Did Michigan have a successful season?

We present our criteria for determining whether this, and future, Michigan seasons were successful.

Facts are my friends. I prefer the truth straight, with no chaser. However, in this imperfect world we frequently aren’t afforded the luxury of things being so cut-and-dried, but need to draw distinctions. That’s when it’s necessary to define our terms and determine our standards.

As sports fans, that’s a necessity when determining what is and isn’t a success. Obviously winning the national championship in football and men’s basketball is an unqualified success. However, only one team in each sport earns that accomplishment each season, which means a standard is required to determine everything in-between.

This column will define that standard moving forward here as far as we’re concerned here at Wolverine Digest and Michigan Podcast.


We’ve broken this sport down into three criteria:

1) Successful season

Making the NCAA Tournament. This should be the baseline goal for every Michigan basketball season.

2) Championship season

Winning a Big Ten regular season or tournament title, and/or winning a regional to advance to the Final Four.

3) Special season

Winning the NCAA Tournament, which makes you special because only one team can accomplish this goal each season.

According to this metric, the 11 full seasons John Beilein has coached at Michigan has produced more championship seasons (4) than unsuccessful ones (3). Needless to say, any fanbase should be happy with that ratio in a major sport. In fact, in the 30 years since Michigan last won the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines have seven total championship seasons and Beilein is responsible for four of those.

Here’s how many championship seasons the rest of Michigan’s peer programs in the Big Ten have had the past 11 seasons:

Michigan State: 9

Ohio State: 7

Purdue: 3

Indiana: 2


Like men’s basketball, we’ve broken the football metric into three criteria, although the individual criteria differ slightly.

1) Successful season

Winning at least 8 regular season games without beating Ohio State, or getting to a bowl game with any record if it includes beating Ohio State. This should be the baseline expectation for Michigan football.

2) Championship season

Winning the division title, conference title, or New Year’s Six bowl game.

3) Special season

Qualifying for the College Football Playoff and/or winning the national title, and/or having a Heisman Trophy winner.

The standard in football is a little more flexible, because there’s less things you can objectively earn your way to than you can in college basketball. For example, you can objectively win your way to the Final Four in hoops. But in football you have to be selected to be one of the last four teams based on the subjective assessment of the selection committee.

This is also why winning a New Year’s Six bowl is considered a championship season in this metric. Because even obtaining the bid also requires action by the selection committee, and gives you a chance to defeat a major program on a neutral field. A program that’s either the clear best of the Group of Five, or showed themselves to be among the best in the Power Five.

Furthermore, this is also why emphasis is placed on beating Ohio State according to this metric, because they are the main obstacle standing in the way of Michigan accomplishing its top two tiers of goals.

Since the Heisman Trophy is clearly most coveted award in the sport, and only goes to one player a year (who with one historic exception is always on a very good team), the uniqueness of that achievement qualifies for a special season as well.

By this metric, Michigan has only had six successful seasons since Lloyd Carr retired in 2007, and Jim Harbaugh’s four-year tenure is responsible for most of those. Brady Hoke’s 2011 team that won the Sugar Bowl would be the only championship season Michigan has had since 2004. Should the Wolverines win their upcoming New Year’s Six bowl, this season would meet that threshold as well.

The Wolverines haven’t had a special season in football in 21 years (1997). Here’s how many championship seasons have been earned by Big Ten teams since Harbaugh has been at Michigan:

Ohio State: 4 (two of those were also special seasons, and if Buckeyes go on to make the playoff this season will be a third)

Michigan State: 2 (one of those was also a special season)

Wisconsin: 2

Penn State: 2

Iowa: 1

Northwestern: 1