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Michigan defined the 2023 college football season

It’s only fitting that the Wolverines ended a dominant, controversy filled season with a national championship.

2024 CFP National Championship - Michigan v Washington Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

There are certain years where a singular team defines a college football season. And not just in a sense of the team simply hoisting the national championship trophy that January. I’m talking a program being the epicenter of the sport week after week.

2004/2005 USC immediately comes to mind, or 2019 LSU as a more recent example. And 2023 was the season of the Michigan Wolverines, as no program commanded more attention both on and off the field than the team from Ann Arbor.

Michigan faced a relatively easy schedule by its own design, and flat out dominated like a national championship caliber team should. The Wolverines held their first five opponents to just single digits in scoring and continued waylaying foes as they got deeper into Big Ten play. They wiped the floor with Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan State, and Purdue in consecutive weeks, winning each game by at least four touchdowns. Their 24-15 victory over Penn State on November 7 was the first time their defense had faced a goal-to-go situation all season long!

Everything built up to the final four games of the year, where UM downed arch nemesis Ohio State for a third year in a row and drove Buckeye fans into further madness. After claiming its third straight Big Ten title with a shutout win over Iowa, it went to Pasadena and engaged Alabama in a sloppy, but epic Rose Bowl thriller. Blake Corum punched in the go-ahead touchdown in overtime and the defense stonewalled Crimson Tide QB Jalen Milroe to survive the semifinal. And then in Monday’s title game, the Wolverines held Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. in check, pulling away from the Huskies to win the program’s first national title since 1997. That clinched the very first 15-0 season for the Wolverines, a historic feat for the winningest program in college football history.

But the on-field dominance was only a part of Michigan’s story...

Head coach Jim Harbaugh was already one of the most polarizing figures in college football prior to 2023, and controversies throughout the calendar year made him one of the biggest lightning rods in all of sports. Last January, the NCAA launched an investigation into Michigan for alleged impermissible contact with recruits during the COVID-19 dead period. Initially known as “Burgergate”, the program self-imposed a three-game suspension for Harbaugh to start the year in an effort to get ahead of any potential punishments levied by the NCAA.

Then things kicked into overdrive.

Shortly after his return, the NCAA began investigating the Wolverines for alleged sign-stealing in what turned into the biggest scandal of the entire college football season. Wolverines staffer Connor Stalions was revealed as the central figure of an intricate off-campus scouting operation, going as far as disguising himself at a Central Michigan game to scout future UM opponents. Questions quickly turned to how much Harbaugh knew about this operation and the Big Ten ultimately suspended him for the final three games of the regular season. That meant the head coach would serve exactly half of the regular season under suspension and the Wolverines still dominated.

So here we sit, with Michigan defiantly celebrateing its first title in just over a quarter-century. As far as we know, Monday’s title game may have been the final game for Harbaugh at UM, with all signs pointing towards him making a jump back to the NFL.

And as far as we know, this title game may be vacated in a few years, with the NCAA continuing its investigation into the sign-stealing operation. But what we do know is that no program commanded your attention quite like the Wolverines in 2023. They were the story. It was their year.