"Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." -Vince Lombardi"Michigan is back!"
That's was the headline way back when Brady Hoke finished his first season 11-2 with a win against Ohio State and a Sugar Bowl victory in the 2011 season.
Since then, Michigan has finished 8-5, 7-6, and 5-7. Hoke never won a game he wasn't supposed to win and his best road wins amounted to, essentially Benny Hill-esque blunderfests against Northwestern. Last year in late-October, David Brandon was forced to resign, and a month later his hand-picked coach was shown the door.
Safe to say that Michigan was most definitely not "back".
So when Jim Harbaugh was hired and everyone seemed to proclaim that Michigan was "back" again, I was hesitant to put on my maize-colored glasses. Jim Harbaugh is solidly in the conversation of best football coaches in the country, on any level. But this is Michigan and there's no such thing as overconfidence anymore...not after what we've been through.
My primordial Michigan sports brain is tough to fool these days, and doesn't buy easily into the hype like it used to. Ohio State fans started booking tickets to the conference/national title games the second Urban Meyer was hired, and so far, they've been pretty well justified in doing so. But for this blogger, having just endured 7 years of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, I can't help but go with the wait and see approach.
It's not that I don't think Michigan is a good team or worthy of possibly knocking off an upstart Penn State team or a juggernaut Ohio State team, but my fan consciousness is so jaded from RichRod and Brady Hoke-era fails that even the notion of being that confident seems so foreign to me, even if it's entirely justified.
However, through sound football and a little bit of luck (and bad luck), Michigan finds itself at 8-2 and in a position it hasn't been in this late in the season since 2006. It's November, and Michigan is still alive in the Big Ten title race...right in the thick of it, actually. All that stands in their way are two games against two very challenging opponents, and a Michigan State team that needs to lose at least 1 of it's final 2 games.
Its been a season of ups and downs, two very close wins and one heartbreaking defeat. But through all of the shutouts and waiting for Rudock to finally hit at least one downfield pass, Michigan is very much alive for post-season title opportunities...with a senior QB who seems to be peaking at just the right time, I might add.
If Michigan finds itself playing the west division winner in Indianapolis in two weeks, it won't be by accident...and it won't be because of some fluke. It will be because they've earned it. It will be because Jim Hackett had the balls to wager an entire program's storied but fledgling reputation on the hopes that one guy, who happened to be the biggest coaching target in all of football, would want to come back to college to be the coach at his alma mater.
It was the gamble of all gambles, one that even Hackett will admit he wasn't sure was going to work well after at was clear to everyone that Michigan was in "Project Unicorn" mode. Hackett and Michigan went all-in on Jim Harbaugh...and got him.
What's happening this season is the direct result of that hefty wager made almost a year ago. Michigan is 8-2, sitting on the edge of "back", all thanks to an unlikely and improbable, but deliberate and perfectly orchestrated coaching hire that landed Michigan right smack in the middle of the Big Ten title race in year one. Skeptics like me are surprised...waiting for the other shoe to drop, but to the less-jaded observer, this kinda feels the way it's supposed to feel...like Michigan again.
The next two games on the schedule are truly two of the toughest tests Michigan will face all year. Penn State is a relatively good team playing in Beaver Stadium for the final time this year...a venue Michigan hasn't won at in three trips. They will test Michigan's offense with their vaunted pass rush and the defense with their power running game.
Ohio State presents all of the challenges an Urban Meyer-led Buckeye team could possibly present. A great defense, great QB, great running back, great O and D lines...ability to score quickly. And most likely, when they arrive in Ann Arbor next Saturday, they'll be riding a 24-game winning streak coming off of a big win against Michigan State. To win both or even one of these next two games will be the toughest test Michigan will be faced with all season.
To get Michigan back to Michigan again, this is the task. Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh for exactly this reason...to go into places like State College and win...to go up against Urban Meyer's best and win. Right now, Michigan's got a shot in both games. And for Jim Harbaugh, this is why you come back to Michigan. Not to beat Indiana in double overtime, but to go up against the best with everything on the line.
It's only year one, but you can feel how the stage is being set. This is how getting back to Michigan again feels. They're close. How these next two games go will determine how quickly the impact of the Great Harbaugh Redemption will be felt.