ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Almost nine years ago to the date, Michigan football took down the Connecticut Huskies to remain undefeated and ranked among the top 20 teams in the country. Sounds a lot like what happened Saturday in Ann Arbor, right? Well, during the time in between, the program has made a complete transformation.
It was early Saturday morning outside Michigan Stadium when a friend and I started reminiscing about that 2013 game against UConn. I had made the 10-hour drive in my cousin’s Chevrolet Cobalt and parked in the grass next to what looked like an abandoned airport runway. We heard “Roar” by Katy Perry on the radio at least 10 times.
The Wolverines were ranked 15th in the nation, and Connecticut was, well, really bad. We didn’t expect to see much of a game, but back then, you never really knew with Michigan. Heck, the Wolverines needed a last-second stand to avoid losing to Akron just a week prior.
Sept. 21, 2013
As it turned out, Michigan’s 24-21 win in East Hartford wasn’t a tale of triumph. It inspired no confidence for the future, instead serving as just another reminder that the program was far from where it wanted to be.
Connecticut came in 0-2 after blowout home losses to Towson and Maryland. The Huskies would ultimately start the season 0-9 before finishing with a trio of wins in November.
The point is that UConn was terrible. That team had no business competing with Michigan or any other team in the Power Five.
But alas, with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Wolverines found themselves trailing by two touchdowns. Connecticut had scored twice in the second quarter and then returned a Devin Gardner fumble for a third score to open the second half.
It was shaping up to be another non-conference embarrassment for the program. Appalachian State, Toledo ... what was one more, right?
Michigan found a way to rally behind a pair of scores by Fitzgerald Toussaint and got out of East Hartford unscathed. But let me tell you, it did not feel like a win. And it was a harbinger of more angst and frustration to come.
Michigan’s reality at the time
The weaknesses exposed during that game ultimately set the stage for a 7-6 season, capped by a 31-14 drubbing at the hands of Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
That’s right: Michigan was the type of program that went to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The type of program that got pushed around by Kansas State. The type of program that needed late heroics to beat freaking Akron and UConn.
Among the losses that season: Michigan State physically humiliating Michigan to the tune of negative-48 rushing yards and Nebraska coming into the Big House and holding the Wolverines under 200 yards total.
In 2014, Michigan would go on to miss the postseason entirely, finish with a losing record for the third time in seven seasons, and fire another head coach. Only in 2011, when Denard Robinson almost singlehandedly carried the team to 11 wins, did the program briefly feel like it might be heading in the right direction.
But let’s get back to that night in Connecticut. At the time, Michigan was scrambling desperately to try to return to its former glory. It had just emerged from the Rich Rodriguez disaster and was counting on Brady Hoke to fight his way out of a situation that proved far beyond his capabilities.
Michigan football was spinning its wheels, ricocheting between national laughingstock and moderately competitive on a week-to-week basis.
That UConn debacle -- it was just another loss disguised as a comeback victory.
Now, what happened at the Big House the last three weeks -- those were wins. It’s a subtle, under-appreciated sign of how far this program has come under Jim Harbaugh.
The Wolverines are beyond worrying about teams like Connecticut and Akron. Nobody looked at this schedule before the season and even considered the possibility of Michigan being anything other than 3-0. I remember when the non-conference schedule was just four opportunities for the college football world to mock Michigan. This is growth.
Harbaugh has Michigan looking a lot closer to the program many remember from the pre-Rodriguez times. As my dad likes to say, what the Wolverines did to Colorado State, Hawaii, and Connecticut is what they used to do to everyone on the schedule except Ohio State.
People don’t want to listen to the evidence that Michigan is “back,” but it’s starting to pile up. Since Harbaugh arrived in 2015, Michigan ranks 10th in the nation in wins and ninth in winning percentage -- all while playing in one of college football’s two elite divisions.
The Wolverines have had four 10-win seasons, played in two New Year’s Six bowls, and are among 12 teams to ever made the College Football Playoff. Michigan’s only losing season was the COVID-shortened disaster in 2020, and it bounced right back to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten title the following year.
Michigan isn’t on the same level as Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, and Oklahoma. But once you get beyond that elite tier, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team that has won more consistently than Michigan since 2015.
Back in 2013, Michigan was ridiculed nationally for getting drubbed annually by both major rivals. Critics could fairly point to the program’s national irrelevance and yearly underperformance. If analysts ran out of reasons to poke fun at the Wolverines, the team would simply provide more ammunition.
Now, people have so little to criticize that they harp on Michigan’s non-conference schedule and the way the quarterback competition was handled. Meanwhile, the team plods along, scoring 166 points in three games.
Some of the questions about the schedule are fair -- we don’t yet know what to expect from this year’s team. The tests are about to get a whole lot tougher, and Michigan will have to validate its No. 4 ranking.
But one thing’s for sure: The Michigan football program is thriving. And it’s certainly in a much better place than that ominous fall night in East Hartford.