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SportsMonday Column: They are who we thought they were

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 25, 2012

COLUMBUS — To be the best, beat the best.

The Michigan football team’s 2012 schedule was a veritable gauntlet, slated as one of the toughest in all of college football this fall. The Wolverines went undefeated at Michigan Stadium, but it was on the road where the true challengers awaited.

Michigan lost to four teams with a combined 45-3 record: undefeated Notre Dame and Ohio State, 11-1 Alabama and 10-2 Nebraska — all away from home. When the Week 12 iteration of the BCS standings were released on Sunday, it was littered with familiar foes: No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 2 Alabama, No. 12 Nebraska. (The postseason-ineligible Buckeyes finished No. 4 in the AP poll.)

Oh boy, where to start on Michigan’s best loss argument? How about we start with looking for its best win instead.

That’s not so hard. Michigan defeated then-No. 24 Northwestern in a 38-31 overtime thriller two weeks ago thanks to a miracle finger-tip Hail Mary catch by Roy Roundtree. Northwestern finished the season 9-3. Not bad. Let’s move on to the second-best win.

Wait for it.

Still looking.

Ah, there it is. The Wolverines beat Air Force, Purdue, Michigan State and Minnesota, who each ended the season at a perfectly bowl-eligible 6-6. Yes, my friends, the Wolverines defeated only one team that ended the season with a winning record. I won’t tell anyone that minor detail if you don’t.

Michigan’s eight victories came against teams who posted a combined 40-56 record. The Wolverines were favored in all of their victories, they were the underdog in every loss.

So, simply put, Michigan performed to expectations. But that doesn’t leave anyone feeling better. Team 133 had four chances to make a statement. They couldn’t make a single one; they couldn’t beat any team worth its salt, save the miracle victory over Northwestern.

Things could have gone much differently. Two plays either way could have seen Michigan finish at 10-2 or 6-6. Last-second victories over Michigan State and Northwestern could just as easily have been losses.

And then there were injuries. Standout cornerback Blake Countess was knocked out of the season opener with a knee injury and never returned. Redshirt junior tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint missed the last game of the season after injuring his left leg against Iowa. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson sustained an ulnar-nerve injury against Nebraska and never threw another pass. He scampered for a 67-yard touchdown in Columbus on Saturday, his first touchdown in 355 minutes of game time — to recap, Robinson, whose 91 touchdowns are a Michigan record, went just eight minutes short of not scoring for half a season.

But maybe performing to expectations wasn’t so bad. What if Michigan just isn’t built yet to compete with the nation’s elite? Perhaps the Wolverines, by coming within a touchdown of beating teams like Ohio State and Notre Dame — and even Nebraska, with a healthy Robinson — were outperforming their talent level.

Now, no one inside Schembechler Hall will agree with that.

But look at this. Alabama’s offensive line and entire defensive corps is NFL-bound. Notre Dame has future top-20 draft picks like Heisman Trophy-candidate Manti Te’o. Ohio State, Nebraska? They’re simply more talented from top to bottom, though there certainly are outliers.

Who from Michigan’s senior class will hear his name called in the NFL draft? Robinson, surely, though who knows when or at what position. Jordan Kovacs? Will Campbell? Roy Roundtree? Kenny Demens?

There are plenty of guys who might well get a tryout with an NFL team next summer, but the only surefire draft pick in this senior class is a quarterback who certainly won’t play quarterback at the next level.

That’s not to take anything away from the talent on Michigan’s roster, it’s to emphasize the caliber of opponents the Wolverines battled against — and lost to.

In two years, the talent level on the Wolverine sideline will be different, vastly different. Though Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s metric for success — a Big Ten championship — won’t necessarily change, performing to expectations will look different. Then we’ll be able to adequately judge the Michigan coaching staff for how it has shaped the team. If Michigan lost these same four games two years from now, then there would be reason to panic. Not now. Not yet.

Is 8-4 a disappointing record? Sure it is. It always will be at Michigan. But each loss was a legitimate loss. Michigan didn’t give away any game, per se, it just didn’t steal any banner matchups either.

They had every opportunity to beat the best, but they’re not quite there.

Not yet.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.