PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — The way Blake Corum sees it, the Michigan Wolverines are unbeaten, top-ranked and two wins away from a national championship because of all the turmoil they’ve overcome this year, not in spite of it.
Michigan’s star running back explains his view while sitting among his teammates Saturday under a big white tent outside the rain-soaked Rose Bowl, where the Wolverines (13-0) will face Alabama (12-1) on Monday in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
“I think we learned from all our setbacks, all of our mistakes,” Corum said. “With this team, with everything we’ve been through this year, I think we’re stronger physically and mentally than we ever were. That’s a big part of why we’ve played so well. … We just came together. A team that I thought couldn’t get any closer, we did. When adversity hits, you can do two things. You can crumble, or you can keep going. We just kept going.”
The college football world already realizes Michigan’s pristine record and No. 1 ranking are poor camouflage for a profoundly messy season.
The year was bookended by coach Jim Harbaugh’s suspensions for the first three games and the final three games of the regular season. The first ban was a pre-emptive school decision related to the NCAA investigation into Michigan’s recruiting, while the second was Big Ten-mandated for the Wolverines’ sign-stealing scandal.
Beyond six game days without their head coach, the Wolverines have been hit by a barrage of abrupt changes — like the firing of linebackers coach Chris Partridge last month — constant social media negativity and general unsettledness for players in a sport that usually thrives on metronomic routine.
Michigan has pushed forward with togetherness and steadiness, building up to back-to-back victories over Ohio State in The Game and over Iowa in the Big Ten title game. The school adopted the slogan “Michigan vs. Everybody” while the team was battered this season, but the Wolverines say they’re all they need.
“Michigan Against the World was real this season,” defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said. “At least that’s how it felt. Everybody was against us. If you weren’t wearing the Block M, you wanted us to lose. We didn’t let it affect us, and that’s because of the culture we’ve been straining so hard to build. You saw it all this year.”
That mental toughness is built on physical tenacity. The Wolverines spoke glowingly this week of the benefits of their hard-hitting 9-on-7 drill, which has changed its name in recent years, depending on their biggest opponent: the “Beat Ohio” drill and the “Beat Georgia” drill are now the “Beat Bama” drill.
The drill begins with the sirens from the “Purge” movie series, and it features full tackling — a no-no in other programs and on most NFL teams because of the health risks.
“It’s a lot of pads popping, a lot of noise, loud music, a lot of violence,” offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore said. “Sometimes there’s people on the ground, sometimes there’s not, but it’s physicality at its finest and the players love it, the coaches love it. And I think it’s kind of molded us and built us to what we’ve been these past couple years and what we need to be going forward.”
Several Michigan players also give significant credit for their steadiness to Ben Herbert, the Wolverines’ director of strength and conditioning. According to his adoring students, Herbert doubles as a motivational guru who seems to know just what to say at the perfect time, and his attitude toward Michigan’s turmoil resonated.
“Coach Herb likes to talk about it like it’s a hidden blessing,” receiver Roman Wilson said. “Without adversity, you’re not really going to grow. You’re not going to become something special. My opinion, I feel like all these problems, the things going on, it’s really a blessing for us. It really has helped this team grow a lot into what we are now.”
Receiver-turned-cornerback Mike Sainristil sees the stoic attitudes in Herbert’s overall philosophy as the backbone of the Wolverines’ perseverance.
“He always tells us that there are a whole bunch of things that you can’t control, but what you can do is show up and do what’s being asked of you,” Sainristil said. “Don’t fall victim to why-me, or other things that allow you to have a setback.”
The distractions haven’t stopped flying, even during the quiet weeks of December: Ten days ago, Michigan received a notice of allegations from the NCAA about the potential recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period and coaching activities that led to Harbaugh’s first, pre-emptive suspension.
But even the newest Wolverines have joined their veteran teammates in attacking the turmoil with togetherness and toughness.
“It has been very surreal this year,” said standout center Drake Nugent, who spent four years at Stanford before transferring to Michigan for this season.
“Obviously a huge shift in culture, not only in the program, but outside the program as well,” Nugent added. “All the attention the program gets, the attention the head coach gets. Coach Harbaugh, he’s always in the media doing something. But I’ve always had a winning mentality, so I think it was nice to be a part of a program where everyone else had the same thing.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football