Photo Credit: Bleacher Report
The 2016 Michigan Wolverines did a lot of good things. When the season started, the opportunities seemed endless. After a loss in the Orange Bowl leaves them at 10-3 on the season, many believe they left a lot on the table.
Jim Harbaugh had a lot to look forward to in his 2nd year as the coach of the Wolverines. The team was stacked from top to bottom with All-Americans and had the experience to make a National Championship run. Returning players featured linebacker Jabrill Peppers, tight end Jake Butt, defensive end Taco Charlton, and quarterback Wilton Speight.
Early success was easy to come by with non conference victories over the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, the Central Florida Knights, and the Colorado Buffaloes. Their defense dominated opponents all season long and was drawing comparisons to the Alabama Crimson Tide, who have best defense in the country.
Some of the high points of their conference play included a 78-0 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights as well as big wins against the Wisconsin Badgers and the Pennsylvania State Nittany Lions. These wins proved to be key in the Wolverines voyage up the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings. Wilton Speight did some good things at quarterback down the stretch. The old school run-heavy offense used by Harbaugh opened up one on one matchups and created big plays for Speight and the offense.
As the weather got colder, the play of the Wolverines got flat. A collarbone injury to Speight was a key point. He went down in the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes. While the Hawkeyes were unranked, they were ready for the Wolverines and pulled off a major upset. A poor defensive possession lead to a game-winning field goal, giving the Hawkeyes the 14-13 victory. With an injured Speight, the offense struggled to score in the red zone and they were forced to take field goals most of the night.
The one-point loss to the Hawkeyes was not the ultimate playoff deal breaker for the Wolverines. They had a chance to play their biggest rival, the Ohio State Buckeyes, with a trip to the Big Ten Championship and the CFP at stake. Two of the nation’s best teams battled hard for all 4 quarters and into overtime. Once in overtime, the Wolverines fought hard, but came up short. This was the knockout blow to their CFP hopes. Buckeyes’ running back Curtis Samuel found the daylight and scored the game-winning touchdown. The final score was 30-27 in a double overtime classic.
When bowl season came around, the Wolverines faced the Florida State Seminoles. Moments before kickoff, the national media buzzed with the news that projected top 10 pick Jabrill Peppers would not play. The Seminoles came in with a great running back by the name of Dalvin Cook. He is also a projected 1st round draft pick and is 2nd most of all time in the ACC in rushing yards. Early the Seminoles punched the Wolverines in the mouth; their biggest lead was 20-6 at halftime. The Seminoles’ defensive front 7 is the life of the unit and led the nation in sacks. They gave the Wolverines fits all night long, and it wasn’t until the 2nd half that they allowed the Wolverines to move the ball effectively. Speight had a rough night, but he helped the team battle back, giving them a 30-27 lead with a minute to go. Unfortunately, a 66-yard kickoff return set up a Seminoles touchdown. Even with a blocked extra point taken back for 2 points, the Wolverines still came up short yet again. The final score was 33-32.
With the season over, one can argue this year will haunt Harbaugh for years to come. A total of 18 starters will be leaving as seniors and Peppers more than likely will move on to the draft, so there will be a new look to the team in 2017. In the games they lost, all were by a field goal or less, and many think that they could’ve challenged the Crimson Tide in the CFP. The window of opportunity may have closed, and the Wolverines may need a season or two in order to get back to this level play.
The Wolverines still have a bright future with Jim Harbaugh leading the way. However, the 2016 Wolverines may always seem to fans as the team that “could’ve been”.