ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When fans look back at the 2022 Michigan football season, they’ll have fond memories of the undefeated regular season, the dominant win at Ohio State, and the Big Ten championship.
But they’ll also be haunted by what could -- no, what should -- have been.
Last season, when Michigan beat Ohio State for the first time in a decade and qualified for the College Football Playoff, the joy of finally reaching the sport’s biggest stage overshadowed the loss to Georgia in the semifinal.
No matter what happened, the Wolverines had overcome so many longstanding barriers that nothing could leave a bad taste in their mouths.
This year is different, though. This time, Michigan threw (and fumbled) away a golden opportunity to play for a national championship.
When Jim Harbaugh’s team bullied the likes of Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State en route to a second-straight Big Ten championship, expectations evolved. Everyone started to realize that this team wasn’t just content with making the playoff again -- it was actually good enough to compete.
Then, Saturday happened.
On perhaps the biggest stage in program history, Michigan played its worst game of the season -- maybe it’s worst since the COVID-shortened 2020.
Dependable quarterback J.J. McCarthy threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. The physical offense twice had the ball inside the TCU 3-yard line, and both times came away without points.
Jesse Minter’s highly ranked defense surrendered 51 points and missed more tackles than it had in any game this season, highlighted by a third down whiff that turned into a 76-yard touchdown when Michigan had a chance to get the ball back down just three points.
And still, even after all of those uncharacteristic errors, the Wolverines had the ball with a chance to win in the final minute. Take away even one of those egregious mistakes, and this team is probably preparing to play Georgia in the national championship next week.
It was a 99th percentile disastrous outcome for Michigan. Everything that could go wrong seemed to do so.
Michigan was a better team than TCU this season, but Saturday’s mistakes were far too much to overcome. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a team that might not have an opportunity like this ever again.
Sure, Michigan will be back in the playoff, especially once it expands to 12 teams. But it’s unlikely to ever have a semifinal matchup as an 8-point favorite.
With all due respect to TCU, if Michigan threw two pick-sixes, missed all those tackles, and failed so miserably at the goal line against Georgia or Ohio State, or the Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma teams of playoffs past, the margin of defeat would have been closer to 30. TCU let the game stay within six.
How many more years will the playoff exclude juggernauts like Alabama and Clemson? Will the Big Ten Championship Game opponent ever be as weak as 8-4 Purdue?
Michigan could have survived two -- maybe even three -- catastrophic mistakes and still won on Saturday. That probably won’t ever be the case again in a College Football Playoff semifinal game.
Obviously, the program isn’t doomed by any means. Coming off back-to-back conference titles, Michigan football is as healthy as it’s been in decades. Fans should be tremendously proud of what the Wolverines accomplished, because two years ago, they would have given anything to be coping with playoff losses.
Since Harbaugh arrived, Michigan has had five seasons of double-digit wins and two playoff appearances. Outside of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, and Oklahoma, no program has had more consistent success during that span.
But even as the pain of that Fiesta Bowl fades in the coming weeks and months, the thought of what could have been will linger. It’s been 25 years since Michigan last played for a national title -- and the path may never be clearer.