The Michigan Wolverines (13-0) are back into the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season, but this time as the No. 1 overall seed. The Wolverines are fresh off securing their third straight Big-Ten Championship (includes three straight wins over rival Ohio State), but despite the regular season success for Jim Harbaugh’s team, they have yet to be able to make it past the Semi-Final round of the four-team tournament. Will this be the year Michigan football goes all the way?
The 2023 campaign has been eventful, to say the least for the Big Ten Champions, first off, Harbaugh was suspended for the first three games of the season due to violations that stem back a few years ago. The former San Francisco 49ers head coach was suspended again for the last three regular-season matchups by the Big Ten after the program was accused of violating its sportsmanship policy. In totality, Harbaugh missed a total of 6 games for the Wolverines, which included a tough final stretch against rival Penn State, Maryland, and Ohio State, respectively.
Michigan football offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, who has been with the program since 2018, served as the interim head coach in Harbaugh’s absence. Moore had to bear the immense responsibility of leading the team while the program was being criticized by the national media and the College Football community. Also, add in the fact that their regular season schedule was highly favorable, as the Wolverines didn’t play their first-ranked opponent until they visited Penn State in week 11, respectively. It was fair to question whether this team was as good as advertised, but during the final slate of games to close out the season, Michigan proved that they are the cream of the crop in College Football and deserving of their place atop the rankings.
The Wolverines defeated three ranked teams in four weeks, which included a 26-0 shutout victory over No. 17 Iowa in the Big-Ten Championship Game. It’s arguable to say that Michigan football is the most complete team in the country, but it makes a pretty strong case for that declaration outright.
Michigan football is ranked second in the nation in total defense by allowing only 4.27 yards per play and has only given up more than 20 points on two occasions, respectively. On offense, they are equipped with a solid rushing attack that is led by senior rusher Blake Corum, who leads the nation in rushing touchdowns (24) and rushed for an average of 4.7 yards per attempt, respectively. Corum had his best statistical outing against Penn State by having garnered 145 rushing yards with an average of 5.6 yards per rush. For the record, the Nittany Lions rushing defense ranks second in the country and allows only 2.16 per rush attempt, respectively.
So, the Wolverines have a strong defense and a prolific rushing attack, but if Michigan wants to earn their first playoff victory, junior quarterback J.J McCarthy will need to play Heisman-like against the Crimson Tide next month. In 2023, McCarthy ranks fifth in the nation in passing efficiency (170.25) and second in completion percentage (.742%), respectively. McCarthy not only has an accurate arm but can also extend plays with his legs. It’s been reported that the Michigan quarterback had been dealing with an ankle injury that he suffered against Penn State last month, which has reduced his dynamic role on the offense the last few weeks. Moore tilted the offense towards the ground game during the final three games, as Corum had more carries than McCarthy had passing attempts for each matchup against Penn State, Maryland, and Ohio State, likely due to the injury and that it flat-out worked in their favor.
The junior quarterback received Heisman hype during the first half of the season, mainly due to his efficiency, but the Michigan defense and running game have been so impactful that McCarthy doesn’t need to do as much as his counterparts such as USC’s Caleb Williams or North Carolina’s Drake Maye (bad defenses). Even so, McCarthy has risen to the occasion when called upon, which includes this NFL-like throw for a touchdown to wideout Roman Wilson against division rival Ohio State.
McCarthy placed the ball to where only Wilson could get it, it just so happened that Ohio State defensive backs Malik Hartford and Denzel Burke were in the way. Now that McCarthy seems to have healed from the ankle injury, expect Harbaugh to open the playbook a lot more and incorporate more designed runs for his future NFL quarterback.
In the previous two occasions that the Wolverines were in the four-team tournament, they gave up 51 points to TCU (2023) and 34 points against Georgia (2022), respectively. Against the Bulldogs, even though McCarthy came into the game late, the offense couldn’t muster much as they only posted 11 points. In last year’s postseason, the Wolverines were 7.5-point favorites against a TCU team that failed to win their conference championship and their submission into the playoff were questioned highly. The Horned Frogs shocked the world and defeated the Wolverines, as their defense picked off McCarthy twice (both pick-sixes) and controlled the game from start to finish.
Can Michigan football avoid the same fate as previous seasons?
It’s fair to say the loss to TCU was because of self-inflicted wounds, but can the Wolverines afford another flame-out Playoff loss for the third consecutive year? When Harbaugh arrived at Michigan in 2015, it took until 2021 for Michigan to finally breakthrough and beat the Buckeyes (2-5 vs. Ohio State under Harbaugh), as questions arose whether Harbaugh was capable of taking Michigan to where the fans and the university expected the program to be.
The narrative that “Harbaugh can’t beat Ohio State” started to catch fire and his job security was in question before the 2021 matchup. Harbaugh has now turned Michigan into the premier program in the Big Ten over the past three seasons. If Michigan doesn’t win a playoff game this year, will that be the new narrative?
Now, the Wolverines will take on the Alabama Crimson Tide, the newly crowned SEC champions and winner of 10 consecutive games. Nick Saban’s team is arguably the hottest team in America after defeating the two-time defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship game. Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Milroe has emerged as one of the country’s most dynamic players, as he and the Alabama offense can surely test Michigan’s fifth-ranked rushing defense and second-ranked first-down defense, respectively.
Michigan will be without two-time All-Big-10 Offensive Guard Zak Zinter after he suffered a leg injury against Ohio State. Can the Michigan offensive line protect McCarthy from a stout Crimson Tide defensive front that features linebackers Dallas Turner (8.0 sacks) and Chris Braswell (8.0 sacks)?
The Wolverine’s reaction to when Alabama was announced as the fourth and final participant in the College Football Playoff was very telling. Sighs and groans were coherently heard in the video, as they probably expected to face the undefeated ACC champion Florida State Seminoles without star quarterback Jordan Travis. Regardless, Harbaugh and his team are in for a war against a program that has the most championship wins in the Playoff era (3).
The 2023 season was filled with hardship for Michigan, so much so that the slogan “Michigan vs Everybody” was created. Can the Wolverines continue to prove the doubters wrong or will another successful season end in disappointment?