ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Those who stay will be champions has been a Michigan football mantra for generations, dating to Bo Schembechler saying those six words to his first team in 1969.
The two-time defending Big Ten champion Wolverines, who played their spring game Saturday, are thrilled many key players chose to stay this season in the hopes of handling unfinished business.
Jim Harbaugh’s last two teams beat rival Ohio State, went on to win conference championship games and lose in the College Football Playoffs.
“It’s not perfect, 13-1, but that’s we keep striving for,” Harbaugh said entering his ninth season. “We keep chasing that perfection.”
Motivated to help Michigan win its first national title since 1997, several players chose to come back this year instead of entering the NFL draft.
All-America running back Blake Corum, all-Big Ten offensive guards Zak Zinger and Trevor Keegan along with linebacker Michael Barrett, defensive lineman Kris Jenkins, cornerback Mike Sainristil and receiver Cornelius Johnson were among those who stayed.
“Selfishly, really happy,” Harbaugh acknowledged.
J.J. McCarthy is, too.
“Those are the guys that we need to win a national championship,” said McCarthy, who beat Big Ten-championship winning quarterback Cade McNamara to be the team’s starter last season. “They’re some of the roots of our program, roots of our culture. Just being able to have them back, it’s an extreme blessing. They could go off and make their millions and go into the pros, but they decided to stay back and accomplish something that has been accomplished in a long time.”
The Wolverines are expected to have a shot at contending again.
Two-time defending national champion Georgia is a strong favorite followed by Alabama, the Buckeyes and Michigan, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
In addition to the having players who put their NFL dreams on hold, Michigan has McCarthy, dual-threat running back Donovan Edwards, linebacker Junior Colson and cornerback Will Johnson to put plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Harbaugh also bolstered the roster with a relative influx of transfers. He has added former Stanford center Drake Nugent, ex-Indiana tight end A.J. Barner, former Nebraska linebacker Ernest Hausmann and ex-Coastal Carolina defensive end Josaiah Stewart to increase competition for jobs.
As talented as the Wolverines appear, they will have have plenty of reasons to push themselves this summer and into the season after finding out painfully how much of a gap that there is between them and college football’s best.
Georgia humbled Michigan with a 34-11 win in the semifinals last year and TCU scored 51 points in a six-point win against the Wolverines in the semifinals three months ago.
A potential distraction also is looming over the program.
Michigan received notice earlier this year that the NCAA is looking into potential rules infractions in the Harbaugh-led program.
The investigation involves impermissible texts and calls — including some by Harbaugh — to high school prospects during part of a pandemic-related dead period for contact with potential recruits. The NCAA also is looking at whether a member of Michigan’s off-field football staff violated rules by doing on-the-field coaching during practice.
Harbaugh told NCAA investigators in multiple meetings that he will not agree to an unethical conduct charge, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because details of the investigation have not been shared.
Publicly, Harbaugh has declined comment and may dodge more questions about an investigation that may potentially linger through the 2023 season and perhaps even longer if he, the school and NCAA engage in an off-the-field dispute.