The season ended with a 10–10 tie against Ohio State. Both teams were undefeated, with the winner to play the Rose Bowl. When the game ended in a tie, the Big Ten Conference athletic directors voted to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl. Michigan athletic officials and fans were outraged, with even the Vice President of the United States speaking out against the decision.
On defense, the Wolverines held opponents to 68 points, an average of 6.2 points per game. Defensive tackle Dave Gallagher and defensive back Dave Brown were both selected as consensus first-team All-Americans. Middle linebacker Steve Strinko led the team with 77 solo tackles and 108 total tackles.
In April 1973, Michigan's recruiting class for the incoming class of 1973 was finalized. The class of 24 recruits included running back Rob Lytle and wide receiver Jim Smith. Also in April, Michigan held its annual spring football game matching the "blue" and "white" squads against each other. Sophomore running back Gordon Bell reportedly "sparkled" with 75 rushing yards on 12 carries.
Before the start of the season, head coach Bo Schembechler told the media that he was "very, very high" on Dennis Franklin and that he planned on using a "balanced attack" with two-thirds running plays and one-third passing.
Schembechler also stated that he took special pride in the 30 seniors on his 1973 team. Schembechler had recruited the senior class after suffering a heart attack following the 1969 season. He recalled, "My assistant coaches would bring them to my house. I'd get out of bed and put on a coat and tie. Then after they left I'd go back to bed, but I wanted to talk to them myself. I wanted them to know that Bo Schembechler was going to coach them if they came to Michigan."
On September 15, 1973, Michigan opened its season with a 31–7 victory over Iowa in front of a crowd of 52,105 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The Wolverines rushed for 440 yards against the Hawkeyes, led by tailback Chuck Heater (133 yards and a touchdown), fullback Ed Shuttlesworth (88 yards), Gil Chapman (69 yards and a touchdown), quarterback Dennis Franklin (62 yards and a touchdown), and Gordon Bell (50 yards). Franklin completed only two of eight passes for 26 yards and threw two interceptions. In the second quarter, Iowa's Earl Douthitt returned an interception 47 yards for Iowa's only touchdown. Mike Lantry also kicked a 39-yard field goal and converted all four extra point attempts. Linebacker Steve Strinko led Michigan with 10 tackles and three assists.
On September 22, 1973, Michigan defeated Stanford, 47–10, in front of a crowd of 80,177 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan took a 21–0 lead in the first quarter and led 34–0 at halftime. Dennis Franklin rushed for 49 yards and completed five of eight passes for 50 yards, including a four-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Mike Lantry broke Dana Coin's Michigan record with a 50-yard field goal in the second quarter; Lantry then broke his own record later in the quarter with a 51-yard field goal. The game was billed as revenge for Stanford's defeat of No. 3-ranked Michigan in the 1972 Rose Bowl. Chuck Heater scored Michigan's first touchdown, while Ed Shuttlesworth and Gil Chapman each scored two touchdowns. The Wolverines sacked Stanford quarterbacks Mike Boryla and Mike Cordova 11 times in the game. Stanford's only touchdown came on a 19-yard pass from Boryla to Reggie Ishman in the fourth quarter.
On September 29, 1973, Michigan defeated Navy, 14-0, in front of a Band Day crowd of 88,042 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan's two touchdowns were scored by Chuck Heater on an eight-yard run in the first quarter and Ed Shuttlesworth on a one-yard run in the third quarter. Navy completed 17 of 30 passes for 173 yards and three interceptions, with a touchdown pass being deflected at the last second by Dave Brown. Navy out-gained Michigan with 320 yard of total offense to 285 for Michigan. Michigan completed only one pass for four yards on three attempts. After the game, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler complained that he "didn't see us block anybody", that his team "played the worst game I've ever coached in Michigan Stadium", and added, "I hope this is a humbling victory . . . if there is such a thing." Despite the shutout, Schembechler also ripped his defensive unit, complaining that they did not play pass defense and played "the worst game our defense has ever played in shutting anybody out."
On October 6, 1973, Michigan defeated Oregon, 24–0, in front of a crowd of 81,113 at Michigan Stadium. With Dennis Franklin out of action due to a broken finger, Larry Cipa made his first career start at quarterback for Michigan. Michigan scored 14 points in the second quarter on a short run by Bob Thornbladh and a short pass from Cipa to Paul Seal. In the fourth quarter, Michigan padded its lead on an 83-yard punt return by Gil Chapman and a Mike Lantry field goal. Michigan totaled 183 rushing yards and 93 passing yards against the Ducks. Despite the 24-point margin of victory, the press viewed Michigan's performance as sluggish. Joe Falls, sports editor of the Detroit Free Press, wrote of the team: "It is sluggish on offense. It is making mistakes all over the place . . . This Michigan team isn't close to being the error-free Michigan teams we have come to know so well over these last four years."
On October 13, 1973, Michigan defeated Michigan State, 31–0, in a soaking rainstorm before a crowd of 78,263 at Spartan Stadium. It was the Wolverines' third consecutive shutout and their most one-sided victory over the Spartans since 1947. With the ball slippery due to the rain, Michigan recovered four Michigan State fumbles in the first quarter. Dave Brown scored Michigan's first touchdown on a 52-yard punt return. Gil Chapman scored on a 53-yard run around left end in the second quarter, and Michigan led 17–0 at halftime. In the third quarter, neither team scored as the rain became a "deluge". Michigan added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter on a six-yard pass from Dennis Franklin to Paul Seal and a two-yard run by Ed Shuttlesworth. Mike Lantry kicked a 35-yard field goal and converted all four extra point attempts. Dennis Franklin played with a broken finger, leading coach Schembechler to praise his one-handed quarterback for "a helluva job." On defense, the Wolverines held the Spartans to 40 rushing yards on 37 carries. Linebacker Steve Strinko had nine tackles, four of them for a loss, and recovered a fumble.
On October 20, 1973, Michigan defeated Wisconsin, 35–6, in front of a homecoming crowd of 87,723 at Michigan Stadium. With 108 passing yards and 415 rushing yards, the Wolverines tallied 523 yards of total offense. Michigan opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 46-yard touchdown pass from Dennis Franklin to Paul Seal. Michigan's remaining touchdowns were scored by Gil Chapman (three-yard run in second quarter), Franklin (one-yard run in second quarter), Chuck Heater (four-yard run in third quarter), and Gordon Bell (seven-yard run in fourth quarter). Mike Lantry converted all five extra point attempts. Michigan's shutout streak ended after 15 consecutive quarters when Wisconsin scored on a freak play as a deflected pass resulted in a 65-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
On October 27, 1973, Michigan defeated Minnesota, 34–7, before a homecoming crowd of 44,435 at Memorial Stadium in Minneapolis. The victory was Michigan's sixth in a row in the annual battle for the Little Brown Jug. Michigan rushed for 275 yards led by Gordon Bell with 73 yards and Ed Shuttlesworth with 69 yards. Shuttlesworth and Bell scored two rushing touchdowns each, and Mike Lantry kicked field goals of 27 and 29 yards and converted all four extra point kicks. Michigan took a 17–0 lead in the first quarter, including 10 points off early turnovers. On the second play from scrimmage, a Minnesota fumble was recovered by Michigan (Doug Troszak) to set up Lantry's first field goal. On Minnesota's next play from scrimmage, the Gophers fumbled again with Dave Brown recovering to set up a six-yard touchdown run by Shuttlesworth. After Bell scored in the second quarter, Michigan led 24–0 at haftime without having thrown a single pass. In the third quarter, Minnesota quarterback Rick Upchurch (later an All-Pro wide receiver for the Denver Broncos) threw a touchdown pass to a wide open Vince Fuller. Minnesota coach Cal Stoll played eight men on the line, but Michigan's defense held Minnesota to 142 yards of total offense.
On November 3, 1973, Michigan defeated Indiana, 49–13, in front of 76,432 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan took a 42–0 lead in the second quarter before Indiana scored its first touchdown The Wolverines totaled 385 rushing yards and 96 passing yards. Chuck Heater was the game's leading rusher with 128 yards. After the game, Indiana coach Lee Corso praised both Michigan and Ohio State and predicted that the showdown between the two would be decided by a kicking mistake in the fourth quarter.
On November 10, 1973, Michigan defeated Illinois, 21–6, in front of 76,461 at Michigan Stadium. Late in the first quarter, Michigan moved the ball to near midfield on a 25-yard run by Chuck Heater when an Irish setter ran onto the field and delayed the game for several minutes. After the game, Bo Schembechler joked, "When you're on offense, everything is momentum. We're standing in the huddle watching that dog and there goes our momentum." Neither team scored in the first quarter, but Illinois took a 6–0 lead in the second quarter on two field goals by Dan Beaver, the second of which bounced off the left upright down onto the crossbar before falling across. Michigan took the lead late in the second quarter on a one-yard touchdown run by Ed Shuttlesworth. Michigan led, 7–6, at halftime.
On the opening drive of the second half, Gil Chapman scored on a 33-yard touchdown run off an option pitch from Dennis Franklin. In the fourth quarter, an option pitch by Franklin was deflected by Illinois. In the resulting scramble for the loose ball, Paul Seal recovered and ran 20 yards for a touchdown with Mike Hoban knocking over three Illini with a block to clear Seal's path. Mike Lantry converted all three extra point kicks for Michigan. In uncharacteristic form, the Wolverines fumbled six times in the game, resulting in four turnovers. After the game, coach Schembechler promised that he'd run the next guy who fumbled "til his tongue hangs out." Michigan's defense held the Illini to 52 yards of total offense in the second half.
On November 17, 1973, Michigan defeated Purdue, 34–9, before a crowd of 56,485 at Ross–Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana. In a low-scoring first half, Michigan took the lead in the second quarter on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Dennis Franklin to Clint Haslerig, but Mike Lantry missed the extra point kick after the snap from center was bobbled. Purdue kicked a 27-yard field goal later in the quarter, and Michigan led 6–3 at halftime. In the second half, Michigan's running game dominated as Franklin scored on touchdown runs of three and 12 yards in the third quarter, Bob Thornbladh scored on a pair of touchdown runs in the fourth quarter. Lantry converted all four extra point kicks in the second half. Michigan rushed for 310 yards in the game, including 84 yards by Chuck Heater, 66 yards by Ed Shuttlesworth, 64 yards for Gordon Bell, and 57 yards for Franklin. Franklin also completed three of seven passes for 70 yards. Purdue scored late in third quarter on an 18-yard pass from Bo Bobrowski to Herrick. Michigan's defense held Purdue to 119 yards (100 rushing and 19 passing).
On the same afternoon, Ohio State defeated Iowa, 55–13, as Archie Griffin broke the Buckeyes' single game record with 246 rushing yards. The victories by Michigan and Ohio State left both teams undefeated with the winner of the following week's rivalry match advancing to the Rose Bowl.
On November 24, 1973, #4 Michigan and #1 Ohio State played to a 10–10 tie before a crowd of 105,223 at Michigan Stadium. Ohio State scored 10 points in the second quarter on a 31-yard field goal by Blair Conway and a five-yard touchdown run by fullback Pete Johnson. Michigan scored 10 point in the fourth quarter on a 30-yard field goal by Mike Lantry and a 10-yard touchdown run by Dennis Franklin. Franklin sustained a broken collarbone late in the fourth quarter. Michigan had 303 yards of total offense (204 rushing, 99 passing) to 234 yards (234 rushing and zero passing) for Ohio State. Archie Griffin rushed for 163 of Ohio State's 234 yards of total offense. Ed Shuttlesworth rushed for 116 yards for Michigan.
Rose Bowl controversy
With the Michigan–Ohio State game ending in a tie, Michigan and Ohio State tied for the Big Ten Conference championship with Michigan at 10–0–1 and Ohio State at 9–0–1. Under a conference rule, the conference's berth to the 1974 Rose Bowl was decided by a vote of the conference's athletic directors. Ohio State won the vote with six of ten athletic directors voting to send the Buckeyes to Pasadena. The injury to Michigan's starting quarterback Dennis Franklin was reported to be a significant factor in the vote of several athletic directors. The vote spawned a controversy, including public comments by the following:
Coach Schemechler blamed conference commissioner Wayne Duke for engineering the vote and vowed, "I'm not going to let this drop. I'm going to get him." On being told that Duke had opened an investigation into Schembechler's alleged unsportsmanlike conduct which could result in the conference stripping Michigan of bowl privileges, Schembechler joked, "They already did that . . . that'd be double jeopardy."
Former Michigan football player Gerald Ford, in one of his first public comments after taking office as Vice President of the United States (Ford was sworn in on December 6, 1973), criticized the Big Ten's decision saying, "On the basis of that game with Ohio State, Michigan should have gone. Look at the statistics. Michigan was the better team in that game. Michigan won the first, third and fourth quarters and Ohio State won the second. Look at the records, Michigan won 10 games and Ohio State won nine and each had a tie."
A lawsuit was filed in federal court by a University of Michigan graduate student seeking an injunction requiring the Big Ten to conduct a new, public vote on which team should participate in the Rose Bowl. The University of Michigan refused to join the suit, and its athletic director Don Canham called the suit "ridiculous", while its faculty representative Marcus Plant called it "frivolous". The federal judge assigned to the case denied the plaintiff's request for an injunction.
Michigan State athletic director Burt Smith, who reportedly cast the deciding vote for Ohio State, drew angry comments from Michigan legislators. Representative Loren Anderson announced that the legislature might respond by denying Michigan State University's application for a new law school. Other legislators said "the appropriations committee ought to scrutinize MSU's budget request a little closer next time around." A Michigan State spokesman stated that Smith had voted for the team with the best chance of winning the [Rose Bowl] game," and Smith himself stated that "no team dominated Michigan State the way Ohio State did." (In fact, Michigan State did not get a law school until nearly a quarter of a century later when the Detroit College of Law became the Michigan State University College of Law).
Michigan's undefeated season in 1973 was its first since 1948.
At the end of the season, Paul Seal was voted as the recipient of the team's most valuable player award, then known as the Louis B. Hyde Memorial Award. At six feet, six inches, Seal caught only 14 passes for 253 yards, but he was described by Michigan coaches as "the best blocking tight end ever to wear the maize and blue."
Two days after the Ohio State game, Michigan assistant coach Frank Maloney was hired as the head coach at Syracuse.Tom Reed, who had played for Schembechler at Miami (Ohio), was hired to replace Maloney.
On January 3, 1974, the final AP Poll rankings were announced. Notre Dame took the No. 1 spot, edging Ohio State, which had dropped out of the No. 1 spot after playing to a tie against Michigan. Michigan, which sat idle despite its undefeated record, dropped from the No. 5 spot to No. 6 spot, as Penn State rose to No. 5 after defeating LSU in the Orange Bowl. Two other selectors, the National Championship Foundation and the Poling System, recognize Michigan as a co-national champion for the 1973 season.
On January 6, 1974, Schembechler coached the East team to a 24–14 win in the Hula Bowl. Ed Shuttlesworth rushed for 88 yards on 22 carries for the East squad.
In the 1973 NFL Draft, held on January 29 and 30, 1974, the following Michigan players were selected.
The following players won varsity letters for their participation on the team's offensive unit. Players who were starters in at least half of the team's games, or who started the most games at a position, are shown with their names in bold.
James Armour, offensive guard, senior, Detroit, Michigan