ANN ARBOR, Mich. - In five short years, the College Football Playoff has completely changed the fabric of the sport.
One of the unique aspects of college football is that dozens of teams can consider a season a success, even though only one can win the ultimate prize. There are conference championships, bitter rivalries and a handful of meaningful bowl games.
But as the focus on the top four teams tightens, those outside the playoff can start to feel irrelevant.
That's why it's harder than ever to define success.
Michigan's 2018 season was the perfect blend of the highest highs and the most painful heartbreak. Just a few days ago, the Wolverines were considered a favorite to be in the playoff, but an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Ohio State brought that possibility to a screeching halt.
At the beginning of the season, Michigan's goals were certainly to be a part of the playoff discussion, even though it was coming off an 8-5 year. Jim Harbaugh was brought to Ann Arbor to win at the highest level, and there's some debate over what that means.
It's easy to say Michigan's goal is to make the playoff. It's more difficult to pinpoint exactly what Michigan's goals should be. On one hand, the Wolverines hibernated for seven years before Harbaugh's arrival, missing bowl season three times and floundering against Michigan State, Ohio State and basically every good team on the schedule.
But Harbaugh has set a precedent in his first few seasons, winning 10 games twice and coming within a play of the playoff in 2016.
The expectation should be that Michigan doesn't lose four in a row to Ohio State. It should definitely be more competitive than last weekend, and with so much on the line, Michigan needs to play its best game of the season, not completely fall apart.
No. 1 defense or not, Michigan doesn't have the roster that Urban Meyer has put together at Ohio State. Yes, OSU sleepwalked through most of the season, but it got up for the Michigan game, and that talent finally showed out.
Michigan is still trying to get on Ohio State's level, and it should be the expectation that Harbaugh gets the Wolverines to that point.
Reasons for failure
Many Michigan fans will probably remember this season as a failure, and they'll start by questioning the 10-game winning streak.
It's extremely difficult to go more than two months without losing in college football, but some of Michigan's wins didn't end up looking as impressive as they were at the time.
Wisconsin, for example, completely fell apart after losing to Michigan as the No. 15 team in the country. The Badgers finished the season 7-5 with losses to BYU and Minnesota.
Michigan State also finished 7-5 with losses to Arizona State and Nebraska. MSU also struggled to hold on against Rutgers in the final week of the regular season.
Penn State and Northwestern ended up being Michigan's best wins. The Nittany Lions went 9-3 with losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, while Northwestern went undefeated in conference play after a loss to Michigan.
In the end, Michigan only played two teams with fewer than three losses, and it lost both games.
Harbaugh's struggles against rivals continued with losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State, and the most important game of the season was the least competitive.
Fans were frustrated that a suffocating defense fell apart in Columbus, sparking a 62-point effort by the Buckeyes. A fan base that's fed up with losing "The Game" was embarrassed in a year when the tide was supposed to turn.
It's extremely difficult to look past what happened against Ohio State, and that's why many fans will consider the season a failure.
Reasons for success
There are also many reasons to celebrate the 2018 team, especially for its steady improvement following the Notre Dame loss.
It looked like another several loss season was in the works after the opener, but as the rest of the teams in the country fell off, Michigan continued to win and rise in the rankings. All 12 of Michigan's games had national championship implications, and that's more than 120 other programs can claim.
Michigan also vanquished a few demons along the way. It took down MSU in dominating fashion and did so on the road. It became the first team in 18 years to beat three straight ranked Big Ten teams.
Most importantly, it debunked the notion that it can't finish higher than third in the Big Ten East Division. Despite the head-to-head loss, the Wolverines finish with a share of the division title after going 8-1 in the Big Ten.
No, Michigan won't play in the Big Ten Championship Game, but it's been one game away twice in the last three years.
Like it or not, Michigan fans have to accept Ohio State is on a different level. The top tier of college football includes only a handful of teams, and Michigan has cemented itself in the group just below the elite.
Michigan belongs in the elite group, but it had to get here before it can take the final, most difficult step.
If Ohio State is selected for the College Football Playoff, Michigan will get a chance to play in its first Rose Bowl in 12 years.
Would a double-digit win season with a win over Michigan State, a share of the division title and a Rose Bowl appearance be considered a failure? One thing is certain: It would be Michigan's best season since 2006.
State of the program
College football is a world of ridiculous demands and overreactions, and that was definitely on display for Michigan.
After the loss to Notre Dame, it felt like the season was over before it started. Then, Michigan looked invincible for 11 weeks. Finally, the Ohio State beatdown erased most of the good feeling that had been built up along the way.
The reality of Michigan's situation is simple: Harbaugh is bringing the program back to prominence, but there's a behemoth standing in his way every November.
It's not a loser's mentality, it's just the state of the Big Ten right now. Ohio State has the best roster, the best coaches and the most consistent recruiting. If Michigan didn't have to play Ohio State, it probably would have been in the playoff in 2016 and this season.
But Michigan does have to play Ohio State. It will always have to play Ohio State.
So how does Michigan go from the second-best team in the Big Ten to the top dog? It starts with one win, and that's why last weekend was so damaging.
The rivalry can't turn around without Michigan winning for the first time. Since next year's matchup is in Ann Arbor, with Michigan coming off a strong season, there will be new pressure on Harbaugh to get the job done.
Michigan has a difficult schedule again in 2019, with Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State coming to Ann Arbor and tough road trips to Wisconsin and Penn State. But the Wolverines have a chance to roll through the Big Ten once again and set up a winner-take-all scenario against Ohio State for the third time in four years.
The state of Michigan's program is that it's better than the rest of the Big Ten and most of the country, but it can't handle Ohio State.
Until that changes, this season is as good as it gets.
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