Things have gone so well for Michigan this season that we forget the year started on a somber note for the Wolverines.

Back in September, not much was known about Michigan’s offense, save for one player. Wide receiver Ronnie Bell was the most dangerous playmaker in the lineup, which he demonstrated yet again with a 76-yard touchdown reception the first time he touched the ball this season.

Unfortunately, the second time Bell touched the ball would be the last. He tore right knee ligaments while being tackled after a 31-yard punt return. His season was over.

The injury cast a pall over what should have been a joyous 47-14 romp over Western Michigan.

“I’m just worried about Ronnie Bell right now,” Jim Harbaugh said to conclude the opening statement to his postgame press conference. “As we come out of this game, that’s the biggest concern.”

If you had to pick a player Michigan could least afford to lose for the season, Bell might have been a near-unanimous selection.

And yet here are the Wolverines, ranked second in the country and preparing to face No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl for the right to play for a national championship. Michigan has endured so well without Bell that anyone unfamiliar with the team would have no idea he was its best player.

Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis made the offense revolve around the talented backfield tandem of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. The Wolverines are 10th nationally in rushing yardage (223.9 ypg) and 12th in scoring (37.7 ppg).

But for the first time all season, Michigan is matched against an opponent that’s finally capable of making Bell’s absence felt acutely.

The no-run zone

Georgia sent a message that its defense is built differently than most in the season’s first game. The Bulldogs limited Clemson to 2 yards on 23 carries.

Only 2 teams — Florida and Alabama — have averaged better than 4 yards per carry against Georgia’s defense this year. That slate includes an Arkansas team that has rushed for better than 300 yards twice this season. The Razorbacks managed only 75 yards on 29 carries when they met the Georgia defense.

Yes, Michigan has played the only run defense in the country better than Georgia’s statistically. Wisconsin allows only 61 yards per game compared to Georgia’s 81. And the Wolverines cruised to a 38-17 win over the Badgers.

But that was also Michigan’s least-productive rushing performance of the season with 112 yards on 44 carries. The Wolverines took Wisconsin by surprise with 30 pass attempts after averaging 16.2 attempts per game in their previous 4. The defense had 6 sacks and forced 3 turnovers.

If Georgia takes away Michigan’s running game in similar fashion, we know the Wolverines defense can answer the bell. But unlike the Wisconsin game, there’s no element of surprise involved. Georgia knows Michigan needs to throw the ball in order to win, because that’s the formula Alabama displayed in the SEC championship game.

Fighting fire with fire

Georgia’s secondary plays more aggressive man-to-man defense than most teams because it can. The Bulldogs get to the quarterback quickly, rating 6th in the nation with 41 sacks. Opposing passers have a 101.86 passer rating against Georgia, which is the 2nd-lowest in the country behind Cincinnati.

With that aggressiveness comes the opportunity for opposing offenses to strike back with big plays. Georgia has allowed the fewest plays of more than 20 yards this season, but drops down to 35th nationally with 5 plays allowed of more than 50 yards.

Precious few players are actually capable of throwing these counterpunches. Alabama has one of the most capable in receiver Jameson Williams, who caught 7 passes for 184 yards and 2 scores in the SEC title game. And Williams went haywire in part because the defense also had to respect No. 2 target John Metchie, who had 6 grabs for 97 yards and a touchdown.

Bell is the lone Michigan receiver who has shown that consistent level of brilliance in his career. Which means that one of the great shames of his injury is that he is missing out on an opportunity for a legendary individual performance.

Will any Michigan receiver fill Bell’s void?

It also means the Wolverines are going to need one of his less-heralded teammates to step up in a major way if they’re going to win the Orange Bowl. Cornelius Johnson is the only Michigan player to finish in the top-30 in Big Ten receiving yardage this season. Johnson was 13th in the league with 602 yards.

Freshman Andrel Anthony showed a flash against Michigan State with 6 catches for 155 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he’s had exactly 1 reception in every game since then. And the Spartans were the worst pass defense in the country this year — not exactly Georgia.

Could Roman Wilson be the guy? He had 2 catches for 82 yards against Iowa’s very good secondary in the Big Ten championship game, but against Georgia that production might have to double.

It’s a tribute to Harbaugh, Gattis and Michigan’s entire roster that the Wolverines have gotten this far without Bell in the lineup since Week 1. Beating Georgia without him would prove every bit as remarkable.