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As Michigan's Dream Season Crashes Out, the Wolverines Are Left Eyeing the Future

Jim Harbaugh's program hopes 2021 is the start of something even bigger, but CFP history shows that's easier said than done.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The dream season ended in a nightmare. Besides one afternoon in East Lansing, everything went right for Michigan this year. In the best way, the season snowballed to a triumphant regular-season conclusion against Ohio State and a Big Ten championship.

Coach Jim Harbaugh called it one of the best years in school history—still great despite the end result. But like many College Football Playoff semifinals, Friday’s loss to Georgia showed the real gulf between the sport’s elite programs and the teams that are merely having what may end up a special one-off year if success is not sustained.

Michigan players dejectedly walk off the field after the loss to Georgia

The Wolverines' first Playoff appearance ended in a 23-point loss.

“There’s never any quit in these guys,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a very resilient [group], ton of resolve with this football team and as I said, to me it feels like a start. Feels like a beginning.”

Michigan’s offensive line entered Hard Rock Stadium clearly wanting to send a message.

Consider it not received in a 34–11 rout that was effectively over midway through the second quarter.

“We knew the Joe Moore Award and they totally deserved that,” Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis said of the Wolverines being named the nation’s best offensive line. “But we just wanted to make sure that we was dominant and physical up front. We wanted to make sure we tested them, gave them a challenge. That was our game plan going in, being a physical, more dominant front. It was a battle of the line of scrimmage.”

If you asked any offensive lineman, almost to a man, they would tell you that they’d rather run the ball over an opponent. There is a physical element to the game that running the ball brings that is woven into the fabric of the sport. It’s one thing to win, it’s another to dominate the man in front of you. And the way they do it is through a specific bludgeoning brand of ball that the Michigan offensive line clearly takes pride in.

As our Orange Bowl game preview stated:

On plays where Michigan has pullers—whether frontside, backside or multiple—the Wolverines are fifth in the country in attempts, per Sports Info Solutions. They run such plays nearly 40% of the time, according to Pro Football Focus.

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Enter Georgia, which unleashed a brand of physicality on the Wolverines that they had not seen to date. It’s encapsulated in one play:

This was a textbook destruction of Michigan’s pulling linemen, and a stoning of a staple running play for the Wolverines. Michigan had no answer for Georgia’s physicality, but the answer isn’t difficult. Either you’re good enough to match up athlete-to-athlete or you aren’t, and there isn't much more than that no matter how “hard” Harbaugh said his team’s resolve is.

Eventually, as the game got entirely out of hand, Michigan had to mostly throw the ball, popping big plays with the results being merely academic. The Wolverines played much of the second half with J.J. McCarthy under center instead of starter Cade McNamara. Harbaugh attributed it to protection issues and said McCarthy’s legs added an escapability that allowed him to avoid the rush. Michigan’s first touchdown didn’t come until there was 4:25 left in the game, against largely backup Georgia defenders.

Georgia's Jordan Davis clobbers Michigan QB Cade McNamara

It was a long night for McNamara (No. 12) under center.

“These guys are going to continue to grow from this,” safety Brad Hawkins said. “Kind of like Aidan [Hutchinson] said, we set the foundation. These guys, of course, are disappointed. The scar tissue is not going to stop them. Starting a new year, it’s a new season. They’re just going to grow and continue to get better.”

If you are a believer in linear progression, as Harbaugh put it, you buy into the notion that this is truly a beginning. The poetic version of the tale would have Michigan right back in the Playoff next season building around a young core. But while the potential future CFP expansion may make the dance more accessible, winning a championship will still mean getting past the hurdle the Wolverines saw Friday night. Plus, Ohio State and Penn State will be strong as usual, and the Spartans team that gave them their lone regular season loss has its own momentum it hopes to carry into next season.

And the team that beat them Friday? It’s taken the Bulldogs three seasons to return to the CFP since losing to Alabama in the 2017 national championship. In order to take this year’s crown home, they must beat a Crimson Tide team that crushed them in early December.

When the Orange Bowl was over, as the red and black confetti rained, five Michigan players stood on the field watching the celebration they imagined they’d be having just hours before. Linebacker Mike Morris, RB Blake Corum, RB Donovan Edwards, WR Andrel Anthony and McCarthy.

If Michigan gets back to this place, each will play a major role. But it’s a big if.

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