On the heels of a lopsided loss to Wisconsin on Nov. 14, 2020, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh put it bluntly: “We’re not in a good place right now as a football team.”

The Wolverines hit rock bottom with a 38-point home loss (their worst since 1935) to a Badgers squad that had been rocked by COVID. With 3 straight losses, Michigan was going nowhere fast, with morale at an all-time low under Harbaugh. Their quarterback of the future, Joe Milton, looked lost. Their once-terrific defense under Don Brown looked outdated. Harbaugh, who at one time appeared to be a dream hire, had worn out his welcome.

Michigan nearly sunk even lower the next week against Rutgers, which had been a laughingstock since joining the B1G, but the Wolverines rallied from a 17-point deficit to defeat Rutgers 48-42 in 3 overtimes. Still, morale remained low, so much so that it inspired headlines like this: “Oh cool, Michigan beat Rutgers in overtime.”

Little did Michigan know, though, that the trajectory of the program was about to change thanks to that game.

As No. 2 Michigan prepares to face No. 3 Georgia in the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve, it’s worth noting just how important that game was to this year’s team — and why a seemingly inconsequential game can mean so much.

1. Cade McNamara asserts himself as QB1

Michigan opened as a 9-point favorite, but after 5 drives led by Milton, the Wolverines trailed 17-0 in the second quarter. That opened the door for Cade McNamara, the redshirt freshman who was an afterthought as the third-string QB in the preseason behind Milton and Dylan McCaffrey. But after McNamara lead a TD drive in garbage time of the Wisconsin loss, what did Harbaugh have to lose? Things certainly couldn’t get any worse.

McNamara made an immediate impact, throwing a 46-yard TD pass to Cornelius Johnson on his third play. McNamara wound up completing 27 of 36 passes for 260 yards and 4 TDs, plus a rushing TD as the Wolverines won 48-42 in triple OT. He got the start the next week against Penn State in what wound up being the final game of Michigan’s season due to COVID, but he left with an injury. Milton transferred in the offseason to Tennessee.

McNamara’s performance off the bench against Rutgers earned him the first crack at the starting job this season, and he’s never relinquished it, despite challenges from an experienced transfer from Texas Tech and a 5-star freshman. McNamara has started all 13 games for the Big Ten champions, he has an NIL deal with Tom Brady, and he arguably gives Michigan an edge at QB in its CFP semifinal.

Without the terrific showing last year against Rutgers, would any of that have come to fruition? While it’s obviously possible, I’d argue it’s unlikely.

2. Hassan Haskins emerges from RB committee

It seems strange in hindsight, but the country’s top running back duo was mired in a 4-man committee. In the first 4 games of the season, no running back had more than 8 carries. But against Rutgers, Haskins finally laid claim to the starting gig — and he has never relinquished it.

Haskins earned 23 carries and put up 111 yards and the game-winning TD in the third overtime. The emergence of the unheralded 3-star recruit who had only one other Power 5 offer (Purdue) forced the transfer of Zach Charbonnet, who was the No. 4 running back in the 2019 class and looked to be UM’s running back of the future.

Since the Rutgers game, Haskins has only had single-digit carries once, when he had 9 in a blowout win over Northern Illinois in which he wasn’t needed. Along with Aidan Hutchinson, he has become the heart-and-soul of this team, regularly earning shout-outs from Jim Harbaugh. Haskins’ signature performance, of course, was the 5-TD game against rival Ohio State that will be remembered for a long, long time. With Blake Corum’s ankle injury, Michigan has leaned on Haskins to keep its top-10 ground attack going, and he has delivered.

Haskins showed what he can do in the Rutgers game, and he hasn’t looked back.

3. Michigan’s 2021 leading receiver, tackler shine

The Wolverines also got huge games out of Cornelius Johnson, who is now Michigan’s leading receiver, and Josh Ross, who is now Michigan’s leading tackler.

Johnson had his first career 100-yard game, including 2 TD catches, against Rutgers. His emergence has been huge for a team that lost Ronnie Bell for the season after a knee injury in the opener.

Ross was coming off a tough game against Wisconsin, but he was everywhere in the Rutgers game, tallying 11 tackles, including 1 for loss, and a sack, plus several big hits on Noah Vedral. This year, Ross has had some big moments, like his key stop on third-and-short to open the second half against Ohio State, which forced a punt and led to a Haskins TD that gave Michigan some breathing room with an 8-point lead.

4. Jim Harbaugh keeps his job

If Michigan would’ve lost to Rutgers, I don’t think he is still the head coach at Michigan. Even after the win, many were calling for Michigan to make a change. Warde Manuel wound up keeping Harbaugh on a restructured contract, and even that seemed like a tough sell to an apathetic fan base. If Michigan loses to a team that had entered the season on a 21-game B1G losing streak with a first-year head coach, that’s an even tougher sell.

But Harbaugh made the right call by going, and sticking, with McNamara. And he has proceeded to prove everyone, including me, wrong this season in delivering Michigan its first Big Ten title since 2004, with a shot at its first national title since 1997.

And to think, a game that almost no one cared about last season was the foundation for the most memorable Michigan season in a long, long time.