B1G Monday Morning: Michigan's ugly loss reflects a few unfortunate truths in college football
I didn’t see this coming, but maybe I should’ve. A sport that has been dominated by the South will once again feature 2 teams from the South in the national championship. And once again, the College Football Playoff semifinals were absolute duds.
Those are the 2 unfortunate truths in college football right now. There are exceptions once in a while, like Ohio State busting that party down South last year. Or Ohio State and Clemson in 2019 going down to the wire, and Oklahoma and Georgia playing a terrific semifinal game in 2017. But year after year, the results are mostly the same.
Does that absolve Michigan from criticism for its putrid performance against Georgia on Friday night in the Orange Bowl? Of course not. The 34-11 final score didn’t even reflect what a mismatch that was.
But this wasn’t unusual. This is college football at this level. And to be one of those rare exceptions, it takes a combination of elite talent and an all-time performance; Ohio State had both last year with its stacked roster and an incredible game from Justin Fields. Michigan didn’t have either of those things against Georgia, not even close.
In theory, these games should be close, or at least closer than they’ve been. Both teams essentially have a full month to get healthy, make adjustments and figure out an optimal strategy. But time after time, they are a letdown from a competitive standpoint. There have been just 3 semifinals decided by single digits in the 8 years of the Playoff. And even the last 3 national championship games have been decided by 17 points or more. In the last 4 years of the Playoff, there have been 4 games more lopsided than Michigan’s loss. So for anyone who doesn’t think Michigan should’ve been in this game, well, there have been worse CFP teams.
Michigan’s no-show damages the Big Ten, obviously, but really, it’s a blow to every non-SEC conference. Don’t forget, none of the other Power 5 conferences even made the CFP. There has been 1 non-Southern team to win a Playoff game in the last 7 years, since Ohio State and Oregon won semifinals back in 2014. It’s the SEC, Ohio State and Clemson.
At least we thought this was going to be a good game because Michigan, on paper, looked like it could hang. Even with a Georgia defense that ranked in the top 5 nationally of most major categories, Michigan was supposed to be able to move the ball. It was an offense that, despite playing in a conference full of good defenses, had racked up 450 or more yards in 6 of its last 8 games — yet was utterly helpless against a Bulldogs defense littered with future pros.
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And on the other side of the ball, Stetson Bennett looked like he was playing Georgia Tech rather than a team with 2 future first-round picks on the edge, including potential No. 1 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson. The Bulldogs attacked the edges and moved the ball at will, scoring 3 touchdowns and kicking 2 field goals on their first 5 drives of the game. Michigan’s only stop came courtesy of the clock running out in the first half, much to the chagrin of Kirby Smart.
Speaking of Smart, he deserves a ton of credit. He had the better team, but the Bulldogs broke the will of Michigan from the opening possession. After 1 drive, everyone watching knew who was going to win the game. For as good of a job as Jim Harbaugh did all season, he didn’t have Michigan ready to play.
How can Michigan — or any non-Southern program — break through? It starts and ends with getting better players. Michigan has the makings of some future stars on its roster, such JJ McCarthy, Donovan Edwards and Andrel Anthony, who scored Michigan’s lone TD. But there’s a reason there have been only 5 teams to have won CFP games in the last 7 years; Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson and LSU are the top 5 in 247’s Team Talent Composite. Michigan is 15th, and it looked like it.
Michigan was carrying the water for the rest of the country, where everyone is sick of seeing the SEC win everything. The Wolverines fell flat in spectacular fashion, doing little to dissuade the notion that college football is played at a (much) higher level in one region of the country.
A few other thoughts from the bowl games over the weekend:
Judging teams and conferences by bowl records is unproductive nowadays
I understand the urge to want to jump on SEC teams losing to Army, UCF, Houston and Texas Tech to open bowl season, but I don’t think it’s a reflection on the SEC as a whole. With how many opt-outs there are nowadays, putting too much stock in the results of these games is silly. Auburn and Missouri didn’t have their starting QBs; just like when Indiana didn’t have Michael Penix Jr. against Ole Miss last year, I didn’t read too much into it.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certain results that mean something, like Purdue beating Tennessee in the Music City Bowl and South Carolina beating North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Those results are indicative of up-and-coming programs putting an exclamation mark on a great season by taking down a quality opponent. But no, I won’t hold it against Penn State for losing to Arkansas without its top player and half its starting defense. I wouldn’t have held it against Ohio State for losing to Utah without 24 scholarship players in what amounted to the equivalent of a true road game. I wouldn’t have held it against Michigan State for losing without arguably the best running back in the country in Kenneth Walker III.
Bowl season is great; I’m just not going to blindly base my opinions of programs and conferences on what happens without the proper context.
Ohio State is going to be as compelling as any team in the country in 2022
Is there another program that could lose 2 first-round picks at a position group and yet somehow look even better the next season? Maybe Alabama. But that’s probably it.
For those who believed Ohio State’s No. 1 offense was going to fall off, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Utah hadn’t allowed 330 yards in 5 straight games, but Jaxon-Smith Njigba got that by himself with an all-time performance of 15 catches for 347 yards. The Buckeyes piled up nearly 700 total yards. CJ Stroud played perhaps his finest game, and he is primed for a huge 2022 because Ohio State has restocked its receiver corps. What happens when Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming get a full season’s worth of starter reps?
On the flip side, though, Ohio State’s defense looked as bad as ever. Utah averaged 6.8 yards per play, and sadly, that was an improvement for the Buckeyes from the Michigan game when it allowed 8 yards per play. The Buckeyes were a step or 2 slow, didn’t finish plays and lacked any semblance of a playmaker. Matt Barnes, who had been calling plays for the defense most of the season after Kerry Coombs was demoted 2 weeks into the season, took the defensive coordinator job at Memphis. New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has his work cut out for him.
That makes Ohio State as interesting as any team in 2022. Its offense could be all-time good, and its defense, well, is going to give Ohio State’s offense plenty of opportunities to get back on the field. To put it kindly.
Offensive makeovers await Penn State, Iowa
After Penn State and Iowa lost New Year’s Day games to Arkansas and Kentucky, respectively, it’s clear that those programs need change offensively.
With Iowa, that should be a new offensive coordinator taking over for Brian Ferentz, who oversaw the 121st-ranked offense in the country. It should be a new QB in place of Spencer Petras, who threw 3 interceptions. It’s a crime to waste a defense this good, one that had 6 sacks against the Wildcats and has carried the team all year.
With Penn State, that has to mean a revamped run game. The Nittany Lions went the entire season without a 100-yard rusher, the first time that has happened since 2001. They are over-reliant on Sean Clifford. Penn State is now 11-11 over the last 2 years, which is tough to do considering how much talent it has had on defense.