For the second consecutive year, Michigan finished its season staggering down the home stretch. In a case of déjà vu, the Wolverines dropped three of their final four games, lost in agonizing fashion to Ohio State and suffered a deflating, come-from-ahead loss in their bowl game. In that bowl game, Michigan surrendered the game’s final 23 points in a 26-19 Outback Bowl loss to unranked South Carolina in a demoralizing loss that cast a pall on the season.
Last season, such disappointment was understandable. Michigan was loaded with upperclassmen and laden with NFL talent. Squarely in the playoff conversation all season, coming up short was understandably painful, given the circumstances. So why does it feel like the mood in Ann Arbor is worse this season? The disappointment more profound?
This was always going to be a challenging season for Michigan. The Wolverines turned over the majority of their roster and entered the season with the least experienced team in the nation, forced to replace 17 starters, including ten on the defensive side of the ball. Expectations were – or should have been – tempered.
Given such a defensive overhaul, Don Brown’s defense actually exceeded expectations this season. Led by All-American and team MVP Maurice Hurst and fellow All Conference performers Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and Devin Bush, Michigan again finished the season with a top five defense.
But if the defense exceeded expectations, the offense fell short. Michigan’s offense never got on track, largely due to quarterback issues. Incumbent Wilton Speight never really found his groove before suffering a season ending injury in late September, and after a promising debut, John O’Korn sputtered in relief of Speight. Michigan eventually turned to redshirt freshmen Brandon Peters, who proved efficient, if not exciting, in leading Michigan to three victories before he, too, fell victim to injury.
Healthy and with a full month of practice as the first team starter, all eyes were on Peters when Michigan met South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. A strong performance by Peters, the thought was, would suggest that the offensive funk in which the Wolverines found themselves this season was an aberration, and that there would be better days – and better quarterback play – ahead. But instead of finishing the season strong and springboarding themselves confidently into next season, the Wolverines floundered in Tampa.
And perhaps that’s why the finish to this season was as disappointing as it was. It wasn’t just a disappointing end to the season but an inauspicious look ahead to next season. Suddenly, the future didn’t look as bright.
This isn’t to say that there is no hope for the Wolverines. Michigan returns the lion’s share of its defense, a unit should again rank among the nation’s best. Michigan also returns an abundance of talent on offense, including its top two running backs in Karan Higdon and Chris Evans, a young receiving crew headed by Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones and a bevy of tight ends. But questions at offensive line and quarterback remain unanswered, and once again, will ultimately define the Wolverines’ season.
Jim Harbaugh likes to say that iron sharpens iron, and for Michigan to rise above its disappointing 2017 season, that will have to be the case. But until then, it will likely be a long offseason in Ann Arbor.