- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Smiling for a second after processing the level of success for this season’s Michigan team, Brady Hoke stood on the podium after the Wolverines’ season ended with a loss in the Outback Bowl and gave the answer he always has given.
“You know what the answer is,” Hoke said. “It wasn’t successful. You compete to win championships.”
Yes, Michigan does, so using Hoke’s logic, no, this season was not a successful one. The only ones that will be to him, at least publicly, are ones which end in winning the Big Ten championship.
But staying away from Hoke’s champion-or-bust mentality, Michigan was successful in a lot of ways. While 8-5 after being touted as a preseason top-10 team doesn’t look like much, the Wolverines’ losses came to three teams in the top 10 -- including both teams in the national championship game -- another undefeated team in Ohio State and Nebraska when quarterback Denard Robinson was injured.
All of Michigan’s losses were on the road or at neutral sites.
“You never know what you’re going to get going into a season,” former Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. “You want to be Big Ten champions as a Michigan football player but it has had its ups-and-downs, it really has.
“You didn’t win the Big Ten championship but at the end of the day, as a captain, as a senior, as a leader on this team, I am forever proud to say I was a member of Team 133. Just the group of guys that we had. While we didn’t do what we set out to achieve this year and we didn’t finish how we wanted to finish, I have no doubt that this season will help those guys.”
Players such as Kovacs, Denard Robinson. Will Campbell and J.T. Floyd are gone. Those players helped lay groundwork for a potential future where Michigan will reach Hoke’s lofty, consistent standard.
They were the last playing vestiges to Michigan’s last non-bowl season, under Rich Rodriguez, and were the ones who helped the program slowly climb back from a 2008 season few were part of.
They set everything up for a successful future.
Michigan returns its quarterback, Devin Gardner, and its top receiver, Jeremy Gallon. The Wolverines return their best defender, linebacker Jake Ryan, and some other strong pieces throughout the defense.
There will still be major holes to fill -- notably at receiver alongside Gallon, at running back where the competition will likely be wide open, on the offensive line where either three or four new starters will play, and in the secondary, where Michigan needs to replace Floyd and Kovacs.
But there is talent and experience, combined with a favorable schedule which sees no Alabama and big opponents Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State all at home, for the Wolverines to continue the ascent started by this departing group.
And while this season might not have been a success in the eyes of the coaching staff and some of the players, their collective help might be what benefits Michigan over the next few seasons.
“This team, we have seniors in Team 134 that are willing to push guys regardless of how they feel or be afraid if, oh, is this guy not going to like me? Screw that,” said offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, who still is mulling leaving early for the NFL. “If guys are willing to step up and push guys, this team will win a Big Ten championship next year.
“If the seniors are willing to step up.”