Michigan--yes, Michigan--holds key in Big Ten playoff hopes
It’s safe to say that Michigan’s season hasn’t gone as expected.
Don’t get me wrong: The Wolverines have done some good things and are likely headed to a nice bowl. Jim Harbaugh’s third team is 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten with losses at home to Michigan State (14-10) and at Penn State (42-13).
Despite that success, however, Michigan must win-out (at No. 5 Wisconsin; vs. No. 9 Ohio State), plus have Michigan State and Penn State each lose once, to win the East. So, it doesn’t look like Michigan will call itself a “champion” once again. If you are scoring at home, this proud program last won the Big Ten in 2004, meaning the drought would stretch to 13 years with no crown in 2017.
Instead of making a championship push in November, Michigan will play the role of spoiler and could put a big crimp in the Big Ten’s playoff hopes.
It begins this Saturday, when the Wolverines play at Wisconsin. The Badgers are 10-0, off to their best start in program annals. And Wisconsin checked in at No. 5 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings, seemingly poised to finish in the top four if it wins out vs. Michigan and Minnesota and then prevails in the Big Ten title game.
While some of the nation’s top playoff contenders can—and have—absorb a loss (Oklahoma and Clemson chief among them) and remain in the chase, Wisconsin’s resume doesn’t seem capable of withstanding a defeat. So, it’s most likely win—or drop for the playoff chase for Paul Chryst’s squad.
Enter Michigan, a talented and dangerous team that has nothing to lose as it arrives in Madison for the first time since 2009. Michigan has lost three in a row in Camp Randall, last winning there in 2001. And Michigan has lost 15 straight road games against ranked opponents with its last win coming in 2006 at Notre Dame. Oh, and the Wolverines don’t have a win over a team this year that is over .500. So, the chances for a Michigan victory would appear to be slim, especially with redshirt freshman Brandon Peters making just his third career start. Is he ready for this stage and this quality of opponents?
“Obviously, people are doubting us,” Michigan center Patrick Kugler said. “You can see that everywhere. But we’re a very tight-knit group. We know what we’re capable of and we’re just excited for the test.”
The Wolverines have one of the nation’s better defenses and could pose issues for Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who has won 16 straight starts, which is the longest active streak in FBS. However, he has thrown an interception in seven consecutive games. In conference play, he has nine touchdown passes with 11 interceptions.
“It’s a very good defense and it will be a challenge,” said Chryst. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing and certainly understand the different ways that they defend you.
“They are playing at a high level.”
Then there is Ohio State, the Big Ten’s other “best hope” to make the playoff. The Buckeyes are 8-2, and there never has been a team with two defeats make the College Football Playoff. But Ohio State is clinging to playoff hopes in what has been a crazy year across the national landscape, coming in at No. 9 in the most recent poll.
In the final week of the regular season, Michigan will play host to Ohio State in “The Game.” The Buckeyes control their destiny in the East Division after last week’s win vs. Michigan State.
Ohio State has dominated this series of late, winning five in a row and 12 of 13. Last year’s 30-27 double OT win by OSU in Columbus was epic and left Harbaugh fuming. The last Wolverine triumph vs. the Buckeyes? In 2011 in Ann Arbor. Maybe Harbaugh can get win No. 1 vs. Urban Meyer. If so, that would trash any remaining playoff hopes for the Buckeyes.
So, keep an eye on Michigan these next two weeks. It holds a big key to the playoff hopes of the Big Ten–which never has missed the playoff in its three years of existence–while also having a chance to make a statement nationally.
“(It’s an) opportunity to re-introduce to the national football audience,” Harbaugh told the “Jamie and Stoney” show, aired Wednesday on 97.1 The Ticket. ”And that opportunity, we cherish it.”