Michigan, which started the season unranked and seemed like an iffy bet to finish in the top half of the East Division, just wrapped up one of the B1G’s most impressive non-Ohio State regular seasons we’ve seen in quite a while with a 42-3 demolition of Iowa. It’s the kind of thing that even the most optimistic Michigan fan didn’t see coming.

It’s almost surreal to say, but Michigan is in the elite class of college football in 2021, just a year after it looked like Jim Harbaugh was about to get fired. But that’s the beauty of sports

The thing that has fascinated me most about Michigan all season is that it has almost never trailed. It took the Wolverines until the last minute of the third quarter in their sixth game of the season for them to finally fall behind (though it obviously didn’t last). Even in the game they lost to Michigan State, Michigan trailed for just 8:39 of game time. That tells me that Michigan is showing up to play each and every week, which is a near-impossible task in this sport. These are college students with so many distractions, and yet, Harbaugh had this group ready to go.

In total, the Wolverines trailed for 29 minutes and 12 seconds of game time this season. Georgia, widely hailed all season as the most dominant team in the country, trailed for 59 minutes and 47 seconds. And fine, 39:46 of that was against Alabama. But even before Saturday, these teams were on par in this category that I think is pretty important in assessing how good a team really is. I haven’t heard that same praise for Michigan all season, though. I’m guessing that’s due to the strong opinions on Harbaugh. Maybe it’s because Michigan State caught just about every break in that impressive comeback last month. Strip away the names “Michigan” and “Georgia” though, and isn’t this Michigan season about as impressive as it gets?

Speaking of that, it’s wild to think about how close Michigan was to being 13-0 and the top seed. If not for Aidan Hutchinson’s fumble recovery for a TD incorrectly being overturned, that’s exactly where Michigan would be. Conventional wisdom says that No. 2 moves up to No. 1 when the top dog (or dawg) loses, as Georgia did. Michigan certainly had a case even with a loss.

The other thing I really like about this Michigan team is that there is a new role player who steps up just about every week. Andrel Anthony came out of nowhere for 155 receiving yards and 2 TDs against Michigan State. Erick All had the game-winning 47-yard TD catch-and-run against Penn State. Running back Donovan Edwards caught 10 passes for 178 yards against Maryland and threw a TD pass against Iowa. Tight end Luke Schoonmaker had 2 TDs against Indiana. Key in on one player (like Hassan Haskins), and Michigan will burn you 5 other ways.

Heck, for a while there, we weren’t even sure who Michigan’s best quarterback was. Cade McNamara has answered those questions, but the Wolverines have had the depth to survive there, too, with 5-star freshman JJ McCarthy developing quickly.

And of course, Michigan has enough star power on either side of the ball to compete with any of the other 3 teams in the field. Aidan Hutchinson may be having a better season than even Chase Young for Ohio State a few years ago, and the Wolverines have a terrific No. 2 in David Ojabo. And the 1-2 punch of Haskins and Blake Corum delivers, even with the latter hobbled.

Watching Michigan this season, it feels like I’m waiting for something to go wrong. And that is entirely due to constantly being faked out by the overhyped past versions of this team. But the Wolverines haven’t actually done anything that would cause you to doubt them this season. They’ve been incredibly steady, they’re incredibly deep and they have a coach with an excellent track record. They’re fun (except to Iowa fans who had to watch them run trick plays up by 4 touchdowns in the fourth quarter), they’re likeable (Exhibit A being their dedicating the win to Oxford High School shooting victims) and they are some long-awaited fresh blood.

For a few weeks, fans of other Big Ten fans should put aside any ill will toward Harbaugh or the Wolverines and get on the bandwagon, just like the SEC always seems to do. I know that statement will be met with laughs, but this is one of the most surprising, interesting and inspiring stories I can remember in college football recently. If a team can go from under .500 to the cusp of a national championship in one year, isn’t that something that bodes well for the rest of the teams that feel like they’re drawing dead each season?

Will all that equate to beating Georgia? Maybe, maybe not. But I know it sure beats the heck out of watching Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama square off again.

And finally, a few quick thoughts on each B1G bowl matchup:

No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia in Orange Bowl (Dec. 31)

Michigan has had some truly horrific showings against the SEC at this time of year, the 19-point loss to Alabama in the 2019 Citrus Bowl and the 26-point defeat to Florida in the 2018 Peach Bowl being the most recent examples. In this one, we find out whether the Wolverines have the size and speed to compete with one of the sport’s elite programs. Seeing Alabama stomp all over Georgia has to take some of the mystique away from a team that has been ranked No. 1 all year.

No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Utah in Rose Bowl (Jan. 1)

Ohio State is probably going to be a heavy favorite in this one because it is almost always a heavy favorite. But don’t forget, this Utah team beat Oregon twice by a combined score 0f 76-17 — the same Oregon team that won in Columbus earlier this year. Ohio State will have had over a month to think about losing to Michigan by then. With a program like Ohio State, you always have to look to see if some NFL-bound guys will sit, so I don’t think the Buckeyes are a slam dunk pick just yet.

No. 10 Michigan State (10-2) vs. No. 12 Pitt (11-2) in Peach Bowl (Dec. 30)

At first glance, this looks like a terrible matchup for the Spartans. Pitt is one of the best passing teams in the country, led by Heisman contender Kenny Pickett. And Michigan State has the worst pass defense in the country by a wide margin. Is it possible for the Spartans to add a few more defensive backs before this one? Also, let’s see if star running back Kenneth Walker III is playing.

No. 15 Iowa vs. No. 22 Kentucky in Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1)

Former Iowa player and assistant coach Mark Stoops gets to face his former program. And remember when Iowa really wanted QB Will Levis but he committed to Penn State instead? Well, now he’s leading a very good Kentucky offense. What’s interesting about this matchup is that Kentucky of the last few years would’ve been like a mirror image of Iowa: strong run game, excellent defense, limited pass offense. But Kentucky went out and hired Liam Cohen as offensive coordinator to revamp its offensive philosophy, and now it is a win away from tying its highest win total since 1977. Iowa probably needs a few weeks to catch its breath after the beatdown from Michigan. It’s time to recapture some of that early-season magic.

Penn State (7-5) vs. No. 21 Arkansas (8-4) in Outback Bowl (Jan. 1)

Will the Nittany Lions knock off 2 SEC teams in one season? After beating Auburn earlier this season, that’s the goal. I’m wondering about motivation in this one. Penn State is a perennial bowl team that isn’t happy it ended up here. Arkansas hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016 and is thrilled at the turnaround under Sam Pittman.

Minnesota vs. West Virginia in Guaranteed Rate Bowl (Dec. 28)

West Virginia has had some good moments this season, like beating Virginia Tech, Iowa State and Texas. The Mountaineers also lost to Maryland, which lost by 18 to this Minnesota team. Make of that what you will.

Wisconsin (8-4) vs. Arizona State (8-4) in Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 30)

Finally, Wisconsin can get some revenge! The last time these teams met was in 2013 when time expired after QB Joel Stave took a knee to set up a game-winning field goal but the clock ran out when the Badgers should’ve had one more play. Anyways, Arizona State didn’t really have any impressive wins outside of at UCLA. I still remember how last year, Wisconsin showed up to play against Wake Forest in the Mayo Bowl, even after a tough regular season. My early lean would definitely be to the Badgers, who had won 7 straight before losing at Minnesota in the season finale.

Purdue (8-4) vs. Tennessee (7-5) in Music City Bowl (Dec. 30)

This announcement had to give Purdue fans some bad flashbacks, huh? The last time the Boilermakers were in a bowl was this one back in 2018, and Auburn rolled them 63-14. A return trip to face Tennessee, which will surely have a homefield advantage? I don’t love it for Purdue. Jeff Brohm said Sunday that his 2 best players, David Bell and George Karlaftis, won’t return in 2022, but let’s hope they still play in this one. Tennessee put up 45 points or more in 5 of its last 8 games. Gulp.

Maryland (6-6) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6) in Pinstripe Bowl (Dec. 29)

My first reaction was that this is a great opportunity for Maryland to play a regional foe and use this as some momentum on the recruiting trail, where it needs to continue accumulating talent. Maryland is probably fortunate that the Hokies’ new head coach, former Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry, isn’t coaching yet because of his familiarity with Maryland. He saw firsthand 2 years ago what Taulia Tagovailoa can do when the Maryland QB torched the Nittany Lions in a blowout at Beaver Stadium. I’m sure he’ll still pass along plenty of info on the Terps to acting head coach JC Price.