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:
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?”.