We all have an idea of what it takes to succeed in today’s college football landscape. Sometimes, it seems a little formulaic.

You need a great coach, and if your coach fails, fire him and hire a new one. Stars matter, and you need to stack top recruiting classes on top of each other year after year to compete on the national stage. And now, with the one-time transfer rule, you have to scour the transfer portal to find guys who can make an immediate impact. Also, if you don’t start the season ranked, you have no shot because you don’t have built-in credibility.

Michigan checks none of those boxes, and that’s great news for the rest of college football, which is traditionally a top-heavy sport. While it’s hard to label a program with resources like Michigan as an underdog, we can call this run to the College Football Playoff “improbable” or “unlikely.” For fan bases who are apathetic and feel like there is no chance to topple a superior rival, well, Michigan has shown that just isn’t true.

While Cincinnati’s inclusion in the CFP is cause for celebration as the first Group of 5 school to make it, it’s actually Michigan that should give the rest of college football hope. Here’s why:

1. Michigan didn’t tear it all down and start over after a bad year

According to conventional wisdom, Michigan should’ve fired Jim Harbaugh after last season’s 2-4 debacle. Coming into 2021, the Wolverines had lost 6 of their last 8 games. And without even an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game or a win over Ohio State in Harbaugh’s 6 years, the case was strong to make a change.

That’s just the culture in college football these days. LSU fired Ed Orgeron less than 2 years after winning a national title, and Florida fired Dan Mullen less than a year after winning the SEC East. In the SEC, which is indisputably college football’s best conference, just 3 of the 14 head coaches have been with their respective programs longer than a full recruiting cycle.

By that standard, Harbaugh most definitely should’ve been gone. Instead, Warde Manuel may have started a new trend by restructuring Harbaugh’s contract and reducing his pay, instead of just writing him a buyout check. That move has paid off; a new coach wasn’t going to lead Michigan to its first Big Ten title since 2004.

2. Michigan isn’t the most talented team

The Wolverines aren’t some plucky underdog, obviously. This is Michigan; it leads the country in attendance every year, it has one of the 10 highest recruiting budgets and it has a storied history. Cincinnati deservedly gets to claim the underdog role.

But Michigan is several tiers below college football’s elite class, ranking just 15th in 247’s College Team Talent Composite. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State have been playing a different game in terms of recruiting for quite a while, and Clemson, LSU and Oklahoma are right up there with them. So it’s no surprise that those teams make up 14 of the last 16 spots in the CFP the past 4 seasons.

It’s somewhat remarkable that Michigan is in this position with just 5 top-100 players on its roster, and only 2 (CB Daxton Hill and DT Chris Hinton) start. Ohio State, in comparison, has signed 22 top-100 recruits the last 2 years alone, and the Buckeyes are even slightly behind Alabama and Georgia in recruiting.

Michigan, and Cincinnati too, are both outliers in today’s college football.

3. Michigan didn’t load up on transfers

The answer to not getting the top recruits is supposed to be hitting the transfer portal. Look at Michigan State, which added 21 transfers last offseason to transform from B1G bottom feeder to a New Year’s 6 bowl game. Moving forward, everyone is going to be looking for their Kenneth Walker III, or hoping to strike gold in the transfer QB market, like Oklahoma did with Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, or LSU with Joe Burrow, or Ohio State with Justin Fields, or Auburn with Cam Newton. Even Alabama, a program that has recruited extremely well, got its leading tackler (Henry To’oto’o) and top offensive weapon (Jameson Williams) from the transfer portal.

That’s why it’s interesting that Michigan didn’t strike gold in the transfer portal. In fact, they barely struck at all. The Wolverines added only 4 transfers while losing 16:

  • OT Willie Allen (Louisiana Tech): Re-transferred to UMass before the season
  • QB Alan Bowman (Texas Tech): Third-string QB has attempted only 4 passes this season
  • DT Jordan Whittley (Oregon State): Played 33 snaps across 9 games
  • WR Daylen Baldwin (Jackson State): Fourth among WRs in snaps, caught 2 TD passes

Baldwin is the only transfer who has had a role this season, and his 2 TD catches (vs. Western Michigan and Wisconsin) both were with the outcome long decided. And he is still fourth in snaps among the wideouts despite top WR Ronnie Bell suffering a season-ending injury in the season opener.

Michigan didn’t go for any quick fixes in the offseason and instead relied upon its player development. I’m not saying that’s the roadmap to sustained success, just that it runs in contrast to the way college programs currently operate. The takeaway here is that you don’t necessarily need to overhaul your roster in order to succeed.

4. Michigan started the season unranked

Michigan became the first team to start the season unranked and reach the CFP. Why does this matter? Because so much of college football rankings are based off perception. And the best way to curry some favor is to have that number in front of the name on TV. That’s how our brains are trained to work. Having that ranking automatically means a team is legitimate; the absence of one means the opposite. Even though the rankings sometimes don’t make sense, that’s reality.

So for a team to start outside the Top 25 and climb all the way to No. 2 (and nearly No. 1) is an encouraging development for the rest of the Power 5. (Sorry Group of 5 teams, you need a few good seasons in a row, like Cincinnati, to be taken seriously.)


So, what’s the lesson here? There isn’t one way to win in college football, contrary to what we’ve seen in recent years. And for programs that feel like they have no chance — whether it be after a bad season, a bad recruiting class, a lack of success in the transfer portal or starting the season unranked — Michigan should be the shining example why there is always hope for a turnaround.

So even though Michigan isn’t a Cinderella, it’s a good thing for college football to have an example like the Wolverines.