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:

Near misses:

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.


Bo and the CFP

What could have been if Bo Schembechler, who never won a National Championship, had the benefits of the College Football Playoff during his tenure as coach?  Obviously it’s impossible to say, and given his less than stellar bowl record, he may never have won a National Championship even with the implementation of the CFP, but isn’t this why we created the CFP: to talk about it?  Let’s take a look at the history books.

Bo took over Michigan in the 1969 season, and achieved one of the greatest upsets in college football history, by beating #1 Ohio State at the Big House 24-12.  This game kept Ohio State out of the Rose Bowl, but in all likelihood, had the CFP existed, the loss would not have kept the Buckeyes out of the CFP, as they still finished the regular season #4.  Such is the charmed life of Ohio State, right Penn State?

Bo’s first real look at a National Championship was following the 1971 season.  Michigan went 11-0 in the regular season, finishing #3 in the polls behind Nebraska and Alabama, both of whom were also undefeated.  This was a tailor-made season for the CFP.  Nebraska and Alabama squared off against each other, and Michigan played Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  If Michigan wins the game, they have had an outside shot at a National Championship, but alas, Rod Garcia ended all of these hopes with a field goal at the end of the game to beat the Wolverines.  What if Michigan had played #2 Alabama instead, with the winner facing off against the Nebraska v. Oklahoma winner?  Who knows?  I look at this season as the one that got away from Bo.  He would never get closer to that elusive National Championship.

In 1972, Michigan was the #3 team in the country until they lost to Ohio State in Columbus, 14-11.  This game is famous because Bo decided to go for the win instead of the tie, which would have still sent his Wolverines to the Rose Bowl.  Ohio State made a goal-line stand on fourth and 1 to end the game.  Would Bo have made a different decision if the CFP was in place?  Again, impossible to say, but given that he left the Rose Bowl on the field to try to beat his rival, I don’t think the CFP would have been any more of a carrot.

1973 is the season every Wolverine fan wants a do-over for.  This was the year of the famous 10-10 tie with Ohio State, followed by the Big Ten selection committee choosing Ohio State to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, even though by rights it was Michigan’s year to go.  After finishing 10-0-1, Michigan was left out of everything.  The real question is whether Michigan would have made the CFP this year as well?  No doubt, it would have been controversial.  Alabama was sitting at #1 with an 11-0 record.  Oklahoma was #2 with a 10-0-1 record (they tied USC, who at the time was #1 in the country, and ended the regular season #7).  Notre Dame was #3 with a 10-0 record, and then you had Ohio State and Michigan, each with a 10-0-1 record.  This would have been a year when the committee would have been discussing the importance of a “quality tie”.  It appears either Michigan or Ohio State would be on the outside looking in, with Bo Schembechler perhaps showing the same bitterness he did with the Big Ten committee.  Despite the changes, the results appear to be the same…

1974 looked similar 2016.  #2 Michigan went to Columbus to face #3 Ohio State.  After jumping out to an early 10 point lead, Ohio State’s defense shuts down Michigan, and the Buckeyes eventually win a close game 12-10.  To end the regular season Oklahoma was ranked #1 with an 11-0 record.  They were never outside the top 3 for the season.  Alabama sat at #2, also with an 11-0 record.  Then you had 10-1 Ohio State, 10-1 Michigan, and 9-1-1 USC.  Would the CFP have let 2 Big Ten teams get in over the Pac-8 Champion?  Again it would be hard to say.

1976 is what a playoff game would have looked like for Michigan.  After ending the regular season with a win over Ohio State, the Wolverines were #2 in the country.  They would face #3 USC.  The only change today may have been the venue, since Pasadena is nearly a home game for the Trojans, who were the lower ranked team.  No matter, Michigan lost this one 14-6.  Pitt went 12-0, and was the clear National Champion.

1977 would have been intriguing as well.  After defeating the Buckeyes 14-6, the 10-1 Wolverines cracked the top 4 in the AP.  The difficult choice for the committee would have been between Michigan and Notre Dame for that #4 spot.  Both had a bad loss to an unranked team.  Texas sat at #1 with an 11-0 record.  Oklahoma was #2, with a 10-1 record – their only loss being to #1 Texas.  #3 sat Alabama, also with a 10-1 record.  If this held, Michigan would have played Texas, likely in the Cotton Bowl, while Alabama and Oklahoma squared off in the Sugar or Orange Bowl.  Since Michigan lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl, their chances did not look good against Texas.  As a side note, Notre Dame jumped from #5 to #1 after they defeated Texas.  What would you gain with a playoff, and what would you miss?  Always interesting water cooler talk.

1978 appears to be another year when Michigan would have been on the outside looking in.  Despite a 10-1 record, and beating Ohio State, the Wolverines ended up #5 in the polls.  1 through 4 were: Penn State, Alabama, USC, and Oklahoma.  Alabama defeated Penn State 14-7 in the Sugar Bowl, which may have occurred even with a playoff, but first Alabama would have had to play USC, and Penn State would have gone against Oklahoma.

1980 would have seen Michigan one away from the playoff as well.  They finished the regular season #5 in the country, after dropping 2 of their first 3 games, only to become perhaps the most dominant team in the country.  Still, with a 9-2 record, they ended the season looking up to #1 and 10-0 Georgia, #2 and 10-1 Florida State, #3 and 10-1 Pitt, and #4 and 9-2 Oklahoma.  The post-script here is that Michigan finally won their first bowl and Rose Bowl for Bo Schembechler, by defeating Washington 23-6.

Michigan would have to wait until 1985 get back in to the top 5 at season’s end.  Again, however, this would have placed them one off the playoff picture.  Michigan was 9-1-1, having lost to then #1 Iowa, and tying Illinois (!) 3-3. Iowa won the Big Ten this year, and finished the regular season #4, with a 10-1 record.  Oklahoma was ranked #3 with a 10-1 record, Miami was #2 with a 10-1 record, and Penn State was alone with an 11-0 record.  Michigan beat #7 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, and ended the season #2 in the country, Bo’s highest ranking after the bowls.

1986 would have seen Michigan back in the playoff picture, and this would have gotten interesting.  This year featured the famous #1 vs. #2 matchup between Miami and Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl (which #2 Penn State won 14-10).  Would this game have still occurred if Penn State had to go through #3 Oklahoma?  Could Miami have beaten #4 Michigan?  It would have been fun to watch.

1989, Bo’s last season, would have also been his last attempt to win it all in a playoff.  Michigan dropped their first game of the season, 24-19 to Notre Dame, who was #1 in the country at the time.  After that, the Wolverines went undefeated until the Rose Bowl.  They were ranked #3.  Colorado was #1 in the country, and they actually played, and lost to #4 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.  Miami, which was #2 in the country ended up with the National Championship, after defeating #7 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  With if #3 Michigan played them instead?  That would have been a fun game to watch.

After examining these years, and playing the inevitable, and impossible, game of “what if?”, it’s still difficult to see how Michigan could have won a National Championship for Bo Schembechler, given the chance.  Still, in the “that’s why they play the game” world we inhabit, it would have been intriguing to watch these great Michigan teams fight for the respect they never quite achieved.

Possible CFP berths:

Near misses:

It appears Schembechler would have coached in at least 5 CFP games, with the possibility of an additional 2.  It also appears Michigan would have been in the first cut for 4 to 6 other CFPs.  Unfortunately, there was no CFP in Bo’s day, so all we can do is talk about “what if?”.