Parting Thoughts: What went wrong with Michigan Football in 2016?

The end of the season went wrong for Michigan football, but there was still plenty to be happy about in 2016 and much to look forward to.

Before we turn our undivided attention in the coming months to Michigan Hockey and Michigan Basketball, let’s look back one more time at the Michigan Football season in 2016 which began with such high hopes and ended with – well, what exactly?

What the hell happened at the end of the season?

The Wolverines lost three of four games by a grand total of five points (Iowa 14-13, OSU 30-27, and FSU 33-32). To make matters worse, all three losses were on the road against teams that, according to the polls, Michigan football should have beaten.

But, as we all know, they didn’t. Instead, the season ended with the critics saying that Michigan can’t win on the road and can’t win close games. Okay, but you could reach that conclusion without having watched a single game. So, what happened? We’ll have to go a little deeper.

Let’s mention first what when right in 2016.

  • The season was mostly a lot of fun, wasn’t it? Michigan began to look once again like the Michigan of old – dominant, feared, capable of running up the score on lesser teams. No one likes to watch a Michigan Football team heading into the fourth quarter with the outcome of the game still in doubt.
  • Seeing Michigan consistently ranked so high all season long was thrilling too.  As it turns out, a ranking in the top five might have been wishful thinking, but it was fun while it lasted.
  • And then, having a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate again after a long a drought was also a thrill. Thank you, Jabrill Peppers. I would say that having the number two defense in the country was a point of pride too. (On the other hand, that ranking may have to be adjusted after the FSU game, where the defense was inconsistent at best.)
  • The number of four- and five-start commits in the 2017 class is also encouraging. What seems clear is that the programs with the best recruiting classes – Alabama comes to mind, but so does Ohio State – are the programs that win consistently. Michigan hasn’t had a top five recruiting class in a long, long time.

There’s more that could be said, of course, about what was fun in 2016, but let’s move on to what went wrong.

Was it the coaching? Was play calling a problem? Could the players have been better prepared?

Maybe, but with the exception of some questionable clock management and a resistance to calling time outs, especially in that last game against Florida State, our coaching seems fine, among the best in the country, as a matter of fact. Everything I hear from the players suggests that they believe in the program – and in their coaching staff. No, it wasn’t the coaching staff.

Then, was it the players?

We can all think of a few mental errors during the season – missed blocks, missed tackles, misreads in coverage situations – but every team is going to have them, and remember that these are 18, 19, and 20 year old players, not (yet) professionals.

What really hurt us – and in the end cost us a shot at the College Football Playoffs – was that all of the starters were from the Brady Hoke era. The recruits from the Jim Harbaugh era – think of kicker Quinn Nordin (remember the infamous sleepover?), defensive end Rashan Gary, wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones – either haven’t taken the field or haven’t made much of an impact when they have.

When Harbaugh arrived at Michigan, the cupboard wasn’t bare, and he made the most of what he found. This year’s team, if anything, played above its abilities. That’s a credit to the players, but also to the coaching staff.

What we’re all waiting to see, though, is what happens next year – Harbaugh’s third at Michigan – when the players on the field are the ones Harbaugh recruited. On paper they look pretty good. Will they come together and compete for a national championship? For that answer, we have to wait eight long months.

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