Two years ago, an 8-4 record for Michigan, a winning record in the Big Ten and a New Year's Day bowl game would have been seen as a step in the right direction.
Brady Hoke's first season, though, raised expectations and now fans are left wondering what went wrong.
This season was supposed to be the year that Michigan took the big step forward, building on last year's BCS win over Virginia Tech and winning the Big Ten title. Or at least getting to the championship game. Instead, an oddly dysfunctional team will watch Nebraska play Wisconsin in Indianapolis on Saturday. Assuming the Cornhuskers beat the underdog Badgers, the Wolverines seem destined to face Heisman favorite Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Capital One Bowl.
So what went wrong?
It started, as Hoke always says, up front. Despite the presence of All-Big Ten first-team Patrick Omameh and Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year Taylor Lewan, the offensive line never turned into the steamroller that Hoke expected. The Wolverines never found replacements for center David Molk and tackle Mark Huyge, and the effects were devastating. While Denard Robinson was able to make plays on his own with instincts and speed, Michigan's running backs put in their worst collective performance since before World War II.
"We just didn't develop the line the way we wanted," Hoke said. "The one thing you have to do to win at this level, especially on the road, is run the ball. We were never able to do that."
The problem became obvious in the first game of the season, when Michigan was manhandled by Alabama, but there was still room for optimism. Starting tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2011, missed the first game after a drunk-driving arrest. Once he got back, and Michigan wasn't playing a defense as good as the Crimson Tide, the running game should have return.
It didn't. Toussaint struggled all season before sustaining a grotesque broken leg against Iowa, and both Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith struggled when given chances to carry the load. Hoke, though, has made it clear all season that he doesn't blame his running backs.
"Yes, we need to have a couple of backs who can get us yards," he said. "But that's tough to do when the offensive line isn't giving them any holes."
With no one else to worry about, Alabama was able to focus on containing Robinson in the pocket. As he has throughout his career, he struggled badly when having to throw from that situation. It got worse against Manti Te'o and Notre Dame. At one point, Robinson threw four straight interceptions in a 13-6 loss -- one that has gotten even more frustrating as the Irish have played themselves into the national championship game.
At the start of the Big Ten season, it looked like Robinson and a stout defense were going to be enough to keep Michigan in the title hurt. The flaws still existed, but it was a bad year for the conference, and after snapping Michigan State's winning streak with a dramatic 12-10 win at the Big House, the Wolverines were on pace for big things.
That all ended the next week when Robinson injured his elbow against Nebraska. Hoke had said all season that Devin Gardner had been splitting practice time between quarterback and receiver, but when Robinson left the game, Hoke decided Gardner wasn't ready to play. That meant throwing little-used Russell Bellomy into action -- a decision that left Michigan's season in ruins. Bellomy went 3-for-13 with three interceptions, and Nebraska pulled away for the victory that gave them the Legends Division title.
Gardner took over the next week, and played extremely well in wins over Minnesota and Northwestern, and things looked even brighter when Robinson returned to the lineup against Iowa. The pair took the field together on several occasions, and Iowa's constant focus on Robinson let Gardner put up six touchdowns -- three through the air and three on the ground.
That meant a final showdown with undefeated Ohio State. Nebraska had already clinched the division title, but a win would have put Michigan back into contention for a BCS berth, and it looked promising at halftime. The Wolverines led 21-20, and the GardnerRobinson partnership had put up two more big-play touchdowns -- a long run by Robinson and a bomb from Gardner to Roy Roundtree.
In the second half, Michigan's defense did its job, holding the Buckeyes to a pair of field goals. All Michigan needed was one touchdown to win the game, but they never got close. The Wolverines never crossed midfield as Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges abandoned the idea of having both quarterbacks on the field. Robinson spent much of the third quarter taking shotgun snaps and running futilely into the middle of the line, and when that didn't work, Michigan put Gardner in to throw pass after pass with Robinson on the sidelines.
Hoke is a defensive-line specialist, so he left the offense in Borges' hands. After the Ohio State game, he insisted he wouldn't have changed anything.
"I thought our play-calling has been just where it has needed to be," he said. "We just had too many self-inflicted wounds."
So a season that started with two goals -- beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten title -- fell short on both counts. Next week, the Wolverines will start preparing for a bowl matchup and, just as importantly, for 2013. Gardner will be the full-time quarterback, and the goals will be the same.
He'll still need help, though.