Dan MurphyESPN Staff Writer
Ten wins at the end of the 2015 season at Michigan felt like unwrapping a package stuffed with hope for the future and current validation for a year of Jim Harbaugh-inspired giddiness. Ten wins this season for Michigan must have felt more like unwrapping the same sweater you got last year.
The bar has been raised in a hurry. When trying to determine whether the Wolverines moved forward in 2016 and trying to pin down a proper legacy for the outgoing seniors, that’s as good a place as any to start.
Michigan’s senior class won 20 games in its final two seasons in Ann Arbor — a commendable accomplishment anywhere outside of Tuscaloosa. Harbaugh and his staff, of course, are largely responsible for those results, but the turnaround they engineered could have been far slower if not for the upperclassmen’s decision to immediately jump on board with a coaching style that is as demanding as any in college football.
The senior class is also a group that lost three of its last four games with championship bids and bowl trophies hanging in the balance. It never beat Ohio State. It came up short in games that could have cemented its legacy as great.
A final record that includes three losses by a total of five points is simultaneously a step forward (compared to three losses by 40 points the year before) and an indictment on this group’s ability to take advantage of the opportunity it built for itself. The Wolverines had chances to dictate the outcome of those three games and instead left the door open for things outside of their control — last-second field goals, controversial penalty calls, etc. — to determine their fate.
The teams that go down in history as a cut above the rest usually share at least two traits in common: the ability to finish strong, and the ability to outperform as a group its talent level as individuals. Maybe that happened in 2015. It did not in 2016.
“This senior class, we’ve done a really good job of bringing Michigan football back to where it needed to be,” offensive guard Kyle Kalis said from the locker room of a 33-32 loss to Florida State in an entertaining Capital One Orange Bowl. “Obviously it can get a lot better.”
The burden to get better will be shouldered by one of the least experienced groups in the country next season. Quarterback Wilton Speight returns, but his top three targets in the passing game are out of eligibility. Three of his starting offensive linemen and his top running back are also gone.
On defense, at least nine starters who earned some type of all-conference accolade in 2016 have to be replaced. Big Ten defensive player of the year Jabrill Peppers could push that total to double digits if he opts to head to the NFL.
Nudging the bar any higher next fall will be just as difficult of a task as it was to reach this spot where 10 wins is a little bit of a letdown in the first place. The senior class did leave them with the added advantage of a road map. The players stepping into those myriad openings in 2017 are talented and have seen the amount of work it takes to make the most of that.
“We had a hell of a season,” senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “Everybody fought. All those games we fought. We were relentless. … I’m proud of the way every time we were down we never gave up and never gave in. There’s definitely a bright future.”
If the next wave of players makes good on that bright future, Lewis and his classmates will be remembered as the group that brought a fighting spirit back to Michigan football. If the next wave takes a step back, they will be remembered as a group that missed an opportunity to be great. They made great strides in their time leading the program, but their legacy is once again in someone else’s hands.