So here we are, at the end of the 2011 Michigan season, and I'm a little annoyed. Grantland's Michael Weinreb** has taken to calling Michigan's victory in the Sugar Bowl emblematic of the Big Ten's "faux success" and referring to this season as "one of the emptiest 11-win seasons in college football history." I mean, I was annoyed and then I remembered Weinreb is a Penn State alumnus and has probably spent most of the last few months staring into what the future looks like and it's only the abyss staring back at him. Fine, Michigan's Sugar Bowl victory is largely because Virginia Tech handed the game to them. But hey, Michigan was in a position to take what was given to them and they took it. Fine, Michigan's Sugar Bowl victory is part of the Big Ten's "faux success" except for that pesky "Hey, with Michigan going to a BCS game, everyone else slotted one game up (coupled with the toxicity of Penn State, who didn't exactly look like they were thrilled to be at the TicketCity...oh look, Case Keenum just threw another TD pass.) and played three de facto road games (pointed out by David Thorsley, @TAMU in Houston, @Florida in Jacksonville, and @Houston at Dallas.) So whatever, in the end the fact that a national writer took the time to take a swipe at Michigan's win actually made me happy, for the simple reason that you don't take that kind of swipe at a team unless they're back near the top of the heap.
Credit again to David for getting so much of what I wanted to say into his post-game column yesterday but the notion of "deserving victory" has struck me. How do we define the notion of "deserving victory"? How do we even know if we deserve anything? Deserving is built upon our notions of merit, fair play, and justice. Deserve, itself, comes from the Latin for "devoting one's self to service". Which means that deserve is subjective, There's no way we can say that Michigan "deserved" to win anymore than we can say Virginia Tech did not "deserve" to win because its in the eye of the beholder. How do we know? Do we question the effort in practice, in the weight room, in watching film? We don't. We cling to the notion of deserve because we desire a world that is just, that is fair, that makes sense. We have been painfully reminded in 2011 that college football is best when it does not intersect real life, but rather exists in an ethereal plain above real life, and it is because it exists as a pseudo-fantasy realm adjacent to the real world, we also peg our desires for that which is too rarely seen in the real world, justice, fairness, meritocracy, on the outcomes of these games. We also know these things do not exist in the world of college football any more than they do in our own life.
One of the best lessons I ever received about being a college football fan came from my friend Mike nearly a decade ago when he said, very simply to me "You have to remember that the other team is trying to win the game too." It's obvious now, in retrospect, but it completely altered my vision of Michigan football, from parochial orthodoxy to seeing Michigan in the context of the larger college football landscape. Virginia Tech was trying to win the Sugar Bowl just as much as Michigan was. Mistakes were made, regrets will be had. In the end Michigan will go down as having won a 23-20 overtime game that was by no means a classic, but still a part of the tapestry of that game's history.
Did Team 132 deserve victory? I'm not sure, and I can never be sure. But I can be sure that their courage, their cheerfulness, and their resolution brought them victory. Courage in David Molk and Ryan Van Bergen and Taylor Lewan playing through significant injuries. Their cheerfulness in Brendan Gibbons' now pantheon "Brunette girls" answer. Their resolution in what they demonstrated throughout this whole season. This is not one of the all-time great Michigan teams. It's not the 1997 team, it's not the 1901 team, it's not the 1969 team. But it's the 2011 team and people are going to look back on it and smile, because they will remember the 11 wins, the magic under the lights, the release of getting the Buckeye monkey off their backs, and the improbability of that Sugar Bowl victory. If you make the case that any season that doesn't end in a national championship is a essentially empty, well, I feel for you, because your standards are so high, you can't enjoy the ride. The joy of college football comes when players who pass through your life briefly, but live for a long time in your memory get to celebrate a victory, one a long time coming.
Thank you Team 132. Team 133, the future starts now.
*--For no good reason, I had to include this one I found in looking for the two above. All I know is that this guy is really annoyed with Canada.
**-Weinreb also, hilariously, in his closing paragraph, attacks the fact that Michigan didn't even win its own division (an argument rendered moot by the fact that neither did another team playing in a BCS bowl in the Superdome and the stakes are a little higher for them) and that the success will be short-lived for the next decade with the arrival of Urban Meyer at Ohio State (I understand Meyer's resume and I do not scoff at it, but the notion that Michigan is going to be steamrolled by Ohio State simply because Urban Meyer is their coach. You'll forgive me if I don't believe it until I see it.)