Sitting No. 5 in penultimate CFP rankings, Michigan’s fate is up in the air

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 - 8:24pm

Jim Harbaugh's team is sitting at 10-2 and awaiting its postseason fate.

Jim Harbaugh's team is sitting at 10-2 and awaiting its postseason fate. Buy this photo
Grant Hardy/Daily

 

After the Michigan football team lost a double-overtime thriller to No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight speculated that the Wolverines’ chances to make the College Football Playoff were “slim to none.”

Three days later, it’s not clear whether he’s correct or not, but one thing is for sure: Michigan will need help.

The Wolverines slotted in at No. 5 in the second-to-last CFP rankings revealed Tuesday night, behind No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Washington — all of which, with the exception of the undefeated Crimson Tide, have only one loss on their résumés.

Michigan stands as the highest-ranked two-loss team in the country and has head-to-head wins over No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 7 Penn State and No. 8 Colorado.

Many pundits believe Alabama and Ohio State are locks for the playoff, meaning that the Wolverines would need Clemson or Washington to lose their conference championship games to get back in the playoff picture.

What complicates matters, though, is that the Badgers and Nittany Lions will meet for the Big Ten Championship on Saturday, thanks to Penn State’s division-tiebreaking win over Ohio State. And the eighth-ranked Buffaloes have an opportunity to upend Washington and add the Pac-12 Championship to their résumé.

Consequently, Michigan may be the most divisive team still in contention. Even ESPN’s panelists squabbled over the Wolverines during the release show Tuesday night, delving into the arguments for and against Michigan making the playoff.

Host Rece Davis pointed to the Wolverines’ weak road schedule, mentioning that they only managed wins against 2-10 Rutgers and 3-9 Michigan State, while losing to Iowa and Ohio State.

Analyst Joey Galloway preached the importance of conference championships, citing the final 2014 CFP rankings, in which TCU fell from No. 3 to No. 6 after the Buckeyes won the Big Ten Championship. He also pointed out the unprecedented possibility of two non-conference champions from the same division making the playoff.

“If Penn State wins the East and wins the Big Ten, and you, say, ‘Great job, great season, let’s go back and get two teams from the East and put them in,’ now we’re talking crazy,” he said.

On the other side of the argument, Kirk Herbstreit, who did color commentary for the Wolverines’ game in Columbus, raised the question of “most deserving” versus “best.” In Herbstreit’s opinion, Michigan’s performance against the Buckeyes — and its three head-to-head wins over fellow contenders — proved the Wolverines were one of the top teams and that they should advance to the playoff with a Washington loss Friday.

Of course, none of the panelists’ opinions factor into the decision. And the chairman of the CFP selection committee, Kirby Hocutt, emphasized that the ultimate goal of the committee is to get the “four very best teams” into the playoff, regardless of conference championships and past years’ precedents.

This week, Hocutt said Washington and Michigan had a very small margin of separation. Things could only get more difficult next week as Clemson, Washington, Michigan and Colorado, as well as either Wisconsin or Penn State, could all have two losses, bringing up the difficult question of how to separate them.

“When two teams are comparable, there’s razor-thin margins between the two, that’s when we go to the protocol and the metrics,” Hocutt said on ESPN. “Conference championships, strength of schedules, head-to-head, and outcomes against common opponents.

“Those four are not in any particular order. None of those four are weighted above the other. It’s up to each member of the selection committee to determine if there’s a priority of one of those four metrics to them and which one carries the most weight.”

At the end of the day, he reiterated, the committee’s job is to find the four best teams based on overall résumés.

What that means for the Wolverines is anyone’s guess.