GLENDALE, Ariz. – The wait is almost over: On Saturday, Michigan will take the field for the first time in four weeks to battle TCU in the College Football Playoff semifinal. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.
It’s a strange time, the wait between conference title games and the playoff. For three months, the college football season is a dead sprint, with dozens of games every weekend and nonstop action. Teams barely have time to celebrate a win or agonize over defeat before moving onto preparation for the next opponent.
But after Michigan won its second-straight Big Ten championship on Dec. 3, the season came to a screeching halt. It seems so long ago that Donovan Edwards sent Ohio State fans careening for the exits and Will Johnson led the Wolverines to a win over Purdue.
We watched the College Football Playoff selection show the following afternoon and then waited. And waited. And waited.
Now, playoff weekend is finally here, and the stakes are unmatched. Here’s everything on the line for Michigan.
First championship game appearance
Let’s start with the most obvious: Michigan is looking to make its first national championship game in program history.
The Wolverines last won the national title in 1997, but back then, there wasn’t a designated championship game. Michigan went 11-0 in the regular season and beat No. 7 Washington State in the Rose Bowl to claim the title.
Immediately after that season, college football rolled out the BCS national title, with the top two teams in the rankings playing each other to determine an undisputed champion.
Michigan never made the BCS championship in 16 years. Now, in the ninth year of the College Football Playoff, the Wolverines have never had a better chance to play on the sport’s grandest stage.
Elite CFP company
If Michigan can beat TCU, it will join an elite club in terms of success during the College Football Playoff era.
Only seven programs have made multiple playoff appearances since the CFP’s inception in 2014: Alabama (7), Clemson (6), Ohio State (5), Oklahoma (4), Georgia (3), Michigan (2), and Notre Dame (2).
That’s already an elite list. It includes every college football powerhouse of this era, and thanks to the last two seasons, Michigan belongs among them.
But the list of teams to actually win a College Football Playoff game is even shorter: Alabama (9), Clemson (6), Ohio State (3), Georgia (3), LSU (2), and Oregon (1).
With a win, Michigan would become only the fifth team to both make multiple playoff appearances and also win at least one playoff game. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Georgia -- arguably the top four programs in college football right now -- are the only ones to accomplish that feat.
It’s not an obscure stat -- it’s a sign of a program that can sustain success at the highest level, and that’s exactly what Michigan and Jim Harbaugh are striving for.
Big Ten’s playoff image
The Big Ten is widely considered the second-best conference in college football behind the SEC, but there’s also a growing sentiment that the league can’t be competitive in playoff games.
Ohio State beat Alabama and Oregon to win the first ever College Football Playoff title, but since then, the conference has really struggled.
Not counting this season, the Buckeyes have returned to the playoff three times since their championship. Here are the results:
- 31-0 loss to Clemson in 2016
- 29-23 loss to Clemson in 2019
- 49–28 win over Clemson in 2020, 52–24 loss to Alabama in the title game.
Even though Ohio State does have a win in that stretch, it was overshadowed by a four-touchdown loss in the ensuing national championship. It doesn’t help that the 31-0 loss to Clemson was one of the most jarring results in playoff history.
Only two other Big Ten teams have appeared in the playoff. Michigan State got shut out 38-0 against Alabama in 2015, and Michigan got crushed by Georgia, 34-11, last season.
Ohio State’s national title notwithstanding, the College Football Playoff has not been kind to the Big Ten.
This year, if Michigan and Ohio State lose, the criticism of the league will grow even louder. Other than Penn State, which went 10-2 without any impressive wins, the conference doesn’t have another team ranked in the final CFP top 25.
It was a down year for the league, and it’s up to Michigan and Ohio State to carry the banner on the big stage.
No matter what happens Saturday, Michigan has had one of the best seasons in program history. But a loss to TCU would still feel like an agonizing missed opportunity.
This Michigan team is the first to ever win 13 games, and unlike last season, it’s actually good enough to compete for a national championship. TCU is an elite team, but this isn’t like playing 2021 Georgia -- Michigan has a legitimate chance to advance.
Harbaugh put together a talented, cohesive coaching staff that built a strong culture and got tremendous buy-in from the players. But the college football landscape is changing drastically, and -- thanks to transfers, de-commitments, and heavy coaching turnover -- continuity is going to be much more difficult to maintain.
Michigan has one of the best offensive lines in the country, one of the best defenses in the country, and one of the best rushing attacks in the country. J.J. McCarthy is the most well-rounded quarterback of the Harbaugh era, and he’s surrounded by enough talent on all sides of the ball to compete with anybody.
As dominant as Michigan has been the past two seasons -- and even with the playoff expanding to 12 teams in 2024 -- these types of opportunities shouldn’t be taken for granted. How often will the Wolverines find themselves one game away from a national championship with a roster that’s actually good enough to win it?
They’ll have to get past a Heisman Trophy runner-up and the national coach of the year to advance, but Michigan has an opportunity to win this game. All that’s left to do is capitalize.