Michigan football: Why B1G Championship vs. Iowa is must-win for Wolverines, Jim Harbaugh
Following an 11-1 regular-season finish capped by a 42-27 win over then-No. 2 Ohio State, it seems like Michigan has conquered all and has nothing else to prove. Well, that’s according to the hype following that win. But make no mistake, while it was an important moment for coach Jim Harbaugh, it wasn’t the ending of the story.
Now No. 2, Michigan has more work to do before really celebrating. Its next task is Saturday vs. Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Wednesday night, I had a Twitter DM conversation with Saturday Tradition editor Chris Wright, who reminded me of a certain scenario that played out for Auburn in 2017, when it beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl and lost to Georgia in the SEC title game. Instead of postseason glory, Auburn got to watch Alabama — which got into the College Football Playoff at No. 4 — go on to win a national championship.
Wright made a good point while also citing the irony. And get it, Iron Bowl … “irony” … OK, I’ll stop.
Anyway, what if Cincinnati, Alabama and Michigan all lose their upcoming conference championships? That would clear a path for Ohio State, which absolutely has the power to compete against anyone in the nation, despite losing to the Wolverines.
Buckeyes as national champs? Even after losing to Michigan for the first time since 2011, and for the first time in 6 attempts by Harbaugh? That would be the ultimate gut-punch, ending to an otherwise dream season for the Wolverines, who were only 5 points shy of going 12-0 this fall. That 37-33 loss to Michigan State was the only stumble along the way for UM, which also won its first Big Ten East Division title under Harbaugh.
No take-backs, right?
Everyone, even the critics, has agreed that Harbaugh is the perfect fit for Michigan. It’s kind of a shame that it took him beating OSU for others to admit that — but it happened, and all is well. Harbaugh gives away bonus money to athletic department workers dealing with post-COVID shutdown issues, he genuinely cares about his players and program — and he’s well-respected and loved in Ann Arbor. There isn’t a more perfect destination for Harbaugh, who’s had four 10-win seasons since taking over in 2015.
But a loss against Iowa on Saturday would likely cost Michigan a spot in the CFP, and the mission is to win a national title. That’s been the focus since spring ball — that, along with beating OSU — and falling short would obviously be a massive disappoint for the Wolverines. If they beat Iowa, they’ll gain momentum and become even more of a favorite to make an appearance in the national championship. As of now, the CFP looks like this: No. 1 Georgia (12-0), No. 2 Michigan (11-1), No. 3 Alabama (11-1) and No. 4 Cincinnati (12-0).
Michigan doesn’t want a Rose Bowl this season. That’s Ohio State’s destination. Going to Pasadena is for the second-best team in the Big Ten this year, not for the top dog — and UM proved to be the top dog.
Saturday won’t be Harbaugh’s biggest game, in terms of emotion; but, in terms of magnitude, it will be his biggest task to date. Win, and you’re guaranteed a spot in the CFP. Lose, well, you’re at the mercy of luck and good fortune — and as we all know, luck hasn’t exactly been on Harbaugh’s side since his arrival to Michigan. He’s had several close calls, including a road loss at Iowa that cost UM a spot in the 2016 CFP.
Michigan needs to win Saturday. Harbaugh needs this one on his resume. It’ll be proof positive that UM is the real deal. It’ll buck any notion of UM not showing up after a big game. Sure, the Wolverines rattled off a nice streak after losing to Michigan State, but can it calm itself down enough after a mega-victory over Ohio State to focus on up to 3 more games this season?
That’s the question.
We’ll know the answer Saturday.