As far as low points go, it was tough to top 2014 for the University of Michigan. A disappointing season that capped, what was for the most part, a disappointing decade. Michigan continued its downward trajectory under Brady Hoke, finishing with a worse record than it had the prior season for a third consecutive year, as the Wolverines limped to a bowl-less 5-7 record. Yet as bad as Michigan's play was on the field - and it was often bad - it was largely overshadowed by an assortment of embarrassing off-the-field issues. It truly was a season to forget.
But an offseason to remember, as Michigan famously replaced Hoke with its favorite son, Jim Harbaugh. And with Harbaugh's arrival, even after the darkest of seasons, there was unabashed excitement in Ann Arbor. Expectations for Harbaugh's first season at Michigan ran the gamut, from absurdly low (with some predicting another 5-7 season) to absurdly high (with some predicting a Big Ten championship). Most objective observers, however, agreed that Harbaugh would improve the Wolverines - and improve them dramatically. The question was, how quickly that change would come?
The season started rather inauspiciously for Harbaugh and the Wolverines. Granted, losing to Utah - at Utah, no less - was no sin. The Utes were a veteran team coming off a successful 2014 season and were among the preseason favorites in the Pac-12. But in losing, pundits were quick to point out that this year's Michigan team didn't look much better than last year's version. Michigan had trouble running the ball (the biggest question holding over from the 2014 season) and got shaky quarterback play from Jake Rudock in his Michigan debut (the biggest question heading into the 2015 season), as mistakes ultimately paved the way to a 24-17 season-opening loss.
But if you looked closely enough - or if you knew what you were looking for - you could see that this was a different team. While Harbaugh didn't transform the Wolverines into a championship caliber team overnight (and really, who seriously expected this to happen?), his influence was apparent. Offensive play-calling was the most notable change from the Hoke/Borges/Nussmeier regime, but there were also clear differences in style of play and in-game adjustments. The Wolverines struggled against the Utes, yet they not only continued to battle, but played better as the game progressed, something Wolverine fans were not accustomed to seeing.
Soon enough, though, the changes became more obvious. After a pair of blowout wins against overmatched opponents, Michigan had its first statement win with a dominating 31-0 victory over once-beaten BYU, prompting Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall to say after the game, "That was the best team we've played this season. Not only physically, but execution-wise." The BYU victory marked the first of three consecutive shutouts for the Wolverines, a feat Michigan hadn't accomplished in three decades. After BYU came another pair of overmatched opponents, and as Michigan approached its mid-season clash against Michigan State, the Wolverines started to look like a good team. But more than simply boasting a 6-1 record, more and more of the questions heading into the season were being answered in a positive fashion.
There weren't a lot of questions surrounding Michigan's defense heading into the season, as the Wolverines brought back a veteran unit, but the defense more than lived up to expectations. The defensive line was dominant, bottling up running attacks and pressuring opposing quarterbacks alike, and the secondary, long an issue for the Wolverines, was one of the team's strengths, led by junior Jourdan Lewis, Michigan's best cover-corner, since, well, you know who. On the offensive side of the ball, the run game, absent for so long, started to show signs of life, and in hard-running De'Veon Smith, Michigan looked like it finally found its lead back. Tight end Jake Butt, the only known quantity among receiving options coming into the season, did not disappoint, garnering All-Conference honors as a junior, and both Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson excelled in their first seasons of extended use. The pair combined for more than 100 receptions and nearly 1,500 yards to go along with 14 touchdowns. Things were coming together for the Wolverines even if their quarterback continued to struggle.
As Michigan began to hit its stride, the one persistent issue was its quarterback play. More specifically, its quarterback's accuracy. Or even more specifically, the lack thereof. It was a trend that was established early, when Rudock missed open receiver after open receiver against Utah, and one that continued through the Michigan State game. The Michigan State game will be remembered for its final play, but had Rudock connected with a painfully open Jehu Chesson in the fourth quarter, it might have rendered the game's final punt moot. The missed opportunities in the passing game piled up, and opposing defenses took notice. With little threat of a downfield passing attack, opponents were able to load up against the run with little risk of getting beat over the top. Despite the Wolverines' good start, Michigan's Achilles heel was that Rudock seemed incapable of completing downfield passes. A game manager who had difficulty managing games.
But then a funny thing happened, as Michigan rebounded from its crushing loss to Michigan State, running off four consecutive wins, Rudock began to find his groove. Suddenly, the player accused by many of holding the offense back, was carrying the offense. Over the season's final five games, in which Michigan faced three of the top five pass defenses in the nation, Rudock completed 67% of his passes for over 1,500 yards, with 14 touchdown passes against only two interceptions.
Led by Rudock's strong play, Michigan still clung to slim hopes of playing for the Big Ten championship heading into the season finale against Ohio State. Those hopes were short-lived, however, as an angry Ohio State team, awakened by a loss to Michigan State the previous week, embarrassed Michigan 42-13, in a game that might not have been even that close.
It was a rough end of the regular season, but it wasn't the final chapter. With a month off, Michigan got a little healthier and looked as good as it had all year in running (and passing) all over SEC East champ Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Rudock again shined, Smith topped the century mark on the ground and Chesson regularly got the best of Florida's highly-touted secondary. The 41-7 victory might have been Michigan's most complete game all season.
Beating Florida didn't erase the season's low points. The losses to Michigan State and Ohio State were as painful as any in recent memory, Michigan struggled to get past Minnesota and Indiana, and during the second half of the season, with Smith hobbled by injuries, there were times that Michigan's best options at tailback were a safety and a fullback. But led by Rudock, who never lost his grasp on the team even when he couldn't find open receivers, the Wolverines continued fighting and ended the season on a high note.
In the Citrus Bowl post-game press conference, after singing the praises of departing players like Rudock and Graham Glasgow, Harbaugh said, "For the rest of us, guys like De'Veon and me, onward. 2016, this was the beginning of that year." It was as if Harbaugh and the players couldn't wait for the 2016 season to begin. A sentiment echoed by most Michigan fans.