Michigan won the Orange Bowl coin toss.

And that’s the last thing that went right for the Wolverines in 2021.

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MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 31: James Cook #4 of the Georgia Bulldogs runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the game against the Michigan Wolverines in the Capital One Orange Bowl for the College Football Playoff semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium on December 31, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

A team that had barely trailed all season — never by more than four points — got into a hole quickly and only saw it deepen the rest of the way. Michigan’s appearance in the College Football Playoff semifinals did not go anywhere near according to plan, the Wolverines’ season-ending Friday night with a 34-11 loss to Georgia in the Orange Bowl.

“Congratulations to Georgia. They played a heck of a game in all phases,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I loved the way our guys fought. It wasn’t our best but certainly was theirs. They played extremely well.”

By every measure, the numbers were bad. The Wolverines came in allowing 316 yards per game; Georgia had 330 by halftime. The Wolverines’ biggest deficit all season was four points; Georgia was up 7-0 after seven plays. The Wolverines had trailed for a total of 44 minutes in 2021; Georgia led for 56 minutes in this one alone.

They lost the turnover battle 3-0, gave up four sacks while not recording any, and the much-hyped strength vs. strength matchup — Michigan’s running game vs. Georgia’s defensive front — was pretty much a mismatch, with the Wolverines held to a season-low 88 yards on the ground.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 31: Blake Corum #2 of the Michigan Wolverines loses control of the ball in the third quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs in the Capital One Orange Bowl for the College Football Playoff semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium on December 31, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It all added up to a fifth consecutive bowl loss for Michigan, the school’s worst drought since a seven-bowl-loss streak in the 1970s.

“Obviously, it’s very disappointing right now,” Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara said. “We gave it everything we’ve got and we got beat tonight.”

The Wolverines had a big home-field advantage Friday — Hard Rock Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins and the Orange Bowl, is owned by Stephen Ross, a Michigan alum and massive donor to his school. Of the 66,000 fans or so in attendance, two-thirds seemed to be wearing maize and blue. They even got to use the Dolphins’ sideline, which probably pleased Ross to no end.

Most of those Michigan fans were long gone before this one ended. It was 34-3 before the Wolverines found the end zone for the first time in the final minutes, far too late for anything to matter.

“We did accomplish great things this year, and although it is a disappointing way to end it, we did do great things this year,” said Josh Ross, who led Michigan with 11 tackles. “And we can’t forget about that.”

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MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 31: Head Coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines talks with Josh Ross #12 in the second quarter of the game against the Georgia Bulldogs in the Capital One Orange Bowl for the College Football Playoff semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium on December 31, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

He’s right. Once the sting of this loss goes away, it’ll be easy to see Michigan took massive steps forward in 2021.

The Wolverines went 2-4 last season, and utterly forgettable year played through Year 1 of the pandemic. They were unranked to start this season, didn’t get into the Top 10 until October, and then made it all the way to No. 2 in the polls. The Ohio State hex was finally solved as Michigan beat its rival. A team picked to finish fourth when the season started — that is, fourth in the Big Ten East — ended up as one of the last four teams standing in the race for the national title.

Getting overrun by Georgia doesn’t change that. It does, however, show how much work remains if the Wolverines are going to return to college football’s mountaintop.

Michigan got on the scoreboard midway through the second quarter, a short field goal cutting the deficit to 17-3. The Wolverines had Georgia facing a third-and-3 on the ensuing possession, perhaps poised to get the ball right back.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 31: Jake Moody #13 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts after scoring a field goal with teammate Brad Robbins #91 in the second quarter of the game against the Georgia Bulldogs in the Capital One Orange Bowl for the College Football Playoff semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium on December 31, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Nope.

Georgia’s James Cook went down the right sideline and hauled in a 53-yard pass from Stetson Bennett, the only reason it wasn’t a touchdown was that Cook had to slow up slightly because the ball appeared to be a bit underthrown. The Bulldogs settled for another field goal to restore the 17-point edge, and it was another tiny chance that Michigan let slip away.

An interception followed, and on the next Georgia possession, Bennett didn’t underthrow anyone. He found Jermaine Burton with a 57-yard touchdown pass, pushing the score up to 27-3 as the first half — and, really, the Michigan season — was coming to an end.

That said, when it was over, Harbaugh immediately looked ahead.

“To me, it feels like a start,” Harbaugh said. “Feels like a beginning.”

 

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