November 26, 2011
As often as they've discussed it — and they seem to have discussed little else over the last five years — Michigan fans still disagree about the precise moment the pall descended on the winningest program in college football.
There was Dec. 17, 2007, the day the program handed the keys to an outsider, Rich Rodriguez, who failed utterly in the face of entrenched opposition and wretched defenses. Before that, though, there was Sept. 1, 2007, the day tiny Appalachian State beat the Wolverines in the Big House, indicting a culture stale with arrogance and complacency. But even before that, there was Nov. 17, 2006, the day Bo Schembechler died on the eve of one of the biggest games in school history, and Michigan lost the glue that had held the program together for nearly four decades. The partisans will point to any of the above, or all of them, and probably a few more if you talk to enough people.
But all of them will agree on the moment the cloud lifted. If the seven-year skid against Ohio State served as a bitter shorthand for Michigan's descent into mediocrity, after 2,926 days, the end of The Streak is the moment the Wolverines finally turned the page on the lowest era in school history.
In a different context — say, if the breakthrough had come as an out-of-the-blue upset en route to the Insight Bowl — that sort of "end of an era" rhetoric would qualify as rank hyperbole. This wasn't even an upset: Once you remove the trappings of the rivalry, a back-and-forth shootout against a 6-5 outfit ravaged by nine months of turbulence and attrition doesn't amount to much.
In the context of the entire season, though, it was an exclamation point on a legitimate return to form. Unlike 2007 and 2008, the Wolverines didn't endure an embarrassing flop against a major underdog. Unlike 2009 and 2010, they didn't blow their fast start with a depressing November fade against the meat of the Big Ten slate. They were never blown out, and after their dramatic comeback to beat Notre Dame in September, none of their subsequent wins were close. Last week's evisceration of Nebraska was Michigan's best game in five years, a complete win over a real opponent, and the first unmistakable line of demarcation between Brady Hoke's first team and Rich Rodriguez's last.
Finally beating the Buckeyes didn't just end a humiliating streak: At 10-2, the Wolverines are guaranteed to move into the top 14 in the final BCS standings, and virtually guaranteed — assuming bowl officials consider the prospect of a sprawling, revved-up Michigan fan base a more attractive draw than a revved-up Kansas State fan base, or deflated, dejected Oklahoma State fan base if the Cowboys lose to Oklahoma — to receive an at-large invite to their first BCS bowl since 2006. It's a catharsis, but it isn't just salve on a wound. Beating the Buckeyes was further, final confirmation that Hoke has fulfilled his promise: Yes, shotgun offense and all, this is Michigan again, as Michigan fans have always understood it.
Whether Hoke's version is actually better than the version Rodriguez would have delivered if he'd been granted a fourth season with a veteran team of his own making and a new defensive coordinator, we don't know. But those questions are beside the point now, anyway. It's Hoke who's delivered the 10-win season, the (likely) BCS bowl, the end of the subjugation to Ohio State and the first sense of sustained progress and goodwill since Schembechler's death. Michigan is back. Now comes the business of staying back.
But not until after the celebration.