Michigan is a CFP surprise -- but not if you've paid attention all season
Michigan in the College Football Playoff. Who would have thunk it?
Now, I’m not going to lie to your face and claim this is a thing I thought possible in the offseason. At that time, 9-3 seemed like a reasonable expectation and measure of what would still qualify as a very good bounce-back campaign for the Wolverines. And that was from the glass-half-full perspective.
But as early as the season opener against Western Michigan, you could tell there was something different about this team. Not “going to win the Big Ten” different. But definitely not “going to get embarrassed again this season.”
Beating the Broncos was nothing new. The Wolverines are 8-0 all-time against their cousins from Kalamazoo. But the efficiency with which Michigan’s offense operated was attention-grabbing.
The 335 rushing yards were the most for Michigan in 5 years. Cade McNamara looked like a capable game-manager, going 13-of-17 for 216 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The following week, another piece was revealed.
Running for 335 yards against a leaky MAC defense was one thing. Getting 343 against preseason No. 21 Washington? That felt like something special could be brewing. But given that the Huskies were coming to Ann Arbor on the heels of a 13-7 loss to FCS Montana, most read it as a sign that Washington was just really bad. That was true — but not mutually exclusive with Michigan’s strength.
Week 3 is when the Wolverines started demanding some attention. Northern Illinois knocked off Georgia Tech in Week 1 and had the look of a much more solid MAC team than Western Michigan. Indeed, the Huskies would prove to be the MAC’s very best. But it didn’t matter that day.
The Wolverines racked up another 373 yards on the ground, rolling to a 63-10 win — Michigan’s most lopsided victory since 2016.
That’s when NIU coach Thomas Hammock became maybe the first outsider who saw where this was going.
“I think they built their team to beat Ohio State,” Hammock said after that game. “What I see on tape, they built their team to beat Ohio State. You’re not gonna out-athlete Ohio State, so what they said is we’re gonna get dirty. Credit to them, because they stay committed to that.”
This, combined with the fact Western Michigan beat what looked like (and turned out to be) a pretty good Pitt team the same day, is when I first considered the possibility that Michigan might be way, way better than any of us imagined.
Naturally, Michigan struggled to beat Rutgers in the Big Ten opener. The Scarlet Knights figured out the Wolverines had no interest in passing the ball and jammed everybody in the box. Anyone who wasn’t previously sleeping on the Wolverines probably hit the snooze button at that point.
Strangely, Michigan’s lone loss is what made me recognize the Wolverines were a Playoff contender.
Michigan’s 38-17 win at Wisconsin wasn’t impressive at the time, because it dropped the Badgers to 1-3. Nor was eking out a 32-29 win at 3-4 Nebraska, because it wasn’t yet clear that literally every Nebraska game has the same outcome. Same goes for beating Northwestern, because anybody could do that this season.
But when Michigan dominated the better part of 3 quarters at Michigan State, it grabbed my attention.
Yes, the Wolverines blew it as Kenneth Walker III put together one of the best individual performances in Big Ten history to lead the Spartans’ comeback. Michigan showed it could go toe-to-toe with a fellow Playoff-caliber team, and the schedule set up favorably for the Wolverines to work their way back into the picture.
By that point, it was clear to me Hammock’s analysis was spot-on. The pass-rushing tandem of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo was uniquely suited to pressure Ohio State’s freshman quarterback into mistakes no other team could force. Michigan’s offensive front was stout enough to push around the Buckeyes and keep the ball away from their potent offense.
The Wolverines would just need enough things to break in their favor to work themselves back into the Top 4. As it turned out, enough broke in their favor that they still would have been safe in the old BCS system.
Given the preseason expectations, the results of 2020 and the whole 8-game losing streak to Ohio State, Michigan still qualifies as the most surprising entry of the 2021 College Football Playoff. Even though Cincinnati is the first Group of 5 team to qualify, buzz surrounded the Bearcats all season.
For Michigan, it was more of a slow creep to the top. But looking back, the roots of that rise are quite visible.