It doesn’t mean the system is perfect, but this time it worked out perfectly. Clemson and Alabama will meet in college football’s national championship game next week, and after a long bowl season, there’s little doubt that is the just outcome.
Both Michigan and Penn State, the two fan bases with the loudest — if not most convincing — gripes over being left out of the playoff, lost late in two of the most thrilling games this season. Ohio State and Washington, losers of the two semifinals, were little match for the Crimson Tide and Tigers, who will play in the title game for the second straight year. After all the animated arguments over which Big Ten teams were most deserving of a playoff shot, the short answer was: it didn’t really matter.
That’s not to say the committee didn’t get it right. Their job was to pick the four best teams, and, given the information at the time, they probably did. What it really means is that fans can rest at ease when they watch this year’s title game, their reasons to shout now muted.
Instead, the natural end-of-season feelings can take hold early. And at Michigan, the predominant feeling is disappointment.
Before the Wolverines lost to Iowa nearly two months ago, they sat at 9-0, with every indication that a playoff berth would be in their future. When they lost on a last-second field goal, it was fair to wonder whether that loss might hold an epic team back from its destiny. Those fears were magnified, and ultimately realized, when Michigan came up on the wrong end of a double-overtime classic at Ohio State two weeks later.
And then came the Orange Bowl. The Wolverines started flat, finished flashy and ultimately came up short once more in a 33-32 loss to Florida State. In the end, they finished the season 10-3, their three losses determined by a total of just five points.
But for those inclined to look back and wonder, “What if?” the loss to the Seminoles came with an odd blend of regret and relief. On one hand, the season that once looked special ended with the same record as last year, an apparent underachievement given all the NFL talent on the roster. On the other, at least now fans can put some distance between themselves and the nagging sensation that their team would have won it all had they just made the playoff.
Clemson, which beat Florida State earlier this year, trounced the Buckeyes, 31-0. And Alabama still looked like Alabama. The Wolverines may have been good enough to compete with those powerhouses, but they didn’t deliver a convincing enough performance to exacerbate those earlier losses.
The process of healing will still be arduous, though. In a year Michigan played eight home games and won on the road at Michigan State, the Wolverines didn’t improve in the win column. A team that started 10 seniors on defense and was among the best in the nation in nearly every category missed the playoff. Unless a better team comes along soon, those facts will sting in five years.
But for now, fans can take some solace in closing the door on the 2016 season. The Wolverines found a defensive coordinator who could keep the unit close to the nation’s best for the foreseeable future. They found a capable redshirt sophomore quarterback with two more years of eligibility and a penchant for bouncing back from struggles. More than anything, they found out that a 10-win season isn’t satisfying anymore.
It has been a long time since a 10-win season was a disappointment in Ann Arbor. This season, as promising as it started, ends looking and feeling like that. And as odd as it may be for Michigan and its fans, that’s reason for relief.