“Remember when we used to leave Michigan games early because we were so far ahead?” my girlfriend said, as we hiked the steps of the Big House, after Oregon jumped ahead 25-7, with no end in sight.
“It’s the end of an era,” I lamented, before pausing to take one more look at a Michigan audience that had begun to resemble the Quiet House label pinned on Michigan fans by their detractors.
Every football program has its peaks and valleys, but Michigan had largely avoided such hiccups since the Bo Schembechler era. Of all its worthy traditions, the tradition of winning was the one that sustained the football team through coaching changes and the departure of big-time players to the NFL. Nebraska, USC, the University of Florida, Florida State, the University of Miami (Fl), Ohio State and Notre Dame have all been forced to make wholesale changes in the last two decades.
Michigan was always immune to such shocks, and on The Weekend After “the biggest upset in college football history,” the faithful — all 107, 501 of them — gathered to show the college football universe that it would take more than a one-time stumble to abandon the reason most of us came to the University in the first place.
Prior to the Appalachian State debacle, the Wolverine faithful had a slight chip on our shoulders. We felt our #5 preseason ranking was a little low for a Rose Bowl team returning a senior quarterback, a certain NFL first-rounder protecting his blind side at left tackle, an all-world tailback, the two best outside receivers in the nation, and a top five recruiting class. Thirty-four Appalachian State points and two blocked field goals later, Michigan would move out of its #5 slot, all right — all the way out of the top 25.
In many ways, Oregon and Appalachian State are mirror images. Appalachian State, a school the college football nation didn’t know existed (or which state it was in), was the classic David to Michigan’s Goliath. Its back-to-back Division 1-AA championships gave it the pre-game feel of playing the world’s tallest midget, a tragic misunderstanding in hindsight.
Oregon, on the other hand, sits in Nike’s backyard, and its world-class facilities — but not its standing in the college football rankings — bear that out. Michigan’s failure to dispatch either of what should have been minor roadblocks is a sign of the times, a sign of the disrepair that Michigan football has descended into since the passing last year of Bo Schembechler, who would’ve never tolerated four straight games giving up 30-plus points. With Bo gone, Lloyd Carr has lost a mentor, a sounding board, and the connection with history that was keeping him honest.
Heading into Saturday’s game, there wasn’t a better team for Michigan to redeem itself against than the University of Oregon. Beyond the sentiments expressed in Lou Holtz’s mock “motivational” speech to Michigan on ESPN’s College Gameday — “someone has to pay for what happened in the Big House last week, and it has to be Oregon,” Holtz intoned — the program had reasons of its own for wanting to poach the Ducks.
Back in 2003, the Wolverines was set for a storybook season. Buoyed by a top ten recruiting class, excellent receivers, and a senior quarterback, the 2003 season had all the potential to be “special.” (Sound familiar?)
That is, until Michigan headed out west to Autzen Stadium to play the Ducks. The Wolverines, perpetual slow starters under Lloyd Carr, fell behind early and never caught up, losing 31-27. The Wolverines would lose again to Iowa, but ran the table — including the hated Ohio State Buckeyes — won the Big Ten Championship, and made it to the Rose Bowl, where they were promptly picked apart by the University of Southern California. Had the Wolverines beaten the Trojans, there was an outside shot they would’ve been co-national champions.
So redemption was possible, that much we knew. The plan, with the Oregon Ducks coming to Ann Arbor, was to regain our place in the pecking order. We weren’t going to get back to #5 in one week’s time, not after being unceremoniously dumped out of the top 25, but we certainly intended to head in the right direction by. defeating Oregon.
“But what if we lose?” my girlfriend’s roommate asked.
The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.
“There’s no way we lose this game,” I responded, perhaps trying to convince myself. Final score: Oregon 39, Michigan 7.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Another “special” season, stillborn. And Michigan football dominance — gone.
James David Dickson is a Michigan alumnus and was a 2006-2007 columnist at the Michigan Daily, and previously an editor of the Michigan Review. He is currently the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Spectator.