Entering his second season at the helm of Michigan’s football program, expectations were sky high for Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines. After all, Harbaugh took a team that had won just 5 games the year before his arrival, and doubled that in 2015. Since Michigan returned nearly every major contributor from last season and had a senior-laden team coming into the 2016 campaign, those expectations were justified.
The first nine weeks of the season did nothing to change those expectations – in fact, they enhanced them. Michigan was undefeated at 9-0, and was not really tested by anyone (games against Colorado, Wisconsin, and Michigan State were not as close as the scores made them out to be). They possessed wins against three top ten teams, and their defense was on track to be historically elite, led by first year defensive coordinator Don Brown. They seemed poised to head to Columbus undefeated to take on Ohio State.
Alas, everything changed on November 12th, when the Wolverines traveled to Iowa City to take on an under-performing Iowa squad in a night game. The result was an ugly 14-13 loss after Iowa hit a field goal to win as time expired.
With Washington and Clemson losing in the same week to USC and Pittsburgh, respectively, the loss did not derail Michigan’s playoff hopes, but it impeded their path to an extent. It would not matter, though, if Michigan could beat their might foes in Columbus.
Things looked good for Michigan throughout much of that game, as they completely outplayed the Buckeyes for the first three quarters of the game. However, the defense became gassed late in the game, and Ohio State was able to tie the game with a field goal at the end of the fourth quarter before winning in double overtime. Now with two losses, Michigan is surely unable to make the playoffs now, right?
They are currently sitting at number 5 in the playoff rankings. #3 Clemson and #4 Washington both play conference championship games this weekend. Clemson plays Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, and Washington plays the aforementioned Buffaloes of Colorado in the PAC-12 finale. With a loss from either, Michigan could jump back into the top 4, pending the results of the Big Ten title game between #6 Wisconsin and #7 Penn State – two teams Michigan has beaten in convincing earlier fashion this year.
But this is not a post chronicling Michigan’s path to get a shot to play for the title, or the scenarios that need to play out for that to happen. No, this is an article explaining why Michigan should make it no matter what happens during championship weekend.
The committee has repeatedly said they are looking to take the four BEST teams. Not the four most deserving teams. Not the four teams with the best resumes. Not four conference champions. The four best teams, plain and simple.
Now, obviously, to decide who those four best teams are, resumes play a big factor. You can’t be one of the best teams if you don’t beat some of the other best teams. Michigan has three of the best wins in college football, with wins against top ten teams in Colorado, Penn State, and Wisconsin in successive weeks. Those three teams will all be in action this weekend.
Michigan has also looked the part of a top 4 team throughout the season. They dominated everybody they played in their first 9 games. Though they “only” beat Colorado by 17, they outscored them 38-7 after a rough first quarter, and the Buffs only amassed 130 yards after the first frame. They have run roughshod over nearly everyone they have played since.
Against Wisconsin, Michigan won an ugly, low-scoring 14-7 affair. But the score did not indicate Michigan’s dominance – they missed three field goals in the game (an issue that has since been corrected), and a would-be 23-7 score looks a lot more dominant. Wisconsin also could not move the ball, totaling only 159 yards for the game, and their only score came after a Michigan turnover gave them great field position.
And in between those “closer” games, Michigan clobbered Penn State, 49-10, that was every bit as lopsided as the score would suggest. Penn State did not score until the game was well out of reach, and since the loss, the Nittany Lions have only won every game they’ve played since.
Michigan’s loss to Ohio State, while being tallied as such in the record book, should not be considered as a negative in the eyes of the committee. They outplayed the number two team in the country, on the road, amidst questionable officiating, for much of the game, and lost a heart-breaker in double overtime. These two teams were as even as can possibly be, and if Ohio State is the second best team in the nation, there is no way Michigan isn’t the third best.
The only true blemish on Michigan’s resume is the loss to Iowa. Their defense was as good as usual, but their offense could not move the ball, and QB Wilton Speight played his worst game of the season before suffering a shoulder injury that held him out of the Indiana game and plagued him against Ohio State. But, every team Michigan is competing with for a playoff spot either has a worse loss (Clemson at home to Pitt, Washington being destroyed at home by USC), or a straight up loss to Michigan.
Finally, advanced stats love Michigan. The S&P+ ratings, a play-based statistic that calculates a variety of metrics and boils them down into one ranking, ranks Michigan as the second best team in the country, behind only Alabama. Clemson is fourth, Washington is sixth, Wisconsin is 10th, and Penn State is 11th. FEI, a drive-based metric, ranks Michigan third. EWP, a strength-of-schedule adjusted metric, also ranks Michigan third. And so on.
Clearly, by any objective measure, Michigan is a top four team in the country with one stinker against Iowa and a very excusable loss against Ohio State. Given the committee’s stated interest in taking “the four best teams”, I don’t see how Michigan wouldn’t get in. Now, if Washington and Clemson both dominate their conference title games, maybe we will be having a different conversation. But for now, Michigan clearly deserves a spot in the playoff and deserves a chance to compete for a national title.