The 2021 football season had all the makings of a rough one for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines. Coming off a season in which Michigan stumbled to a 2-4 record, not a lot was expected of the Wolverines. Las Vegas set the over/under for victories at 7.5. Most pundits had Michigan finishing third or fourth in the Big Ten East. ESPN famously, or infamously, gave the Wolverines a 2% chance of winning the Big Ten and a 0% chance of advancing to the College Football Playoff. Michigan did not appear to be trending upward.
At the Big Ten Media Days in July, Hassan Haskins, Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Ross told a different story. The three seniors talked about how last season didn’t sit well with them and how important it was to them to turn things around. “One of the main reasons I came back (for his senior season),” Hutchinson said at the time, “was to help change the culture. To get Michigan back to where it needs to be.” It was a sentiment echoed by Haskins and Ross and embraced by their teammates back in Ann Arbor. “The whole team bought in,” Hutchinson assured reporters. The trio’s message was clear: This season would be different.
Such talk isn’t unusual. After all, what team doesn’t approach each new season with confidence and optimism? How many teams coming off disappointing seasons don’t promise improvement? Once the season began, however, Michigan began to prove that its off-season talk was more than just that.
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said that Michigan would be embracing a physical, run-first mentality this season - and that’s exactly what Michigan did. Running behind a veteran offensive line and leaning on a one-two running back punch of Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins, the Wolverines came out of the gate, well, running. In its three non-conference games, Michigan rushed for just over 350 yards a game. The Wolverines seemed to have an identity on offense, but would they continue to have success with such a run-heavy approach against Big Ten opponents? What would happen, many wondered, when the Wolverines hit the meat of their schedule?
As the season unfolded, the Wolverines kept running - and kept winning. Among the victories were road affairs at Wisconsin and Nebraska. The former, in a place Michigan rarely finds success. The latter, a game in which Michigan held on for a last-second victory. True, Nebraska proved adept at snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory this season, but prevailing in a hostile environment wasn’t something that Michigan had done a lot of in recent years.
As the season hit the halfway point, Michigan was rolling. With a dominant rushing attack, an efficient if not overwhelming passing game and a defense that ranked among the nation’s best, the Wolverines were undefeated and ascending in the polls.
A lot was going right for Michigan. Corum and Haskins were on their way to combining to rush for nearly 2,300 yards and 31 touchdowns. Cade McNamara had settled into the starting quarterback role with aplomb. Despite losing Ronnie Bell (Michigan’s top receiver) in the season opener, McNamara and Michigan had an ensemble of receivers with which to craft Michigan’s passing attack. Michigan’s balanced attack made for one of the Big Ten’s most productive offenses.
It was on defense, however, where the Wolverines showed the most improvement. Under first year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, Michigan bounced back from a season in which it barely cracked the top 100 in total defense to become one of the most formidable units in the country. Led by the nation’s best pass rushing tandem in All-American Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the Wolverines ranked among the nation’s top ten defenses for much of the season.
With its offense and defense playing as well as they were, Michigan found itself on a good path. But that’s not to say there wouldn’t be any bumps in the road.
It’s always a big game when Michigan and Michigan State play, but with each team entering the game undefeated and ranked in the top ten, there was even more buzz than usual for this year’s contest. By the time gameday rolled around, the atmosphere in East Lansing was at a fever pitch. The game lived up to the hype - a back and-forth affair that had enough lead changes and momentum shifts to keep each fan base on the edge of its collective seat all afternoon. In the end, thanks in large part to a Herculean performance by running back Kenneth Walker III (who rushed for 197 yards and five touchdowns), Michigan State prevailed, 37-33. When the dust settled, Michigan not only lost to its in-state rival, but lost its undefeated season, its top ten ranking and perhaps most importantly, was on the outside looking in with respect to the race for the conference championship.
The loss also put Michigan at a crossroads of sorts. Would the Wolverines bounce back from such an emotional defeat? Or would their once-promising season tank? Michigan’s McNamara was fond of saying that this Michigan team was different than past Michigan teams. With a trip to Happy Valley on the horizon, it wouldn’t take long to see if he was right.
Michigan proved its quarterback knew what he was talking about, and defeated the Nittany Lions in a hard fought, closely contested affair - one not decided until McNamara hit tight end Erick All for a 53-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. After taking care of Maryland the next week, the Wolverines welcomed Ohio State to Ann Arbor in a game that, thanks to a couple of missteps by Michigan State, would decide the Big Ten East.
Even though Michigan boasted a 10-1 record and a top five ranking, Ohio State’s dominance over Michigan has been such that few gave the Wolverines a chance to win. But as Harbaugh said after the game, those inside the locker room believed. And they believed they could win not through smoke and mirrors, but by taking it to the Buckeyes. To the delight of a home crowd that was as loud and as energetic as any that’s watched a game at the Big House (“The best environment I’ve ever seen in college football,” former USC quarterback and current Fox Sports analyst Matt Leinart would say), that’s exactly what Michigan did.
Michigan defeated Ohio State – and did so by being the more physical team. By dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ohio State could neither stop Michigan’s ground game nor contain Michigan’s pass rush. Haskins led the way on offense, rushing for 169 yards and five touchdowns. On defense, Hutchinson recorded three sacks and three more tackles-for-loss as he and linemate Ojabo applied pressured on Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud all afternoon. Stroud and his corps of all-world receivers did all they could to keep things close, but ultimately couldn’t do enough. When Ohio State failed to convert on fourth down with just over a minute to play, effectively ending the game, it set off a celebration in Michigan Stadium - and on the field - that lasted long after the game ended.
With the victory, Michigan advanced the Big Ten Championship game where it played a stout Iowa team. Any concerns the Wolverines would have trouble bouncing back from such an emotional victory the week before were quickly quashed, as Michigan struck early and often in a dominating 42-3 victory. With the victory, Michigan captured its first Big Ten championship in nearly two decades - and advanced to the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history.
Michigan’s first playoff experience would not be a memorable one, however, as a game that was billed as a battle of evenly matched teams in Michigan and Georgia, proved to be a mismatch. Michigan didn’t help its cause, making the kind of mistakes it had largely avoided all year, but the story of the game was that Michigan couldn’t handle Georgia’s power or speed. The Bulldogs showed they were the better team from the jump and romped to a 34-11 victory in a game that didn’t feel that close.
Michigan’s pursuit of a national championship ultimately came up short. And as much as the Wolverines improved and as well as they played this season, their performance against Georgia showed that there’s still a gap between them and the nation’s truly elite teams. The loss did not, however, take away from what was a special season in Ann Arbor.
Jim Harbaugh, a year after much of his own fan base wanted to run him out of town, was the named national coach of the year. Aidan Hutchinson, who passed on leaving for the NFL despite receiving first-round grades, was a consensus All-American and Heisman finalist. Hassan Haskins set the school record for rushing touchdowns in a season and authored a performance against Ohio State that will live in Wolverine lore forever.
As a team, Michigan tied a school record with 12 victories. Finally broke through against Ohio State. Captured its first Big Ten title in a generation. Advanced to its first college football playoff - the first team to do so having begun the season unranked.
Sure, it ended in disappointing fashion, but that didn’t take much of the luster off of a season that will be long remembered in Ann Arbor.
A final note: I realize that 1,600 words is a lot to digest. But you’ll have to indulge me. After year after year after year of writing postmortems that were, well, appropriately named, there was a lot to write about this season. In the end, it was a season the likes of which Michigan hasn’t had in a long time - and it was a thrill to be along for the ride.
A look back at Michigan’s season
- Michigan Rolls in Season Opening Victory
- Michigan Survives Rutgers Rally
- Michigan Defeats Wisconsin
- Michigan Defeats Nebraska
- The Battle for Paul Bunyan: Michigan State Preview
- Michigan State Defeats
- Michigan Defeats Penn State
- Michigan Defeats Ohio State
- Michigan Captures Big Ten Championship
- Orange Bowl Preview