ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan will be returning to the College Football Playoff next month, no matter what happens against Purdue in the Big Ten Championship Game.
The game is still important. Not only do the Wolverines want to win a second-straight Big Ten title, they also want to win 13 games for the first time in program history and position themselves for success in a semifinal game.
But in terms of finishing in the CFP committee’s top four, Saturday is about “where,” not “if.” Michigan will be one of the playoff teams whether it wins, loses, or gets blown out by three touchdowns.
Michigan, Georgia, and TCU are the only undefeated teams left in the nation. After another Saturday of college football carnage, only two one-loss teams remain: USC and Ohio State.
If the Wolverines were to lose to Purdue, they would finish the season 12-1. Even in the worst-case scenario of Georgia, TCU, and USC all winning their conference titles, Michigan could only fall to No. 4.
The Ohio State argument
No, a loss in a conference title game wouldn’t be enough to drop Michigan below an Ohio State team that it just demolished by 22 points in its own stadium.
Michigan is the reason Ohio State doesn’t have the opportunity to lose a game this weekend, and the committee certainly wouldn’t reward the Buckeyes for sitting at home while the Wolverines played for a conference title.
There were 17 million people watching the beatdown in Columbus, and none of them would forget about what happened just because Purdue pulled an upset.
The Alabama argument
OK, we’ve eliminated Ohio State from the equation (to be clear, the Buckeyes could still make the playoff -- they just can’t be ranked above Michigan). Now let’s address the ever-present elephant in the room: Alabama.
Rest easy, Michigan fans: There is no way Alabama can be ranked ahead of Michigan after this weekend. Zero chance. None. Not happening.
If Nick Saban’s team somehow gets into the playoff, it absolutely has a chance to win the national championship. But the Crimson Tide isn’t overtaking Michigan in the final rankings.
Not only did Alabama lose two games, it also failed to win the SEC West. There’s no precedent for a team sitting at home during champ week leaping a team that lost a conference title game. Committee members don’t want to make it an actual disadvantage for teams to play in their conference championships (in other words, it shouldn’t just be viewed as another opportunity to suffer a loss).
With or without a win this weekend, Michigan’s resume is stronger than Alabama’s. When Tuesday’s new poll is revealed, the Wolverines will have a 22-point road win over a top-five (maybe six) Ohio State team and a 24-point win over another top 10 team in Penn State.
Alabama’s two losses were competitive, but its three best wins came against Texas, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss -- three 8-4 teams that will be fringe top-25, at best.
Do I know who would win a game between Michigan and Alabama? No. But I know who has the better body of work so far.
The rest of the country
After Ohio State and Alabama, there’s nobody left!
South Carolina vanquished playoff contenders each of the last two weeks by obliterating Tennessee and upsetting Clemson on the road.
Who else will be ranked in the top 10? Penn State? Washington? Beyond that, every single Power Five team has at least three losses, and there isn’t a Group of Five team with fewer than two.
Why winning still matters
A loss to Purdue would greatly hurt Michigan’s chance to win the national championship because it could set the stage for a semifinal rematch against Georgia. Michigan knows better than anyone that it’s best to avoid Georgia for as long as possible.
The Bulldogs ran the Wolverines out of the Orange Bowl a year ago, and even though this year’s team isn’t quite as dominant, it’s still the best in the country.
Also, winning Big Ten championships is good. Jim Harbaugh definitely wants to keep doing that.