Column: The long, hard, difficult path to Michigan football’s 2023 national championship

HOUSTON — Sitting on a dimly lit exterior concourse, masked, and trying to make sense of what just happened, I turned to a colleague of mine. “This is it. For Michigan, this is as far as it gets,” they said. Wondering if that was true or not beyond 2021 — it felt true at the time — it was difficult to argue in the moment. The Wolverines just got embarrassed on a national stage, 34-11, by Georgia, in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated.

Perhaps beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten wasn’t so bad a consolation prize. But beating the SEC’s best? That felt a million miles away at the moment.

Fast forward two years, and on New Year’s Eve, with a Rose Bowl forthcoming the following day, we would learn if what felt real two years to the day previously was actually true. Michigan football was No. 1 in the country and set to take on an Alabama team that was peaking at the right time. It had beaten that same Georgia team, one that sat perched atop the rankings mountain for the majority of 2023. It had come off of back-to-back championships and it seemed unlikely that the Bulldogs would be unseated. But the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban have dominated UGA in all but one game — that national championship game from two years ago. In the SEC Championship, Bama rolled, and thus had a date with the Wolverines for the first time since 2019 — a game where Michigan had a halftime lead but was upended by superior talent.

This felt like a winnable game, but so did 2021 Georgia until I saw it in person. Size, speed, strength — it was all unmatched. This Michigan team finally had that. Mason Graham, Kenneth Grant. A healthy Blake Corum. A quarterback that could push the field with his arm and legs in J.J. McCarthy. A undersized cornerback in Mike Sainristil who would refuse to be denied. Maybe Michigan could do it.

The Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of them all. What a perfect scene for a Big Ten team such as Michigan to reverse the narratives. That hallowed ground had mostly been a house of horrors for the maize and blue, and never had the stakes been higher than in the 2024 iteration of the game. As the Wolverines made mistake after mistake, it was fair to wonder, despite looking like the better team for the entirety of the first half, if playing with their food was going to cost them dessert. Alabama, intent on making Michigan pay, eventually did, until the callous of a season of controversies rendered this game’s adversity moot.

Michigan drove the field, tied the game. Scored and then made a stand in overtime. It was over. The bad bowl streak, the national championship game drought. Demons slayed in front of a record viewing audience.

But there was another hill to climb — said championship game.

From Ann Arbor to Pasadena to Houston

Washington wasn’t a mirror image of 2019 LSU, but after being doubted all season long, it was garnering similar comparisons. A vaunted pass offense, an OK run game, and a defense that did just enough to pull it out. The most doubted undefeated team in college football suddenly became the people’s champion. Michigan, still under fire for ‘burgergate’ and the Connor Stalions saga, was never going to be able to clear its name, no matter what it did on the field.

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Without Connor Stalions, without Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines got to the meat of their schedule in November, the three toughest games, the ones every pundit begged fans to ‘wait for’ since ‘Michigan ain’t played nobody,’ and they won anyway.

Penn State? Despite a hobbled J.J. McCarthy and an offensive line that couldn’t stop Chop Robinson, Michigan ran and ran and ran some more.

Maryland? A favored son in coach Chris Partridge fired the day before. An even more hobbled McCarthy, who didn’t practice all week and was a game-time decision, came in and looked pedestrian. The defense couldn’t stop a red-hot offense that was pushing all the right buttons, until it could. Another win.

Ohio State? As Buckeye fans screamed for vindication for Connor Stalions, still in disbelief of the previous two matchups, while also elevating Kyle McCord to champions status, Michigan found a way to win a third-straight. Stalions remained prescient in the minds of the scarlet and gray, his absence meaningless, while McCord transferred to Syracuse a martyr, and the Wolverines went to Indianapolis to win another Big Ten title.

None of these were surprises to the maize and blue faithful, eking out wins amid controversy. This team was built different, and it wasn’t going to be denied, sidelined head coach, injuries, or not.

Now with all of those and Alabama in the rear view, the question was: would the team that claimed ‘job’s not finished’ settle for a legendary win over the Tide or would it strive for more?

All it needed was one more game.

A national championship

Michigan is well-versed on what it means to have a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. It had just that the previous two years only to find that line struggling in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Now that honor belonged to Washington, and it did not struggle in its semifinal turn against Texas. The game for all the marbles would feature an irresistible force against an immovable object.

The No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense. The No. 1 pass offense vs. the No. 1 pass defense. It was truly good-on-good. And college football punditry was convinced that the Michigan defense was the paper tiger in this scenario.

Michael Penix Jr., the former Indiana signal caller, had been electric all year. He had been equally as doubted as this Michigan team. But once the clock struck zero in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, he became the people’s champion, the  one true quarterback who could finally put those ‘cheating’ Wolverines back in their place.

But Michigan’s defense was for real. It wouldn’t be denied. As Mike Sainristil met one of those vaunted NFL-caliber receivers in the open field with nothing but turf ahead of him, he wrestled him to the ground. Fourth down, try again, yes — but it was more than that. The battle of wills would be won by the team maligned and maligned again. Calloused and bruised, incapable of hearing the noise but for motivation. All your talk of asterisks and taint and such aren’t welcome here.

Donovan Edwards, the late-2022 star who languished through much of 2023, found his mojo, breaking off two long touchdown runs to give the maize and blue a substantial early lead. The defensive front heard it couldn’t generate pressure and it refused to cooperate. J.J. McCarthy made the timeliest of timely throws.

But it was Corum and Sainristil that said to each other: ‘Let’s get out of here.’

Corum ripped off a vintage touchdown, looking more like the mid-2022 version of himself than the 2023 iteration. Sainristil, with a knack and nose for the football, called game with a timely interception which ended all hope for the Huskies. Corum finished them off with another touchdown, sealing Washington’s fate and elevating the Wolverines to the promised land, 34-13.

Michigan football, long thought of as a band whose hits could never stay atop the charts, just earned college football’s top prize.

A national championship. The first in 26 years, and first in the BCS or College Football Playoff era.

Michigan vindication

Photo: Isaiah Hole

In the aftermath, social media cannot figure out what to make of this. Michigan fans are obviously elated, but like Ricky Bobby in ‘Talladega Nights,’ they don’t know what to do with their hands. Rival fans cling to the hope that somehow it’s all meaningless. Begging for asterisks or for the win to be vacated, there does not appear to be any such action on the horizon.

You see, despite any (still unproved, but) potential impropriety, the timing of the Stalions allegations meant that Michigan’s road to a title found a steeper grade. All teams knew the Wolverines were stealing signs, and considering the vast majority of teams steal signs (Michigan’s alleged crime was the method of) now the maize and blue had to be crystal clear en route to any win. Michigan had to win on an uneven playing field, it had to do it without its head coach in the toughest stretch of the season. It had to do it against the big bad in the SEC who had won more championships than any other modern team. It had to overcome its own postseason woes, fight through injuries, external noise and doubt, everything that could be thrown at it.

And like Andy Dufresne in ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ it came out clean on the other side.

Rival fans will still screech ‘cheating!’ and likely will do so for time immemorial. They’ll cling to it like a blanket, rubbing their face until it pills, until it weathers, until it disintegrates. But the memory remains, and the unlikely action they beg for will almost certainly never come to pass.

For Michigan players and fans: you don’t need external vindication. You already got it through a series of challenges overcome. I have a tattoo on my right forearm that reads: ‘there are obstacles on the way to anything meaningful.’ That tattoo might as well be on the forehead of every Michigan Wolverine, because they lived that in ways I have not. Self-induced (program-wise) or not, adversity was overcome, wrought turmoil was vanquished. The unthinkable a few years ago is now reality.

Sitting alone outside of NRG Stadium on the shuttle this time around, I was equally as calm as I was in the one in Miami. Though the surroundings were eerily similar, the situation was vastly different. No longer am I wondering how mountaintops get climbed, but asking myself how many more summits are there out there?

For the moment, those don’t matter. Because the first is as gratifying and satisfying for the climbers as the culmination of any future traversal. This may be the first of many or the last for decades, but the path here will never be forgotten, for better or worse.

Savor it.

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire