In a CFP-obsessed world, Michigan's conference title still a B1G deal
What happens next in Michigan’s season will be the primary focus for most, but let’s take at least one moment to genuflect on what the Wolverines have already accomplished in 2021. They’ve earned it.
A Big Ten title is no small deal for this program. Not when it’s been a 17-year itch. Michigan’s 42-3 win over Iowa wrapped up its first Big Ten championship since 2004, ending the longest title-free stretch in program history.
“There’s no words I can use to describe this moment,” overwhelmed championship game MVP Aidan Hutchinson marveled in his postgame TV interview.
The only prior drought to approach this one lasted from 1951-64, so Michigan fans spent the past decade-plus living in a nearly alien construct.
Mercifully, they can now put that behind them. Big Blue is back.
Yes, perhaps this step of the journey felt like a fait accompli following last week’s win over Ohio State, which had tormented the Wolverines for 10 years straight. Jim Harbaugh made the clever analogy that Michigan was like the 1980 US Olympic hockey team after upsetting the Soviets — there was still a gold-medal game to play against Finland.
But imagine what a waste it all would have been if the Wolverines fell flat on their faces against Iowa. Harbaugh would still be the coach incapable of winning the big one. All the joy of the past week would have cratered into a disappointment difficult for the program to overcome.
Instead, Michigan disposed of the Hawkeyes as if they were the Finns — an opponent only to be remembered on bar trivia nights.
There was a brief scare on Iowa’s opening drive, with the Hawkeyes moving the ball down the field as if they were Purdue. But a dropped touchdown pass and a missed field goal later, you got the sense this was not going to be Iowa’s night. It was to be Harbaugh and Michigan’s long-waited coronation.
This is the 43rd conference championship in Michigan history. And while we can’t speak to the mood in 1898, it would be hard to believe any of the other 42 are sweeter than 2021.
Part of that reason is the aforementioned drought, which was marked by so much ineptitude against Ohio State. Another is the miserable state the program found itself in following the back-to-back Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke errors. Simply getting back to a respectable level was a win for Harbaugh.
And he kept it there — until last season’s drop-off. Michigan went 2-4 and only avoided another loss due to Covid issues canceling the Ohio State game. At that point, it seemed clear this program was never going to turn the corner and get back to a championship level.
When Michigan AD Warde Manuel restructured Harbaugh’s contract rather than firing him, the mood amongst Wolverines fans was one of resignation. Even the optimists were tepid.
Now, even the most dire pessimist from a year ago is overjoyed. This team, which entered the season unranked and picked to finish 4th in its own division, is a Big Ten champion.
And this ride isn’t done just yet.
The new frontier
The stakes were much simpler when Michigan last won the league a literal generation ago.
Win Big Ten, go to Rose Bowl. Maybe get invited to the BCS Championship Game if the computers liked you enough.
But the last time Michigan played for a championship, there wasn’t even a BCS. It was the final year before that system started, so the Wolverines went to their Rose Bowl and ended up splitting a national title with Nebraska.
Now, they’re 1 of 4 semifinalists left vying for a single national championship. For the most part, that’s all the college football discussion focuses on anymore. Conference titles are no longer the end-all, be-all they once were.
It’s a shame that’s where things stand, and a primary reason CFP expansion is inevitable and necessary. Fortunately, that’s not Michigan’s problem. There’s still more on the line. And it will be exciting to see who the Wolverines are matched up with when that next step is announced.
But for a night, Michigan should appreciate this conference championship for all that it’s worth. Because there’s no calculating its value.