On Dec. 31st, Michigan will play for everything. In a season that began full of doubt and low expectations, it beat Ohio State. It beat Wisconsin and Iowa. It’s overcome every obstacle and trial sent its way so far, including rebounding after its late game collapse against Michigan State.
On New Year’s Eve, in the College Football Playoff, the Wolverines will play Georgia. Alabama or Cincinnati await, should they win.
And, after the past two weeks, Michigan could very well be the best team in the country.
It’s certainly shown its weaknesses: Cade McNamara won’t blow your socks off, and its defense lets up yards to talented offenses.
But the rest of those teams have weaknesses, too.
In its biggest test of the year, Georgia allowed 536 yards of offense, with 421 through the air. Its previously unflappable defense showed glaring holes. Stetson Bennett IV can manage and lead the team to victory, but he struggled coming from behind.
“General impressions are rugged,” Jim Harbaugh said of Georgia on Sunday. “It’s a rugged, tough, tough squad that plays extremely well on all sides of the ball and special teams. Gonna be really excited to dig into it and study them. But yeah, that’s the word that came to my mind.”
Alabama struggled against Auburn and at Texas A&M with a young Bryce Young looking overwhelmed and the offense looking stagnant. Perhaps after walloping Georgia, the Crimson Tide has found itself. Perhaps not.
Then there’s Cincinnati, which possesses the nation’s longest unbeaten streak. They’ve squashed nearly every team they’ve faced this season, including No. 5 Notre Dame, but the same questions have persisted throughout their season: What happens when they play an opponent like Alabama that’s incredibly talented?
Through the last 14 weeks, Michigan has established itself as the No. 2 team in the country, and there are few who would argue it. It’s outperformed every expectation that those outside the program have had for it, and on New Year’s Eve, the expectation is a loss. Georgia opened as a one-touchdown favorite, and very few outside the program would expect the Wolverines to win.
But Michigan knows how good of a team it is.
“I think when we beat (Ohio State), we knew we can — we’re a really good football team — and we got a really good chance to win (the semifinal), because Ohio State was a really talented team,” senior defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson said.
Michigan has the best rushing game of the remaining four teams, gaining 30 more yards on the ground than the next best team in the playoff — the Bulldogs. It has the second-best 3rd-down conversion percentage, with 45.1%, and the second-best 3rd-down defense, with 32.3%, both behind the Crimson Tide.
This year, where talent and coaching are even, it seems that what matters most is an identity and dedication. The Wolverines have mastered both over the course of the season.
“Toughness is something that we take to heart and that we have made our identity,” Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara said. “And I really — I just love the identity that we’ve created, no matter what the style of football is at this day and age.”
The last two games, in its toughest stretch of the season, that identity has worn down opponents and led to second-half explosions. McNamara has been clinical, hitting his targets and making the plays he needs to. But above that, there’s the element that is perhaps most surprising: Michigan’s big plays.
Saturday’s double pass for 75 yards and Blake Corum’s run for 67 yards, are just the beginning of an offense that repeatedly gains large chunks of yards. The Wolverines totaled eight plays of 15-plus yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, breaking open a defense that is one of the best in the country.
Michigan has been doubted week after week, including by me, but with just two weeks left, no one should doubt the Wolverines.
Because they may just win the National Championship.