
Despite two losses, one to a rival which has owned the series since the turn of the millennium, the Wolverines beat Michigan State — a rival which has owned the past decade — and left little doubt of their superiority while steamrolling team after team, week after week.
Yeah, they lost to the Buckeyes, but they also beat No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 8 Penn State, who’ll play Dec. 3 in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. They also beat No. 9 Colorado.
That’s Pac-12 South champion Colorado, mind you.
Months ago, the Wolverines were thought to have had an easy schedule. Despite a handful of blowouts, the past 12 weeks proved otherwise for a team that easily proved it belongs among the top four in the nation.
However, there were more layers that went into the season. Again, the “A-” serves as a surface grade — and a deserved one — but it also opens the discussion when analyzing other areas of performance.
The Wolverines had trouble putting away teams during competitive encounters. They were a better first-half team, scoring 287 of 480 of their total points before halftime.
With that said, they didn’t get a speck of offense until the third quarter versus Indiana, grunting out a 20-10 snow-covered win in Ann Arbor prior to losing to Ohio State.
Against Iowa, well… 13 points on the road rarely completes the job, if ever. Michigan needed that game, too. An 11-1 finish with a loss to Ohio State could have been enough to get into the Big Ten Championship Game. Instead, two losses opened the door for Penn State, which owned the tiebreaker versus Ohio State, to leap atop the Big Ten East Division.
When it mattered most, the Wolverines failed to impress. Yes, they were robbed at Ohio State. No question there, whatsoever. But instead of maintaining a heavy hand, they allowed other teams to dictate the outcome during two critical road games.
Grade: Michigan could have won both but fell flat during the fourth quarter versus the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes. For those two games, Michigan failed. Against Indiana, Michigan put forth a “A”-worthy crunch time performance after trailing 7-3 at halftime — its only halftime deficit of the season.
Let’s go ahead and lump in Colorado, just for the sake of being thorough: During the first quarter, the Buffaloes jumped out to a 21-7 lead, quickly silencing 100,000-plus at Michigan Stadium. Then, all of a sudden, the Wolverines shook their slumber and cruised to a 45-28 win.
And… just to be especially thorough: Michigan should be given a shred of credit for withstanding Michigan State’s second-half push. Beating at least one rival was a step in the right direction for Michigan, which has beaten the Buckeyes thrice since 2000 and has lost seven of the past 10 to the Spartans.
Throw an “A” on that, because crunch time came early for Harbaugh, who applied the necessary pressure to get the desired result.
Harbaugh’s innovative train formation, re-assignments and usage of players, motivational qualities and overall control of a program deserve an “A.” An easy “A,” too. A handful of plays separated him from his first undefeated season as a coach. He’s had three one-loss seasons. Prior to 2016, he had never back-to-back 10-win seasons with a Power Five school.
If based on wins and the getting job done the previous year, the 2016 season should be considered one of Harbaugh’s better offerings.
Michigan’s staff contributed to the No. 2-ranked total defense in the nation, a top-50 total offense (No. 49), the No. 13-ranked scoring offense and a special teams unit that led the FBS with four punt blocks. The Wolverines finished with the No. 7-ranked special teams unit in terms of efficiency, per ESPN.
Don’t forget: With a handful of first-round talents, Harbaugh should put up Michigan’s best NFL draft class in recent memory. That’s another topic for another day, though.
Speaking of player usage, the Wolverines utilized Jabrill Peppers to the fullest extent. The redshirt sophomore finished with 691 all-purpose yards, including three rushing touchdowns and a 54-yard punt-return touchdown versus Colorado.
According to the latest estimates, Peppers — a 6-foot-1, 205-pound do-it-all force — played roughly 14 or 15 positions in 2016: wildcat QB, return man, linebacker and things in-between.
Despite some wear late in the season, Michigan’s O-line shuffle wasn’t a total disaster. Granted, the O-line didn’t shine versus Iowa or Ohio State, but it continued to make progress. The O-line could be a concern in 2017, but it held up for the majority of 2016.
Ben Bredeson, a true freshman, played in 11 games, starting six times at left tackle. Juwann Bushell-Beatty, a redshirt sophomore, played eight games and started once at left tackle.
True freshmen Khaleke Hudson (special teams), Kekoa Crawford (receiving) and Rashan Gary (D-line) proved to be stars of the future. Devin Asiasi, one of the Wolverines’ best blockers, lined up as a tight end and fullback, showing off a bit of versatility up front.
Michigan played 22 true freshmen in 2016 — and not out of necessity, either. Harbaugh flexed a little bit of muscle with the young guys, forecasting the next few years in Ann Arbor.
Redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight buckled a bit at Ohio State, but he proved to be Harbaugh’s quarterback until further notice. That’s something the Wolverines haven’t had in some time. Remember the previous QB carousels without a clear semi-long-term starter?
Those days are over, at least for another season.
Final grades and other deeper and more detailed assessments will be made after Michigan’s bowl game — which appears to be either the Rose or Orange — but for now, and considering the leaps in rushing production and player development, it only makes sense to assign an overall grade of “A-” for the past 12 games.