HOUSTON — One year ago, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy stood on the sideline of the Fiesta Bowl watching purple confetti fall on State Farm Stadium in Arizona after TCU stole a bid to the 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship.
“We’ll be back,” McCarthy said in the postgame press conference. “I promise that.” And then he walked out.
It was the first loss of McCarthy’s career at Michigan and one that sat with the team. From the first team meeting in January after losing the Fiesta Bowl, Michigan was different. The workouts were more intense. The bond was stronger. A number of players who could have opted for the NFL Draft returned for another year of eligibility in search of the program’s first national championship in more than 25 years.
“In order to accomplish things like this, you’ve got to go to those dark places where everything’s not great,” McCarthy said following the win. “Just the response, the urgency after that last game last year, it was different. I knew it. I knew the guys that were coming back. I had a feeling it was going to be where we are right now.”
That resilience was stress tested during a truly one-of-a-kind run. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was twice suspended for six total games (meaning he coached only 60% of his team’s season) due to NCAA and Big Ten investigations on illegal scouting and disallowed recruiting and coaching doing the COVID-19 dead period. The last time the coach of an AP national championship-winning team appeared in fewer than nine games was 1952 Michigan State, of all programs. The difference? The Spartans played a nine-game season, not a 15-game slate.
Michigan’s journey to an undefeated title reached another road block in early November when, hours before the marquee matchup with Penn State, Michigan players and administrators learned via Twitter that Harbaugh was suspended by the Big Ten for violating the league’s sportsmanship policy amid the sign-stealing scandal. It led to lawsuits and infighting with Michigan’s own conference, which left innocent players caught in the crosshairs.
“At certain points, we couldn’t even turn on our social media without seeing us on the news,” defensive lineman Kenneth Grant said. “It was just so crazy. Me personally, I didn’t even want to be on social media anymore.”
Before the Penn State game, players met and decided enough was enough. The program was locked in. No matter who led the program as interim, be it offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore or running backs coach Mike Hart (or even safeties coach Jay Harbaugh), there was only one constant: excellence. The Wolverines were the only team in college football to win every game on their schedule and beat four of the top 10 teams in the final CFP Rankings to get there.
Early in the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship, Michigan faced its season-defining moment. The Wolverines jumped out to an early lead, but it dissipated. Washington pulled to within one score when Michigan got the ball back with 9:15 remaining in the game.
From that moment, Michigan pounced like a leopard in one of the nature documentaries that Harbaugh often shows his teams before big games. McCarthy found tight end Colston Loveland for a 41-yard catch-and-run, setting up a school record 26th touchdown run in one season for Blake Corum. On the next drive, senior defensive back Mike Sainristil nabbed an errant pass from Michael Penix Jr. and returned it 81 yards deep into the red zone, a play that will be on loop for the next 100 years in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Two plays later, Corum got touchdown No. 27 and the rout was on.
“We’ve played in a lot of big games, played in a lot of close games,” Loveland said. “We’ve got a lot of experience in close games. We’ve got a lot of older guys who have been there. They know how everything works and what it takes to win.”
Sixteen starters returned from Michigan’s squad in the 2022 Fiesta Bowl. Fourteen starters in Monday’s CFP title played against Georgia in the 2021 Orange Bowl semifinal, a 34-11 loss. The DNA of this team was forged through the fire of failure.
“It’s the mindset that we had,” Sainristil said. “We just really wanted to get this thing done.”
On a stormy night in Houston when the roof leaked and lightning flowed, Michigan captured its first national championship since 1997 — its first of the title game era. This time when the confetti fell, it was maize and blue. Instead of standing alone in witness, McCarthy was surrounded by his family and teammates hoisting the elusive oblong trophy.
“No high school has gotten to a thousand wins,” Harbaugh said. “No other college has gotten to a thousand wins. No other pro team has gotten to a thousand wins. University of Michigan. To reach 1,000 wins and win the national championship in the same year, man, doesn’t get much better than that. I would really ask you that.
“Who could possibly have it better than us?” Harbaugh continued. “Nobody!”