College Football Playoff committee validates Jim Harbaugh's belief in Michigan football
Eighteen months ago, in the leadup to his worst season of his coaching tenure, Jim Harbaugh claimed the Michigan football Wolverines had been “about as close as you can possibly be” to winning it all.
At the time, it was an absurd assertion given that Michigan had never lost fewer than three games, won a division title or placed higher than sixth in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
But as Harbaugh’s team heads to Indianapolis to compete for the school’s first Big Ten title since 2004, a national championship has surfaced as a realistic possibility during a season that has defied expectations.
Following Michigan’s dominating performance in a 42-27 victory over Ohio State that reverberated far beyond Washtenaw County, the Wolverines vaulted into the second spot in the College Football Playoff selection committee's penultimate set of rankings.
It’s the highest position Michigan has attained this late in the year — three slots above where it was after the same point in 2016.
If the season were to end right now, these Wolverines would be pitted against Alabama and would have a shot to play Georgia or Cincinnati for “all the marbles,” as Harbaugh would put it.
This is a remarkable turn of events for a program that was written off in the aftermath of a 2-4 season that left Harbaugh’s job in peril. His position seemed so tenuous back then that he even acknowledged in a presentation to the Michigan High School Coaches Association he would “not be scared of any man, moment, circumstance or of being fired.”
Instead, Harbaugh went to work rebuilding the Wolverines in his “tough guy” image. When the team took the field in September for the first time, it looked like a vintage Harbaugh squad. They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides, played a disciplined brand of football and won. As one good week begat another, Michigan entered the polls and then climbed the rankings. But some wondered if the Wolverines were legitimate contenders.
That skepticism remained until Saturday, when the Wolverines snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Buckeyes and set off a raucous celebration at the Big House. Fans flooded the snow-specked field and players were treated like conquering heroes. They weren’t the only ones enamored by the win and how it was achieved.
“The committee was not surprised at the way Michigan played; maybe a little at surprised the way the score ended up,” Gary Barta, the chair of the CFP’s selection body, said Tuesday night. “But really (they’re) just a complete team and that’s how the committee has felt about Michigan for quite a while. … This was certainly a playoff game and under that kind of environment, Michigan showed they were able to find a way to win and win convincingly.”
Harbaugh said the victory signaled a new beginning.
“I think what he means … is, you know, we’re just getting started,” right tackle Andrew Stueber said. “That this is only the beginning for this team as far as championship-level play. I think that’s where this team is and I can’t wait to see us do it.”
The first test comes this Saturday against Iowa in a matchup Michigan enters as a 10½-point favorite.
Harbaugh said that after their only loss to Michigan State the Wolverines adopted a playoff mindset with an understanding that each ensuing game would determine their fate.
Nothing has changed now that it’s the Hawkeyes, instead of the Buckeyes, standing between Michigan and its first berth in the CFP.
“This is the championship this week, playing against a great Iowa team in Indianapolis, and this week, this is for all the marbles,” Harbaugh said. “And it hits me that this is a continuation of the playoffs. We’ve got to win to get ourselves into the semifinals of the playoffs. … That’s really what’s on my mind and that’s the message towards the team this week.”
As Harbaugh knows, Michigan is inching ever closer to its ultimate goal. Eighteen months after saying his team “was as close as you can possibly be” to winning it all, a shot at a national title is within reach. Less than a week from now, we’ll find out if the Wolverines can take one more step, unlock the door to the CFP and barge onto the sport's biggest stage.