Hickey: A B1G CFP opportunity awaits -- but beware of B1G embarrassment
Don’t be distracted by Nick Saban’s halftime groveling during the Big Ten championship game. There will not be 2 SEC teams in this year’s College Football Playoff.
For the first time ever, 2 Big Ten teams will reach the CFP.
That FOX gave Saban airtime to politick for the final spot during the B1G championship game rather than Ohio State coach Ryan Day is certainly a strange choice. If I’m B1G commissioner Kevin Warren, I’d probably have some terse words with my broadcast partner regarding that decision.
But Saban’s pleas should ultimately fall on deaf ears.
By voting Ohio State ahead of Alabama in the final CFP rankings of the regular season, the committee spoke. The Buckeyes were lying in wait if USC and/or TCU slipped badly in their conference championship games.
The Trojans did slip badly, falling 47-24 to No. 11 Utah to fall to 11-2. USC is done.
The Horned Frogs slipped too — but did so in a 31-28 overtime loss to No. 10 Kansas State to fall to 12-1. That gives TCU 1 fewer close loss than Alabama, not to mention a better win than the Crimson Tide picked up all year by beating Kansas State in the regular season.
TCU doesn’t even deserve to fall from its No. 3 ranking heading into championship weekend. The Frogs still have a better resume than the Buckeyes.
If logic and justice prevail, No. 1 Georgia will face No. 4 Ohio State in a semifinal, with No. 2 Michigan facing the Horned Frogs in the other.
The opportunity is immense.
For the first time ever, The Game could be played for all the marbles. It would be the biggest game in modern college football history. Period. Never has a rivalry of this magnitude been played for those stakes.
And what a moment that would be for the Big Ten.
For nearly 2 decades, the B1G has been kicked around by the SEC in the college football landscape. This is a chance to finally strike back.
But therein lies the risk.
If Michigan and Ohio State play in separate semifinals, the B1G could find itself with big egg on its face. It creates the possibility of the Big Ten going 0-2 in the CFP.
And if you thought the Big Ten caught a lot of flak for its poor showings in the NCAA Tournament … whew. That wouldn’t even be the tip of the iceberg compared to what we’d hear in this scenario.
But based on what we saw Saturday night, that possibility feels pretty remote.
Last year’s Michigan team was built to win the Big Ten. These Wolverines are built to win the national championship. And the rapid maturation of sophomores JJ McCarthy and Donovan Edwards is the X-factor.
Michigan’s super sophs step up
When star running back Blake Corum announced he underwent a season-ending knee procedure at the beginning of the week, it was fair to wonder if the Wolverines were cooked in the CFP.
It was unlikely to make a difference in the Big Ten championship game. The West champ, this time Purdue, was inevitably going to fall to 0-9 all-time. But would backup Donovan Edwards show enough to frighten future Michigan opponents?
The answer is yes.
Still playing behind a fearsome offensive line, Edwards is very much Corum’s equal.
With 185 yards on 25 carries, he earned Big Ten championship game MVP honors. And it’s no fluke. Edwards scorched Ohio State for 216 yards in Corum’s absence. Against the next-best opponent to face Michigan this season — No. 8 Penn State — Edwards rattled off 173 yards on just 16 carries.
Edwards’ breakthrough isn’t even the most important development for Michigan. It’s the fact Jim Harbaugh is finally trusting McCarthy to play more aggressively in the passing game.
McCarthy showed baby steps of growth during Michigan’s fourth-quarter comeback against Illinois, the nation’s top statistical pass defense, 2 weeks ago. Heading into that game, he had only completed 41.3% of his passes against man-to-man coverage all season. Illinois plays man almost exclusively.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is no fool, and clearly banked on getting the pre-Illinois version of McCarthy. The Buckeyes played aggressive man coverage against Michigan. And for the first time, McCarthy made an opponent pay the price for that decision — just 12 completions, but for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns.
McCarthy didn’t throw it a ton against Purdue, but again got it done. Of his 11 completions, 3 were touchdowns. With the increased aggressiveness came a rare mistake — his 3rd interception of the season — but that’s a price worth paying for a more dangerous McCarthy.
Last year, Michigan’s limitations were put on display in an Orange Bowl blowout loss to Georgia.
If McCarthy can make big-time throws, those limitations may be gone. And the limitations of the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff may go with it.