A look at how far Michigan’s football program has come since the last UConn game 9 years ago

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Until now almost nine years ago, Michigan football defeated the Connecticut Huskies, went undefeated and was among the top 20 teams in the country. Sounds a lot like what happened in Ann Arbor on Saturday, right? Well, in the time in between the program has changed completely.

It was early Saturday morning in front of Michigan Stadium when a friend and I started remembering the 2013 game against UConn. I’d completed the 10-hour drive in my cousin’s Dodge Neon and was parked in the grass next to what appeared to be an abandoned runway. We’ve heard Katy Perry’s Roar on the radio at least 10 times.

The Wolverines were 15th in the nation, and Connecticut was, well, really bad. We didn’t expect to see much of a game, but back then at Michigan you never really knew. Heck, the Wolverines needed a last-second stand to avoid losing to Akron a week earlier.

21st September 2013

As it turned out, Michigan’s 24-21 win at East Hartford was no triumph. It didn’t inspire confidence for the future, just served as another reminder that the program was far from where it wanted to be.

Connecticut came 0-2 after blowout home losses to Towson and Maryland. The Huskies would ultimately start the season 0-9 before closing out with a trio of wins in November.

The point is that UConn was terrible. This team had nothing to do with competing with Michigan or any other Power Five team.

But unfortunately, with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Wolverines found themselves two touchdowns behind. Connecticut had scored twice in the second quarter and then returned a fumble from Devin Gardner for a third goal to open the second half.

Michigan Wolverines Devin Gardner #98 runs from Connecticut Huskies Liam Sallquist #15 for a touchdown during a game at Rentschler Field September 21, 2013 in East Hartford, Connecticut. (2013 Getty Images)

It became another off-conference embarrassment for the program. Appalachian State, Toledo…what was another, right?

Michigan found a way to rally behind two Fitzgerald Toussaint hits and emerged from East Hartford unscathed. But let me tell you, it didn’t feel like a win. And it was a harbinger of more fear and frustration.

Michigan’s reality at the time

Weaknesses uncovered during that game eventually paved the way for a 7-6 season capped by a 31-14 win over Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

That’s right: Michigan was the kind of program that went to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The kind of program that got pushed around State of Kansas. The kind of program that needed late exploits to beat it damn Akron and UConn.

Among the losses this season: Michigan State physically humiliated Michigan with a minus 48 rushing yards and Nebraska got into the big house and kept the Wolverines under 200 yards overall.

In 2014, Michigan would miss the postseason entirely, finishing with a losing record for the third time in seven seasons and firing another head coach. Only in 2011, when Denard Robinson almost single-handedly led the team to 11 wins, did the program briefly feel like it was going in the right direction.

But back to that night in Connecticut. At the time, Michigan was desperate to return to its former glory. It had just emerged from the Rich Rodriguez disaster and was counting on Brady Hoke to fight his way out of a situation far beyond his capabilities.

Michigan football spun its wheels, bounced between national ridicule and was moderately competitive week in and week out.

That UConn debacle – it was just another loss disguised as a comeback win.

The gift

Well, what’s happened in the Big House for the last three weeks – this were victories. It’s a subtle, underappreciated sign of how far this program has come under Jim Harbaugh.

The Wolverines are no longer worried about teams like Connecticut and Akron. No one looked at that preseason schedule, even considering the possibility that Michigan could be anything other than 3-0. I remember when the off-conference schedule was just four opportunities for the college football world to mock Michigan. That’s growth.

Harbaugh is bringing Michigan much closer to the program many remember from before Rodriguez. As my dad likes to say, what the Wolverines did to the states of Colorado, Hawaii and Connecticut, they used to do to everyone on the slate except for the states of Ohio.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates his team’s touchdown in the first half during a game against the Connecticut Huskies at Michigan Stadium on September 17, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2022 Getty Images)

People don’t want to listen to the evidence that Michigan is “back,” but it’s starting to pile up. Since Harbaugh arrived in 2015, Michigan has ranked 10th in the nation for wins and 9th for win percentage — all while playing in one of college football’s two elite divisions.

The Wolverines have four 10-win seasons, played in two New Year’s Six Bowls and are among 12 teams to ever make the College Football Playoffs. Michigan’s only losing season was the COVID-shortened disaster of 2020, and she bounced back immediately to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten title the following year.

Michigan is not on the same level as Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and Oklahoma. But once you’re past that elite level, you’ll be hard pressed to find a team that’s won more consistently than Michigan since 2015.

Back in 2013, Michigan was nationally mocked for being beaten annually by both major rivals. Critics could well point to the national insignificance and the annual underperformance of the program. If analysts ran out of reasons to poke fun at the Wolverines, the team would simply supply more ammo.

Now people have so little to criticize that they harp on about Michigan’s no-conference schedule and the way quarterback competition was handled. Meanwhile, the team plods on, scoring 166 points in three games.

Some of the questions about the schedule are fair – we don’t yet know what to expect from this year’s team. The tests will be much tougher and Michigan will have to confirm its 4th place.

But one thing is certain: Michigan’s football program is thriving. And it’s certainly in a much better place than that ominous fall night in East Hartford.

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