Michigan: On national title game day, just how far off are Wolverines?
College football season end Monday night when No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson, two Southern powerhouses, travel all the way to Northern California to settle things. They are the two best teams in college football, and have been for four years running now.
The rest — including the Michigan Wolverines — are on the outside looking in, or is it looking up? Gazing at the behemoths in envy.
That’s certainly the case with Michigan, which thought for sure they would be a Playoff team by now after four years with UM legend Jim Harbaugh at the helm.
But it hasn’t happened. Not yet.
It’s Alabama and Clemson that set the bar in college football these days. In the five years of the College Football Playoff, the Crimson Tide has earned a spot all five years. Clemson has been there four years in a row, and the Tigers have played Alabama every year, three times now in the finals and once in last year’s semifinal game.
Those two schools account for nine of the 20 playoff bids. From the Big Ten, Ohio State has been invited twice (2014 and 2016) and Michigan State went in 2017. Oklahoma has gone three times, along with Florida State (2014), Oregon (2014), Washington (2016), Georgia (2017) and Notre Dame (2018).
That means 10 schools have had a shot in the past five years — and Michigan is not one of them. And when will they be?
It really should have been this year.
We’ve discussed this ad nauseum since Nov. 26, and you all know the whole story. Michigan was ranked No. 4 in the country and had won 10 games in a row when it headed to Columbus for the annual showdown with Ohio State. The Wolverines were favored and were, truly for the first time in the Harbaugh-Urban Meyer coaching era, the better team. A Michigan win virtually guaranteed a Playoff spot.
And then the Wolverines got embarrassed 62-39. Their great defense, ranked No. 1 in the nation most of the year, got exposed on every level, and we were all fools for thinking the Wolverines had passed the Buckeyes by. They were outplayed and — far more importantly, severely outcoached — that day.
There certainly was — and is — optimism for 2019, but it’s been tempered a bit by the 41-15 beatdown by a very average Florida team in the Peach Bowl. No. 7 Michigan wasn’t even competitive in the second half against the No. 10-ranked Gators, which means Michigan is now 1-9 against top-10 teams in the Harbaugh era.
Some question whether Harbaugh should be in trouble at Michigan since he can’t beat his rivals and still hasn’t won a big game, but that’s silly. Michigan’s program is far better than it was when he got there, it just hasn’t gotten over the hump yet. That could happen in 2019
“He is not on the hot seat,” Michigan president Mark Schlissel said in a statement to the Detroit Free Press. “He is under contract for four more years. “Coach Harbaugh embraces everything the University of Michigan is about and I fully support him. His student-athletes take their studies seriously and they graduate. He makes a commitment to each player that he brings to campus. Coach sets the tone in wanting to win every single game, and more importantly, he wants every student-athlete to have a great, full U-M experience while they’re doing it.”
Michigan will be very good once again in 2019, and all that’s left to question is just how good they will be. They’ll have plenty of chances to prove themselves, and all of their biggest games — Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State — are at home, where the Wolverines were undefeated this year.
Shea Patterson is back at quarterback for his senior year, which is a huge starting point. His group if wide receivers is awesome and most of an ever-improving offensive line is back. This offense could be very good, but a running back will certainly need to step up.
Despite losing several key pieces, the defense under Don Brown should be very good, too. They’ll need to play better in big games, of course, and they need to be less predictable than they were in the biggest moments, which Ohio State certainly exposed.
If not now, then when?
We asked that question a lot in November, both right before and right after the Ohio State mess. And we’ll be asking it again in 2019. Prior to the bowl game, I predicted Michigan would be a preseason top-5 team when Patterson announced that he was coming back. I doubled down after the early signing period, where Michigan did well, ranked No. 8 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings, and No. 1 in the Big Ten.
But after the Florida loss, I am tempering my optimism just a bit. I’m guessing they might be more in the 8-10 range, but, let’s be honest, that really doesn’t mean anything. The schedule allows Michigan every opportunity to be a top-4 team that contends for a national title next year. Take care of business and that elusive Playoff shot will come.
It’s likely that Michigan will be favored in its first 11 games next year, with the Ohio State game an unknown for now, depending on how well Ryan Day does in his first season replacing Meyer as the Buckeyes’ head coach.
It’s there for the taking, and we’ll take the glass-half-full approach for now. I can see Michigan being a Playoff team next year. But, once again, they’ll have to go out and prove it. That’s another matter. They haven’t done it yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.
If not now, then when? Right?