Michigan's season ended Friday with a thud, a 34-11 manhandling from Georgia at the Capital One Orange Bowl that was all but over before the opening quarter drew to a close. But when it was over, head coach Jim Harbaugh wanted to talk only about new beginnings.
Harbaugh said his message to the team in the locker room after the loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal was all about the next step.
"Our ballclub was in position to do it, and we weren't able to get it done," Harbaugh said. "But it's always building and attacking at the same time."
Michigan (12-2) entered the game as the No. 2 seed in the playoff, but Georgia (13-1) scored on each of its first five drives, the Wolverines turned the ball over three times, and the Michigan ground game, which had been the team's best weapon all year, was largely absent from the proceedings.
Still, the fact that the Wolverines were on this stage represented significant progress for a program that finished last year with a 2-4 record and overhauled its coaching staff. Even Harbaugh took a pay cut to remain with the team after 2020's struggles.
The 2021 season represented a high-water mark for the Wolverines under Harbaugh, with the team getting its first win over rival Ohio State since 2011 and securing its first outright Big Ten title since 2004.
"It was a great season," Harbaugh said. "To me, it's one of the best seasons in Michigan football, and we were trying to make it greater tonight. It's still a beginning for this team. It's where it began last year, and it'll begin anew this year."
Quarterback Cade McNamara, who finished 11-of-19 for 106 yards and two interceptions and spent the bulk of the fourth quarter on the sideline, echoed Harbaugh's glass-half-full approach.
"It's very disappointing right now," McNamara said. "We gave everything we've got and got beat. Once we give it a little time, I think we'll be able to appreciate some of the great things we did this season."
Backup QB J.J. McCarthy led Michigan on its lone touchdown drive, connecting with Andrel Anthony for a 35-yard TD catch late in the fourth quarter. The battle for the starting job between McNamara and McCarthy, a highly touted freshman who played spot duty in 2021, figures to be one of the most hotly debated topics of Michigan's offseason. Still, Harbaugh said the finish to the Orange Bowl was dictated by Georgia's relentless pressure -- not due to McNamara's struggles.
"We know we have two great quarterbacks and we make no apologies for that," Harbaugh said. "The protection wasn't as good as it needed to be, and J.J. gave us more of a chance to escape it and avoid it and run. That's the reason we made that switch."
Among the other looming concerns for 2022 will be replacing the pass-rushing tandem of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, both widely considered first-round picks in the 2022 NFL draft. Still, it was Georgia's offensive line that did the majority of the damage in the Orange Bowl. Ojabo was held without a tackle, while Hutchinson recorded four tackles -- one for a loss -- but no sacks against Bulldogs QB Stetson Bennett.
For his part, Hutchinson said he's not worried about the future of the program.
"We climbed mountains this season that no one thought we could," Hutchinson said. "We set the standard for the future of Michigan football. Those young guys have got the scar tissue now, and having to feel this, I know they're going to bounce back next year and give them hell."