ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football has had some truly heartbreaking losses under Jim Harbaugh the last few years, including last weekend’s shocking letdown against Michigan State.
In a way, devastating losses are a blessing because they only happen for teams playing meaningful games. Michigan had so few meaningful games from 2008-2014 that the last six seasons have seemed packed with highs and lows.
Blessing or not, some of the losses from the Harbaugh era still sting. But where does last weekend rank?
1. Ohio State in 2016
Final score: 30-27 in double overtime
None of the other losses from the Harbaugh era even come close to what happened in Columbus at the end of the 2016 season.
Michigan was literally one centimeter from vanquishing all of its demons: beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten East and going to the College Football Playoff. If J.T. Barrett is called short on that fourth down run, the entire direction of the program changes.
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Instead, Michigan finished the season with two losses and hasn’t been able to get back to that point since. Ohio State has won handily each of the last three seasons, and Michigan hasn’t come close to the playoff.
The Wolverines had a lead for the majority of that game and came within one play of victory multiple times. To this day, that might be the most devastating loss in program history.
2. Michigan State in 2015
Final score: 27-23
This loss wasn’t nearly as consequential as the Ohio State game in 2016, although Michigan might have been playing the Buckeyes for a playoff spot later in 2015 if this game didn’t go south.
No, this was so difficult to swallow because of the way it happened. Michigan outplayed Michigan State and had victory all but wrapped up. But when Blake O’Neill dropped a perfectly good snap, batted it perfectly into the arms of a sprinting Michigan State defender and watched him score as time expired, it was clear Michigan football is cursed.
It wasn’t just a walk-off win. Michigan had the lead and the ball with under 30 seconds to go. That should have been automatic. Instead, a rivalry that hadn’t gone Michigan’s way for so long continued on the same track in the most unfortunate way imaginable.
3. Ohio State in 2018
Final score: 62-39
Michigan was technically within five points at halftime, but if we’re being honest, the game was never close.
Harbaugh’s 2018 team was just as good as Ohio State, if not better. But when the Wolverines arrived in Columbus, they got completely outclassed on both sides of the ball.
Michigan’s blowout loss wasn’t heartbreaking in the sense that it ever had a chance to win the game. It was more a reminder of how far it still had to go, how wide the gap remained between Michigan and its biggest rival.
The 2018 game is when most fans started to lose hope that the Harbaugh era would ever reach a point where Michigan drew level with Ohio State.
4. Michigan State in 2020
Final score: 27-24
Like in 2015, Michigan probably didn’t have any national championship hopes riding on last weekend’s game, though the pounding of Minnesota provided a glimmer of hope that this team could be different.
What made Saturday so disappointing is the sheer unexpectedness of the loss. Nobody in the Michigan fan base actually expected the team to lose. Heck, nobody in the Michigan State fan base expected a win after what happened the previous week against Rutgers.
Saturday sapped all possible joy out of the 2020 season for Michigan fans after an opener that reignited the flame. Harbaugh had never lost as a massive favorite. That was his one remaining calling card. Now that’s gone, and Michigan fans have to live with being 0-1 against Mel Tucker for a year.
5. Iowa in 2016
Final score: 14-13
We’ll go a bit beyond last weekend’s game to provide some context. If MSU wasn’t an in-state rival, the 2016 Iowa game would have been much more heartbreaking because of what was at stake.
Imagine, for a moment, that Michigan had gone into Columbus with an 11-0 record in 2016. A double overtime loss that came down to one fourth down play probably wouldn’t have been enough to knock Michigan out of the playoff.
The Wolverines might have still gotten in if not for another nighttime upset at Kinnick Stadium.
Michigan led for most of the first half and took the lead back with a field goal in the fourth quarter. But watching the Hawkeyes march methodically down the field in the final minutes only to kick an easy 33-yard field goal as time expired was about as frustrating as it gets for Michigan fans.
Another element: No. 2 Clemson and No. 4 Washington both lost that night, so Michigan, which was ranked No. 3 at the time, would have really cemented itself as one of the top two teams in the nation. It was a missed opportunity and ultimately cost the Wolverines a shot at the playoff.
6. Penn State in 2019
Final score: 28-21
Michigan has had a bit of a problem with rolling over and dying when something goes wrong, so when it fought back from a 21-0 deficit at Penn State last season, it had a chance to be a real turning point for the program.
After clawing to with a touchdown in the waning moments of the game, Michigan’s offense got down to the 7-yard line with three minutes to play. Three plays later, the Wolverines faced a fourth and goal from the 3-yard line.
Shea Patterson hit Ronnie Bell in the end zone for what would have been the tying touchdown -- and make no mistake, Michigan would have won that game in overtime, with how the second half went.
But instead, Bell dropped the pass, Michigan turned the ball over on downs and Penn State ran out the clock. It was a devastating outcome, and Michigan’s second loss of the season, meaning any hopes of a Big Ten or playoff run were completely dashed.