ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football will square off against Georgia next week with a national championship bid on the line, and while people are already comparing this year’s teams due to their run-heavy, defensive styles, the two programs have much more than that in common.
Before Jim Harbaugh returned to Michigan in 2015 and Kirby Smart took over Georgia in 2016, the situations in Ann Arbor and Athens were incredibly different.
Harbaugh inherited a team that limped to a 5-7 finish in 2014 under Brady Hoke and missed a bowl game for the third time in seven years. Michigan football had lost its way, floundering under Rich Rodriguez (no, he didn’t deserve another year) and Hoke (who proved to be in over his head).
Smart, meanwhile, took over a program that had won at least 10 games in four of five years. His job was to elevate the Bulldogs from very good to championship contender, and that’s exactly what he’s done.
In seven seasons at Michigan, Harbaugh has compiled a 61-23 record -- good for a winning percentage of 0.726. Smart is an even better 64-15 -- an 0.810 winning percentage. Take out the shortened 2020 season and those two winning percentages jump to 0.756 (Michigan) and 0.812 (Georgia).
Smart has one SEC title. Harbaugh has one Big Ten title. Smart’s worst season ended with five losses, as did Harbaugh’s.
But the most jarring similarity is the way every season seems to boil down to one opponent: Ohio State or Alabama. Fortunately for Georgia, that opponent is in another division.
Big Ten East
Someone might argue that Georgia and Michigan aren’t so similar because of the difference in winning percentage. But it would be naive to ignore the obvious reason for the disparity: division strength.
Michigan and Georgia play in the two best conferences in college football, but the Big Ten East is much, much tougher than the SEC East.
Every season, Michigan has to contend with powerhouse Ohio State to even reach the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes have appeared in the College Football Playoff four times and haven’t lost more than two games in a season (including bowl games) since 2011 -- an entire decade.
On top of that, the Big Ten East includes Michigan State, which has made a CFP appearance and was smack dab in the middle of its golden era when Harbaugh got to town.
Also during the Harbaugh era, Penn State has won 11 games three times and played in three New Year’s Six bowls.
There’s no tougher foursome in college football than the one atop the Big Ten East.
Georgia, on the other hand, is on a different level than the other teams in its division. This isn’t a knock on the Bulldogs because it’s not something they can control. But to act like this hasn’t directly contributed to the .810 winning percentage would be ignorant.
Vanderbilt, Missouri and South Carolina are basically SEC versions of Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana at the bottom of their divisions. Vanderbilt has had a losing record every year since Smart arrived at Georgia. Missouri has lost between five and eight games each season. South Carolina went 9-4 (and beat Michigan) in 2017, but has had at least six losses every other year since 2015.
The similarities between the two divisions end there. Georgia’s most regular competition has been Florida, which is a mediocre 48-27 since Smart arrived in Athens. The Gators have fired two coaches in that span and just clinched their second losing season.
Not much of a comparison with Ohio State.
Beyond that, Georgia’s version of Michigan State and Penn State would be, well, Kentucky and Tennessee? Kentucky has had one 10-win season since 1977 and -- while Mark Stoops has done a tremendous job elevating the program -- the Wildcats haven’t sniffed a New Year’s Six bowl during Smart’s tenure.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has had three losing seasons in the past five years. Not much for Georgia to worry about there.
History vs. top dogs
This isn’t to say that Georgia couldn’t do just as well, if not better, than Michigan has if the two swapped positions. But I’m confident Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State could all post near-0.800 winning percentages against SEC East competition.
More often than not, Georgia’s season has boiled down to whether or not it can beat Alabama. Sound familiar? If you substitute “Georgia” for “Michigan” and “Alabama” for “Ohio State,” you start to see what I’m talking about.
In 2016 and 2018, all Michigan had to do to win the Big Ten East (and, likely, the conference championship -- the Big Ten West has never won) was beat Ohio State. It fell short both times, and missed out on the playoffs as a result.
Georgia has been in the same position against Alabama twice -- 2018 and 2021. It faced the same scenario in 2019 against eventual national champ LSU.
In those three games, Georgia is 0-3. So why isn’t there a “Kirby Smart can’t get over the Alabama hump” narrative like Harbaugh heard about Ohio State for so many years?
It’s simple: Georgia got a break in 2017 that Michigan never will against Ohio State. The Bulldogs didn’t have to play Alabama.
Smart got a second chance to play Auburn that year in the SEC championship game after dropping the first matchup 40-17. Georgia avenged its loss and advanced to the playoff. It eventually lost to -- you guessed it -- Alabama in the national championship game.
So in his second season with Georgia, Smart lost a heartbreaking overtime game against his hated rival to see his championship dreams come to an end.
Need I remind you what happened to Harbaugh in double overtime at the Horseshoe during his second season (2016)?
Georgia is 0-4 against Alabama under Smart, while Michigan is 1-5 against Ohio State under Harbaugh. Why are the narratives surrounding the two programs so different?
It’s all about that 2017 season. Georgia beat No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 23 Mississippi State (final CFP rankings) en route to a very impressive 11-1 regular season. But the Bulldogs avoided playing Alabama, which allowed them to win the SEC title and get to the playoff.
It’s funny how easily the narrative can change, even when it’s out of a team’s control.
For teams competing at a championship level, college football seasons tend to boil down to one or two defining games. In comparing Michigan and Georgia, that usually means, “Did you beat Ohio State/Alabama?”
When the answer is yes, the rewards are conference titles and playoff appearances. A loss means heartbreak.
Harbaugh and Smart have regularly put their teams in position to compete for national titles going into games against their rivals. Both have consistently lost those games, with the exception of Michigan beating Ohio State this season.
There’s a top tier of college football that includes Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and, possibly, Oklahoma. Georgia and Michigan are both somewhere just below that group, even though they’ve gotten there in slightly different ways.
When they take the field Dec. 31 in Miami, these teams will both feature elite defensive fronts and stout rushing attacks. That will be what everyone focuses on during the game, but the similarities cut even deeper.
Luckily, they’ve got a chance to settle it all on the field.