Michigan is No. 1, but is facing Alabama really a reward for Jim Harbaugh?
Michigan has flexed its dominance all season long with a perfect 13-0 record and a Big Ten Championship. By the time Sunday’s reveal rolled around, the Wolverines had all but secured their claim to the No. 1 overall seed.
Detractors of Michigan will point to a weak nonconference slate, but anyone who looks beyond the early-season results will see the truth of Michigan. That truth is a program that finished the season with a pair of top-10 wins without its head coach and another against a No. 16 Iowa squad in a Power 5 championship.
And let’s address the sign-stealing elephant in the room. Yes, that NCAA investigation matters, but there was never any serious hope for rival fans of that investigation barring this team from the 2023-24 postseason.
The NCAA might still drop the hammer on Ann Arbor with fans left to form their own opinions of the season. But, in terms of on-field results, Michigan was the clear No. 1 when the season wrapped up.
So, how did the committee reward Michigan? By giving the Wolverines a semifinal matchup against… Alabama and legendary head coach Nick Saban.
To be fair, the Crimson Tide of this season are not quite the Crimson Tide of years past if you look at the season-long numbers. That is even evidenced by the fact Michigan opened as a 2.5-point favorite for the CFP semifinal.
In September, Alabama suffered a double-digit home loss to Texas, who also made the Playoff. The Tide even struggled to a 17-3 win over South Florida as questions surrounding Jalen Milroe and the QB situation engulfed the team.
However, something clicked for Alabama starting with a win over Ole Miss, and the Tide went on to find another gear in their toughest games of the season. That included Saturday’s 27-24 win over No. 1 Georgia while holding the Bulldogs to 78 yards rushing.
So, what does that all mean for the Playoff, and ultimately Jim Harbaugh? For starters, the final CFP field could be perceived as the committee providing the biggest hurdle possible to try and block a title for the head coach who has been embroiled in two recent NCAA investigations.
No one will publicly admit that angle played into the ultimate selections. But, it is worth pointing out that the committee’s reasoning this season has been questioned more than in any other year prior.
Florida State — an undefeated Power 5 champ but without star QB Jordan Travis — was left on the outside looking in. Mike Norvell’s Seminoles now bear the rare distinction of being the only undefeated Power 5 champ to be left out of the 4-team Playoff.
To explain leaving Florida State out of the field, Boo Corrigan pointed to an FSU team that is markedly different from the FSU team that played the first 11 weeks of the season. However, he did reveal one startling admission on Sunday.
That admission from Corrigan included the committee discussing from a coaching standpoint “who do you not want to play” at this point in the season:
CFP chair Boo Corrigan on the Bama-FSU debate: “The questions we do ask from a coaching stand point is who do you want to play and who do you not want to play.”
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) December 3, 2023
In regard to that question, the answer would undoubtedly come down to Georgia or Alabama with Florida State a distant third among the teams fighting for the No. 4 seed. And that answer is only magnified by the absence of Jordan Travis. And without directly saying it, Corrigan certainly implies part of the criteria came down to which team would provide a stiffer test for the Wolverines by providing the team Michigan would not want to play.
While that is perceived to be a new criterion for the committee, it is not necessarily a wrong one. However, things are always going to be viewed differently when this version of Michigan is included in the discussion.
Consider that for the entirety of the season, the CFP committee has maintained the sign-stealing investigation into the UM program is not a CFP issue. The committee cannot police that for fear of a disturbing precedent… but the committee can determine the ultimate seeding for the Playoff.
So, while most media members previewed Sunday as a scene of chaos, fans should have seen this matchup coming all along. If the committee could not eliminate the Wolverines from the field (or the No. 1 seed, for that matter), it would give them the stiffest test possible in the No. 4 seed.