INDIANAPOLIS – The bluest of Michigan fans, using that descriptor in both of its most obvious interpretations, might even remember precisely how long it has been since that day. In fact, such an ardent Wolverine would not even require me to specify what occasion I am referencing.
Whether they do the math by years, months, days or defeats, it has been so long since App State.
Michigan didn’t really hit rock bottom on that afternoon in 2007. There were the RichRod years, the Brady Hoke years and a fair amount of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure. There were 14 years, or 5,208 days, or 68 football games lost, an average of five per season.
Unofficially, the journey back was completed with 5:27 remaining in the first quarter of the Big Ten Championship game against Iowa, when running back Donovan Edwards accepted a backward pass from quarterback Cade McNamara, looked upfield and saw that, as planned, Iowa had neglected to cover wideout Roman Wilson down the right sideline. Edwards’ perfect throw hit Wilson in stride, and UM had its second touchdown in three possessions.
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The Wolverines graciously agreed to play the remained 3 1/3 quarters, but they not so graciously refused to allow Iowa to score another point, piled on four more TDs and celebrated, with a 42-3 victory, their first conference title since 2004, their first 12-win season since 1997 and their first trip to the Rose Bowl since … wait, that’s not how it works anymore for a Big Ten team as accomplished as UM.
This team instead will be selected Sunday for the College Football Playoff and enter the tournament with a legitimate chance to win Michigan’s first national title in 24 years. There is no overwhelming favorite to win the trophy that belonged last year to Alabama, that hasn’t been claimed by a Big Ten team since the year the event was introduced, in 2014. Don’t need to remind any Wolverines who got that trophy, do we?
This one, though, belongs to the Wolverines, and there was so much significance wrapped in it.
“We all feel it. We talked about it last night: How much more can we pile into one game, the importance of one game?” coach Jim Harbaugh told Sporting News. “We had the championship, the chance to go to the playoff, to walk past the sign we all walk by, ‘Those who stay will be champions,’ to make that valid, that true … For guys to live on, really, in Schembechler Hall forever. Every guy on the team, in the team picture, is going to be up there as part of a Big Ten champion.
“I just knew that they would handle it because they give it their very best, every single day, whatever they’re doing.”
Michigan earned its position in this game with last weekend’s blowout of the Buckeyes, and though many wondered if there would be a letdown after such a performance, UM immediately demonstrated its intent to end this game as quickly as possible and allow the members of the CFP committee to begin pondering the appropriate seed to assign the Wolverines.
And that is going to be so tricky, because they were No. 2 in the final made-for-TV ranking announcement and then came into Lucas Oil and destroyed a 10-2 team – but the committee will not want to rematch SEC champ Alabama and runner-up Georgia in the semifinals. But if Cincinnati really is the weakest of the four teams, which their No. 4 ranking last week would imply, then what sort of mental – or, more to the point, verbal – gymnastics would explain the Wolverines not getting the No. 1 overall seed and supposedly smoother path to the final?
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A few hours after he scored on a 67-yard touchdown run for all the points UM would need less than 9 minutes into the game, running back Blake Corum was asked if his team proved it deserved the CFP No. 1 seed.
“I think so … 42-3,” he said. “You tell me.”
Anything positive the Wolverines accomplish in the CFP is not likely to be a product of their offense, although each of tight end Luke Schoonmaker’s catches – the second was a one-handed beauty for 22 yards that set up UM’s fourth touchdown – was the sort of jewel one might see, rarely, on a Sunday.
The 297-yard rushing total they compiled against Ohio State last week is unlikely to be revisited in a playoff game, but no one really has messed with their defense since October. OSU’s dynamic passing game produced yards, but not key plays. Maryland had some empty-calorie rushing yards in a game the Terps lost by 41.
Iowa at least could say they got to the red zone three times, but the Hawkeyes failed to score on two of those occasions.
“We defied all expectations. Nobody thought we could do this. Especially not this season,” All-American defensive end Aidan Hutchinson told reporters. “And man, we did it – and we did it in very dominant fashion.”
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UM finished last season 2-4, and Harbaugh accepted a pay cut to remain as Wolverines coach. Through six years, his winning percentage was only .690, which might get you a raise at Tulane but at Michigan was more than 100 points behind legend Bo Schembechler.
Off such a difficult season, with Ohio State, Penn State and even Indiana expected to excel in the Big Ten East Division, someone in the program came across a projection that gave the Wolverines only a 2 percent chance of winning the conference. Center Andrew Vastardis didn’t seem to know who had conjured that formula, but it wasn’t about embarrassing someone for an errant assessment. It was just something else to help the Wolverines push through a challenging workout or practice.
“We believe in each other. We believe in ourselves,” Vastardis said. “But it’s always a little extra motivation. We’re internally motivated, but sometimes, some of the stuff that’s out there, you just take it and ride with it and fuel the fire.”
Michigan now is in the two places its fiercest rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State, had visited before the Wolverines were able to get themselves back together: the instant platform on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium where the winner of the Big Ten championship game is handed a trophy, and the College Football Playoff.
The Big Ten title game was introduced in 2011, but the program that has won more games than any league member, and more championships, never competed in this game until Saturday. The CFP first was contested in 2014, and the Wolverines never before came close.
So they reveled in this. Most of the Michigan fans were at the northern end of the stadium, and when Hassan Haskins followed a beautiful 27-yard Schoonmaker reception with a 4-yard touchdown run, they danced and shouted. And when the subsequent TV break became an opportunity for the Big Ten to show photographs of the league’s various football award winners on the stadium scoreboards, Wolverines fans joyfully jeered at the three mentions of Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud.
“As we got closer and closer to the Ohio State game, that was the big test for us,” Hutchinson said. “When we beat them, we knew we were a good football team.
“We overcame them, and we moved on to bigger and better things.”