Michigan in the CFP: 1990 to 2007

The CFP does nothing if not get people talking.  No matter what is decided, somebody somewhere will feel slighted.  The system’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  4 teams get in, but only 4 teams get in.  All is decided and finalized, and questions will still linger.

The question I am posing is what would have been had the CFP existed before 2014?  In a previous post I asked that question about the Bo Schembechler era.  Now I will ask the question of the Gary Moeller/Lloyd Carr era.  How many times would UM have made the CFP from 1990 to 2007?

Bo Schembechler retired after the 1989 season, but he did not leave the talent cupboard bare in Ann Arbor.  Michigan entered 1990 with high hopes, and even became the #1 team in the country for a spell.  Still, losing two in a row to Michigan State and Iowa killed any hopes of being considered a top team, even though they won their bowl game and finished #7 in the country.

1991 would have been the first season Michigan would have been in the playoff hunt.  Their only loss in the regular season was to a very good Florida State team, which finished #5 because of 2 losses in a row to Florida and Miami.  The state of Florida was no doubt the mecca of college football in the 1990s.

#4 Michigan actually achieved a CFP match-up with #2 Washington, who crushed the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl 34-14, and split the National Championship with Miami.  Talk about a year created for a playoff!  #1 Miami defeated #11 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, but with a CFP they may have had them play Florida, before that winner went on to play Washington for the National Championship.  The CFP was created to end the split National Championship conversation.

1992 would have been intriguing, because Michigan went undefeated, won 9 games, but they also had 3 ties.  The rankings at the end of the regular season had them at #7.  Miami was 11-0, and ranked #1.  Alabama was 12-0 and ranked #2 (and would defeat Miami to win the National Championship).  Florida State was #3 and 10-1 (their only loss to Miami).  Texas A&M was #4, and 12-0, with Notre Dame #5 and 9-1-1.  At #6 was Syracuse with a 9-2 record.  The question is whether Michigan could have somehow squeaked in to the top 4.  Not likely.  If the rankings held, Miami would have started off with Texas A&M, and Alabama would have played Florida State.  Notre Dame would have tried to argue its way into the picture, and since they beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, they had a legitimate claim.

Michigan would be silent again until 1997.  This was the last year of the Bowl Alliance, before the BCS took over.  Michigan and Nebraska both went undefeated, and each claimed a share of the National Championship.  Had the CFP been in place, instead of Washington State, Michigan would have played #4 Florida State, who only lost a heartbreaker to Florida at the Swamp, 32-29.  That FSU team was #1 going into that game, which was the last of the season.  This would have been no gimme for Michigan by any stretch.  #2 Nebraska destroyed #3 Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl, securing their place in the final game.  This one would have been decided on the field, as it should have been all along, but putting this season in light of the CFP would have diminished Michigan’s chances of winning the National Championship, because they would have to beat both Florida State and Nebraska.  The benefit would have been that with these games, there would have been no debate going forward who the best team in the country was.

The 1999 Michigan Wolverines finished the bowl season ranked #5, but they ended the regular season ranked #8.  Wisconsin would have reached the CFP as the #4 team in the country, and they would have matched up with #1 Florida State.  #2 Virginia Tech and #3 Nebraska would have made up the other CFP game.

The 2003 Wolverines would be next to make the mythological CFP.  Fortunately they had the perfect #1 vs. #4 match-up, as the #4 ranked 10-2 Wolverines played the #1 ranked 11-1 USC Trojans.  USC won 28-14.  The #2 vs. #3 game also happened.  In this case #2 Oklahoma played #3 LSU, with LSU winning 21-14.  This should have set up a USC vs. LSU championship game, but instead the National Championship was split between the two schools.  And, now we know why the BCS was a flawed system.

2004 would have been another great year for a playoff, with 5 teams finishing the regular season undefeated.  How would a committee have seeded USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah, and Louisville, with 10-1 Texas (after having lost to Oklahoma), also hanging around.  If properly seeded, I think the CFP would have chosen USC vs. Utah (or Texas) in the #1 vs. #4 game, while Auburn and Oklahoma would have played in the #2 vs. #3 game.  Fortunately this season would have also been decided on the field, instead of Auburn fans being upset that their team never had a chance to prove their ability, and finishing #2 in the country despite being undefeated.  Michigan only factored in the season by losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl, but they were ranked #13 at the time.

2005 would have brought about the question of whether two Big Ten teams would make the CFP, since Penn State and Ohio State were ranked #3 and #4 respectively at the end of the year.  This is the one season everyone agrees that the BCS did its job, by matching up undefeated #1 USC against undefeated #2 Texas, in perhaps the greatest BCS Championship game ever.  It would have been a shame to make these two teams jump through another hoop before playing each other.  This begs the question in my mind of whether we should forgo the semi-final games when there are two teams who are clearly above all the others in a season.  Because money is on the line, I know the answer to that is a definite no.

In 2006 the Big Ten would have undoubtedly had two teams in the playoff.  Ohio State and Michigan were #1 and #2 in the country when they met for this year’s version of “The Game.”  After a thriller, Ohio State prevailed 41-38.  The main question was whether Michigan would remain #2 or drop to #3.  In the end, Florida jumped Michigan as the #2 team, and went on to trounce the Buckeyes in the BCS Championship.  Michigan lost the Rose Bowl to #8 USC.  If the rankings had held, Ohio State would have played #4 LSU in the CFP semi-finals, and Michigan would have played Florida (with no need of Urban Meyer whining to the media about Florida being more deserving of the #2 ranking).  What is interesting is that these bowl match-ups actually happened the following year, and Michigan beat Florida, while LSU beat OSU.  Still, those were different teams and different years, and we cannot be certain how these would have gone.  History shows the Gators as the National Champion of 2006.

Likely CFP berths:
1991
1997
2003
2006

Near misses:
1992

What can be concluded from this is that Michigan had a significant drop-off after the retirement of Bo Schembechler, who ended the regular season in the top 5 eleven times in his 21 years as coach.  Although four Top 4 finishes is nothing to scoff at, Michigan did not live up to its massive expectations during the Gary Moeller/Lloyd Carr era.  Here’s hoping Jim Harbaugh can get the Wolverines rolling and back on track again.

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