Over the last 40 years the University of Michigan has been blessed with several fine football teams. I’ve identified below what I like to call the "Magnificent Seven" of these teams below. I highlight the main reasons why these 7 teams stand far above the rest:
It’s hard to believe this team last played a football game over 12 years ago, because the memories are fresh in the minds of many Michigan faithful as if the Wolverines had knocked off Penn State 34-8 just last weekend. The thing that stood out about this team was the staunch, star-studded defensive unit, anchored by DTs Glen Steele and Rob Renes, LBs Dhani Jones, James Hall and Sam Sword and Heisman Trophy Winner Charles Woodson. The 1997 Wolverines were not a flamboyant team offensively. However, there were so many little weapons that, when mixed and matched together, they'd really pack a punch. It all started and stopped with quarterback Brian Griese who hit 63% of his passes, 2,300 yards, 17 TDs and only 6 INTs. Michigan did not have a 1,000 yard rusher, but came damn close with TB Chris Howard. Griese relied heavily on TE Jerame Tuman and SE Tai Streets as the chief targets for the air attack. As stellar as Michigan’s defense was in 1997, the Wolverines managed to shutout only 1 opponent (Indiana 37-0). They also gave up a comparatively high 9.5 points per game. The Michigan offense, coached by OC Mike Debord, was the weakest of the “Magnificent Seven”, scoring only 26.8 points per game. As a result, Michigan won it’s football games in rather indecisive fashion, with an average margin of victory of just 17.3 points per game. The most impressive thing about the 1997 football team, aside from the defensive unit, Charles Woodson and the championships, was the Wolverine schedule. Michigan faced 7 teams with winning records in 1997. Of Michigan’s Magnificent 7 football teams, none traveled a rockier road than the 1997 team in terms of opponent strength.
Exhibit 1 - Michigan vs. Penn State 1997 (by WolverineHistorian):
Those with longer memories may regard the 1985 Wolveirne football team as one of Michigan’s finest ever. They were better than the 1997 squad in virtually every category, except for total victories. Michigan finished 10-1-1, finished second in the land in scoring defense behind Oklahoma, and would have finished unbeaten had it not been for last second field goals made by Iowa (10-12 loss) and Illinois (3-3 tie). The 1985 Wolverine defense was relentless, led by defensive lineman Mike Hammerstein and Mark Messner and linebackers Mike Mallory, Andy Moeller and Jim Scarcelli. The Wolverine secondary was one of the best in years with Garland Rivers, Tony Gant, Brad Cochran and Ivan Hicks. If you are fortunate to ever watch any of the 1985 Michigan football games, it’s really hard not to notice the devastation being wrought all along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The penetration of the defensive lineman of Hammerstein, Messner and Harris, for example, was just sickening to watch. They were usually eating quarterbacks and sipping tea in the opponent’s backfield game after game. I had seen this kind of line dominance once earlier. It was during the 1984 Sugar Bowl versus Auburn when Michigan neutralized Pat Dye and Bo Jackson’s wishbone attack with outstanding line penetration by the DTs and DLs. But the 1985 Michigan defense played like that in almost every game! This defense gave up a meager 8.2 points per contest and had shut out 3 opponents. The offense was led by quarterback Jim Harbaugh, speed merchant tailback Jamie Morris and the massive mitts of tight end Eric Kattus. Offensively, Michigan threw everything at opponents from I-formation ISO, to triple option wishbone sets, to pro-set split back and even some spread pass formations with Sean Higgins, John Kolesar and Paul Jokisch spread wide. The Wolverines scored 28.5 points per game and won games more decisively than the 1997 team ever did with an average margin of victory of 20.3 points per game. Like the 1997 crew, the 1985 team played 7 opponents that had winning seasons.
Exhibit 2 - Michigan vs. Nebraska Fiesta Bowl 1986 (by WolverineHistorian)
The 1978 season was punctuated by 4 key events. 1. A historic Michigan victory on the road versus Notre Dame, 2. an upset home loss to Michigan State, 3. Rick Leach finishing 3rd in the Heisman balloting, and 4. the infamous Phantom Touchdown by USC tailback Charles White in the 1979 Rose Bowl game. The Michigan backfield may have been the most talented ever in Michigan history, as it included senior quarterback Rick Leach, fullback Russell Davis, tailback Harlan Huckleby, wingback Ralph Clayton, and a slew of capable backup runners Roosevelt Smith and Butch Woolfolk. The Wolverines passing attack under Don Nehlen broke school records as Rick Leach passed for nearly 1,300 yards, 17 TDs and just 6 INTs. The offensive line would have been Jerry Hanlon’s finest had the Wolverines not lost OT Bill Dufek to injury for most of the season. The Wolverines ran primarily an option-I offense and some wishbone on occasion as well. The Michigan meat grinder offense blasted opponents for an average of 31 points per game. Defensively, Michigan fielded hands down the best team in the Big Ten, surrendering just 8.8 points per game. Michigan’s defensive line was devastating, led by DT Curt Greer, Mike Trgovac and Chris Godfrey. The Wolverine linebackers from 1978 are remembered as some of Michigan’s best ever: Ron Simpkins, Jerry Meter, Andy Cannavino and Tom Seabron. The secondary was talented and experienced with Mike Jolly, Michael Harden and Mark Braman. Michigan won it’s games much more decisively than the 1997 or 1985 teams did with an average margin of victory of 22.2 points. The 1978 team had certain flaws however, particularly with pass defense. This aspect was exploited early and often in key defeats to Michigan State (QB Ed Smith) and USC (QB Paul MacDonald) in the Rose Bowl. However, unlike the 1997 and 1985 teams, Michigan faced just 6 opponents with winning records in 1978.
Exhibit 3 - Michigan at Notre Dame (by WolverineHistorian)
The 2006 Michigan football season helped to remind everyone that championships are won with great defense. In 2006 Michigan pretty much blasted through 11 opponents with impunity. The Wolverine offense was incredibly balanced with an effective, albeit predictable and unimaginative, rushing attack led by tailback Mike Hart and behemoth offensive tackle Jake Long. The down field passing attack had seemingly come back to life at Michigan for the first time since 2003, led by junior quarterback Chad Henne and a plethora of talented receivers like Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston and Adrian Arrington. The 2006 offense was the highest scoring unit seen in Ann Arbor since 1976, averaging 31.7 points per game. Defensively, the 2006 Michigan squad featured a great defensive line, led by Alan Branch and Lamar Woodley, plus hard-hitting middle linebacker David Harris. The Wolverine defense allowed just 9.5 points per game, but did not pitch any shutouts. The average margin of victory was 22.2 points per game. This statistic is more impressive than it loooks because Michigan’s performance in 2006 actually appeared to go downhill quickly during 3 of the last 4 games versus Ball State (8 pt win), Ohio State (3 pt loss) and USC (14 pt loss). Like the 1978 Michigan team, the 2006 Wolverines played 6 opponents with winning records.
Exhibit 4 - Michigan vs. Wisconsin (12-1!) 2006 (By WolverineHistorian)
There were very good reasons why Michigan was ranked No. 1 most of the year in 1976. Head to toe, this Wolverine team was a very talented bunch. The offensive line featured probably the most talented group in Michigan history: Mike Kenn, Mark Donahue, Bill Dufek, Gerry Szara and center Walt Downing. Bo Schembechler’s offense scored a jaw-dropping 36 points per game by simply running the ball down opponent’s throats. The Wolverine backfield comprised of 4 players with over 500 yards rushing each, and over 40 rushing touchdowns combined: tailback Rob Lytle, fullback Russell Davis, tailback Harlan Huckleby and quarterback Rick Leach. There was also wingback/split-end extraordinaire, and future Pittsburgh Steeler, Jim Smith. Linebacker Calvin O’Neal led the defense alongside DT Mo Morton and DE John Anderson. Michigan gave up a measly 7.9 points per game. The 1976 Wolverines pulverized the opposition, shutting out 5 opponents and scoring an average margin of victory of 28.1 points per game. Only the 1971 team would defeat its’ enemies in more resounding fashion. Michigan finished 10-2 including a road shutout of Ohio State (22-0), a freakish road loss to Purdue in West Lafayette late in the year (14-16), and a close Rose Bowl defeat to USC 6-14 (11-1). Michigan’s steamroller performance in 1976, however, can be attributed to a somewhat weaker schedule, as only 4 Wolverine opponents had winning records (Stanford, Minnesota, Ohio State and USC).
Exhibit 5 - Michigan at Ohio State 1976
Bo Schembechler was in his 3rd year at Michigan, and by this time must have been feeling quite comfortable on the bridge sitting in the Captain Kirk swivel chair ordering up some whupass from Engineering. Offensively, the Wolverines were the opposite of flashy, particularly when you consider starting quarterback Tom Slade attempted just 63 passes over 12 games. It did not matter. Michigan trucked over opponents like a grader. The first thing opponents met and the last thing they forgot was the Wolverine offensive line, led by guard Reggie MacKenzie, center Guy Murdock and guard Tom Coyle. Michigan ran a multiple offense that featured the OSU full-house T, power I and even some Wing T formations, blasting opponents for 35.1 points per game. Bruising tailback Billy Taylor led all rushers with 1,358 yards, 13 TDs and a 5.2 average. Fullback Ed Shuttlesworth added 877 yards and 6 TDs, while tailbacks Glenn Doughty and Cowboy Walker accounted for 490 yards (5 TDs) and 407 yards (5 TDs) respectively. The 1971 Michigan defense suffocated opponents, holding them to 6.9 points per game, blanking 3 opponents. The Wolverines finished the regular season unbeaten at 11-0-0 before losing to Stanford in the Rose Bowl by one point 12-13. The 1971 team won it’s football games in more decisive fashion than any others, with an average margin of victory of 28.2 points per game. Like the 1976 team, Michigan only faced 4 opponents with winning records in 1971 (Northwestern, Michigan State, Ohio State and Stanford).
Exhibit 6 - Michigan vs. Iowa 1971 (By WolverineHistorian)
Michigan was the preseason No. 1 football team in 1976 and had spent some time atop the 1977 polls as well, but an unimpressive 14-7 win over Navy cost Michigan their No. 1 ranking as voters moved them down to No. 3 in the land. Enter stage left the Texas A&M Aggies into Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1970 with head coach Emory Bellard, inventor of the wishbone offense, monstrosity fullback George Woodard, electron tailback Curtis Dickey and the barefooted Howitzer kicker Tony Franklin. This was to be the second biggest non-conference game of the year in the Big Ten (OSU vs. Oklahoma was probably bigger) and well-hyped by Sports Illustrated during the preseason. Both Michigan and Texas A&M had finished 10-2 in 1976, and expectations were just as high for 1977.
Following a 3-0 Franklin FG, the chain of events that followed were rather shocking. ABC’s color analyst at the time, and former Arkansas head coach, Frank Broyles turned to announcer Keith Jackson during the broadcast, as Michigan fans in the stands began a deafening chant in unison of: “We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1!”.
Broyles: “Just listen to them, Keith! It’s 34 to 3!!!”
Exhibit 7 - Michigan vs. Texas A&M 1977 (By WolverineHistorian)
Following this decisive victory, Michigan rode the No. 1 ranking for a few weeks more before being shutout 16-0 by Big Ten upstart Minnesota in Minneapolis. Bo Schembechler later recalled that the 1977 team was not his most experienced or talented. In fact, Bo was very concerned about the 1977 team defense all year, as they had to replace a high number of great defensive lineman and linebackers. Nevertheless, the 1977 squad makes the company of Michigan’s “Magnificent 7” because the Wolverine offense scored 29.4 points per game that year and gave up only 10.4 points defensively. Michigan won it’s football games on average by a margin of 19 points, though they shutout only 1 opponent (Wisconsin). The 1977 squad faced tougher opposition than the 1971 or 1976 teams did in that 5 opponents in 1977 had winning records (Texas A&M, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Washington).
|Year||Record||Scoring Offense: Points/Game||Scoring Defense: Points per Game||Margin of Victory||Shutouts||Opponent Above .500|
(I would like to close with my sincere thanks to WolverineHistorian with some recognition for his long hours of work to put all of this classic Michigan football material together on Youtube for fans to enjoy. His Youtube channel page can be found here.)