MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Michigan’s season didn’t end with a bang, but it didn’t exactly end with a whimper, either.
Following a 33-32 loss to No. 6 Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30 at Hard Rock Stadium, the Wolverines completed their second 10-win season, though they were visibly overwhelmed by the speed of Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook and the strength and athleticism of Florida State’s defensive line.
Michigan (10-3) played in its first New Year’s Six/BCS bowl game since the 2011 Sugar Bowl, yet the final four games of the regular season exposed a few flaws for the Wolverines, who, at one point, had national championship aspirations. Those aspirations hinged upon winning the Big Ten East Division — a gateway to a shot at the Big Ten title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
The Wolverines started out 9-0 and among the nation’s top-four teams in the College Football Playoff rankings. Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since it split the conference title with Iowa in 2004, and hasn’t won its Big Ten division since the conference was split into two divisions prior to the 2011 season.
However, a 14-13 loss Nov. 12 at Iowa hampered Michigan’s playoff hopes, and a controversial 30-27 loss Nov. 26 at Ohio State erased any national championship hopes, sending them to sixth in the CFP rankings.
There was a common denominator in the losses to the Hawkeyes and the Buckeyes: Michigan squandered leads in the two road games, a 13-11 lead at Iowa with less than six minutes left in regulation and a 17-14 lead going into the fourth quarter at Ohio State. Furthermore, Michigan lost its three games by a combined total of five points, with the decisive tallies all scored in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime.
Michigan’s season wasn’t a string of bad decisions or incomplete plays. Michigan had plenty of bright spots, but also a few shortcomings.
What went right for Michigan
The emergence of Wilton Speight: A year after he considered transferring from Michigan, Speight beat out transfer John O’Korn to become Michigan’s starting quarterback. Speight wasn’t overwhelming, but he was consistent, averaging 211.5 yards a game and throwing for 18 touchdowns.
Jabrill Peppers’ versatility: Peppers, who was Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy finalist since Chris Perry finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2003, played in all three facets of the game for the Wolverines. In a hybrid pass-rush role at linebacker this season, Peppers had 72 tackles, four sacks and eight quarterback hurries. On special teams, he averaged 26 yards on 10 kickoff returns and 14.8 yards on 21 punt returns. On offense, he had 170 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries and two catches.
Productivity, efficiency in the secondary: Michigan lost All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis (back injury, muscle strain) for its first three games, and lost cornerback Jeremy Clark (ACL) in a 49-10 win against Penn State. Channing Stribling became Michigan’s marquee cornerback, with four interceptions and 13 pass breakups. Stribling and Lewis combined to defend 30 passes (six interceptions, 24 breakups), as Michigan had the nation’s leading pass defense (142.5 yards)
What went wrong for Michigan
No marquee running back: While Michigan had four running backs who combined for 2,302 yards, no running back had more than 846 yards (De’Veon Smith), and the lack of a marquee running back showed when Michigan faced Florida State. Then again, there was little answer for FSU running back Dalvin Cook, a unanimous All-American. Freshman Chris Evans, however, showed promise for the future, finishing with 614 yards and four touchdowns on 88 carries, including a 30-yard touchdown run against Florida State.
A worn-down front seven on defense: Michigan allowed 583 rushing yards (an average of 145.8 yards) in its final four games, and got a glimpse of its shortcomings in a 32-23 win Oct. 29 at Michigan State, when running back LJ Scott ran for 139 yards and a touchdown, including the bulk of Michigan State’s touches on the game’s first drive.
Mistakes made in a November tumble: Michigan had five turnovers in its final three regular-season games and 17 penalties, including two on go-ahead or game-tying drives: a facemask penalty against Mike McCray that set up Iowa’s game-winning drive with less than 90 seconds left in regulation on Nov. 12, and a pass-interference call against safety Delano Hill in Ohio State’s game-tying drive at the end of regulation in the loss at Ohio State.