Michigan football: Who has it better than them? Not many anymore

by | Dec 5, 2022 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Self-help experts will say how others see you is not as important as how you see yourself.

They never voted in a college football poll.

Michigan football finished its Big Ten campaign with a perfect record and a championship, a perfect record overall, and a No. 2 seeding in the College Football Playoff, without anyone pointing fingers or asking why.

In doing so, they have moved to a perception level that is not common in these parts, unless by “these parts” you mean Columbus, Ohio.

That’s right. For the first time in a very long time, Michigan football is being looked at by the rest of the country the way folks in Michigan once looked at, say, Georgia or Clemson football, namely, with envy, and as a potential worthy king of the sport.

That may sound strange. That may feel strange. Even Michigan fans may privately whisper, “I don’t know if we’re THAT good.”

But that’s the old “you’re never a hero in your hometown” syndrome. Outside of this state, people are impressed. Sure, nervous Michigan fans may fret that Big Ten competition isn’t the same as SEC competition, that the talent and depth of southern schools is in a different category than the Midwest.

And maybe some of that’s true. And maybe it’s not this year. We watched Alabama lose twice and miss the tournament, despite Nick Saban stumping shamelessly for his team on national TV. Clemson is an also-ran this year. LSU and Notre Dame each have four losses.

What’s that mantra teams always use when they reach new heights that no one expected?

“Why not us?”

Michigan has become THAT team.


Look how far they’ve come

“We really weren’t shooting for that national championship last year,” J.J. McCarthy told the media after U-M learned it will play TCU in the national semifinal on New Year’s Eve. “It was kind of ‘beat Ohio State, win a Big Ten championship.’ But this year, we’re shooting for it. We’re gonna go get it.”

That’s the kind of thing we’re used to Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State players saying. “Only a national championship will satisfy.” For U-M, this represents a new plateau.

It’s been a really fast climb.

Consider where this program was two years ago, stumbling through a COVID-shortened 2020 season with just two wins against four losses, with fans thanking the medical gods that the Ohio State game was canceled.

The year before, in 2019, Jim Harbaugh’s crew had gone 9-4, needing overtime to beat Army — Army? — and getting thumped by Ohio State and Alabama in consecutive games.

At that point, nobody was looking at national prominence. They were more worried about local prominence.

But things have changed. And by change, we don’t mean “there’s a new iPhone” change. More like “did you hear about this thing called the iPhone?” change.

Michigan has reinvented itself. Harbaugh stopped looking for greener grass over the horizon, reconfigured his staff, recommitted to a smashmouth running game, and found himself a quarterback that doesn’t feel like a placeholder for someone better.

All those moves have led to a 13-0 season, never achieved before in Ann Arbor, and a legitimate shot at a national title game. If you don’t believe me, ask the oddsmakers. They already have U-M as a 9.5 point favorite over TCU.

Even before Saturday’s Big Ten championship game, national voices were singing new Michigan’s praises following the Ohio State victory:

“(Against Ohio State) Michigan was Meryl Streep, effortlessly slipping into a new role, cast against type and playing the part perfectly,” said ESPN.

Sports Illustrated crowed: “Michigan is in charge now.”

And CBS said: “Who’s your daddy, Buckeyes?”

Ouch, Ryan Day.

In college football, it ain’t how you look, it’s how you look to others.

Real reason to be confident

“Please, please, bring it on,” McCarthy told the media about a possible rematch against Ohio State, a sentence that will surely make the Columbus bulletin boards.

But if the idea of the Buckeyes getting into the final four on Sunday bothered you (for me, it took some of the joy out of Michigan beating them; you wanted that win to end Ohio State’s season, not nudge it) well, McCarthy doesn’t seem bothered. He seems thrilled.

“(It) would be truly a blessing if we get a shot to play those boys again,” he said.

That positivity, that confidence, is part of what’s crafting this most impressive of U-M seasons. Think about it. They’ve had challenges. Tough road games. Injuries. But the Wolverines — and their coaching staff — have been able to steady their ship in the roughest waters. Their halftime locker rooms are like a trip to Lourdes.

Against Ohio State, Michigan trailed at the half, 20-17.

They won, 45-23.

Against Purdue they led at half, 14-13.

They won, 43-22.

Their defense, which was supposed to take a hit with the NFL exodus of Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Daxton Hill, somehow has gotten better, giving up fewer yards and points, and showing a fourth quarter resilience that coaches can only dream about.

And the offense, which everyone predicted would fall apart with the injury to Blake Corum, has instead somehow morphed into a big-play machine, with guys like Donovan Edwards, Cornelius Johnson and McCarthy creating explosions.

As for Harbaugh? Well, it’s true, the past two years can’t erase the first six. That’s against the laws of nature.

But the past two years, he’s 25-2.

Pause to clear your throat.

These are the kind of qualities that fans around the country look at and say, “Man, those guys are good. Why can’t our team be like that?”

Michigan fans have often felt that way when it came to their postseason chances. But now the postseason is here, and the cleats are on the other feet.

Harbaugh keeps yelling to his team, “Who’s got it better than us?” The answer used to be at least a half a dozen other schools. Not anymore. The record speaks for itself. The CFP speaks for itself. The betting line speaks for itself.

Get used to it, Michigan fans. The eyes of the nation are on your program right now, and some of them are green with envy.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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