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Breaking down Michigan’s path to a College Football Playoff berth

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Michigan is set up for success ... if it can handle its beast of a schedule

Air Force v Michigan

Everyone in Michigan football and everyone around Michigan football knows it — this is the year Michigan and Jim Harbaugh need to get some results.

Ever since bringing Harbaugh home, Michigan has craved the kind of success that has come to the program back in the days of Lloyd Carr and Bo Schembechler. While there have been flashes of brilliance — the Wolverines started 9-0 in 2016 and have brought in elite recruits like Rashan Gary and Donovan Peoples-Jones — Michigan has struggled against Michigan State and hasn’t beaten Ohio State once under Harbaugh, despite an abundance of talent.

The best thing Michigan can do to quench everyone’s thirst for a good season is to make the College Football Playoff, but it won’t be easy. According to the College Football Playoff official website, the following are the most significant criteria that the selection committee uses:

  • Conference championships won
  • Strength of schedule
  • Head-to-head competition
  • Other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance

Maize n Brew breaks down all the potential paths and pitfalls to a Michigan playoff berth, using Michigan’s 2018 schedule as a guide.

ESPN

The good news for Michigan? As it looks right now, they’ll undoubtedly have an impressive SOS by season’s end. The bad news? It sort of speaks for itself —Michigan play a lot of, well, really good teams.

The “College Gameday” games: at Ohio State, at Notre Dame, at Michigan State

Michigan’s three toughest games are all on the road, and against its three big rivals in Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. While some sportsbooks have the Wolverines favored against the Fighting Irish and Spartans, ESPN’s Football Power Index is not as optimistic, giving Michigan barely a 30 percent chance to win in South Bend. Michigan is much better set up matchup-wise against a Michigan State team that doesn’t have the raw talent the Wolverines do, but they are also 2-8 in their last 10 games against “little brother”.

In all likelihood, the path to winning the Big Ten East will go through Columbus and Ohio State. Sure, Michigan hung tough with the Buckeyes despite some horrendous quarterback play. And sure, Michigan likely won’t have to deal with that as much this season. Regardless, Ohio State is the favorite in the Big Ten for a reason, and its defensive line vs. the Wolverines’ offensive line is as big a mismatch as Michigan will see all season.

While the narrative might not be as rosy if Harbaugh and company drop their opener or their big rivalry games, two wins against any of these teams will be a huge boon to the Wolverines’ resume in the eyes of the selection committee. Games like these are likely to be primetime games on ABC or ESPN, and winning them would give Michigan extra oomph in the eyes of playoff voters.

The “nail-biter” games: vs. Wisconsin, vs. Penn State

If Michigan played either team above on the road, these games would probably be in the tier above. Wisconsin and Penn State were both ranked in the top 10 at various points last year, and both teams handed Michigan disheartening losses. With such a slim margin for error with the group above though, a loss to either team would be extremely damaging to the Wolverines’ playoff hopes.

For all its struggles last year, Michigan was never truly out of any home game. FPI has faith in the Wolverines to perform similarly or even better at home this season, favoring them in every game within the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium. The Badgers had erratic quarterback play last year just like the Wolverines, but sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor and an offensive line laden with potential All-Americans will give Michigan’s highly-touted defensive line its stiffest challenge of the year. Penn State will bring back Trace McSorley and adds one of the nation’s top recruiting classes to a strong defense.

Here’s the good part of the brutal schedule for the Wolverines: as it stands now, wins in these matchups are still definite resume boosters. It’s likely that all of the teams mentioned so far will be ranked somewhere in the top 15 of the AP Poll. In potential tiebreaker situations, Michigan is putting itself ahead of teams in conferences like the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC, which don’t project to be as well rounded as the Big Ten, and specifically the Big Ten East.

The trap game with tiebreaker implications: at Northwestern

They’re not called the Cardiac Cats for nothing, after all.

While the Wildcats started slow last year, they finished the season 10-3 on an eight-game winning streak, including a thrilling win over Michigan State at home. Northwestern finished 7-1 at home despite Ryan Field having a reputation for being one of the worse home-field advantages in college football. Again, Michigan definitely has the more talented team, but Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has proven himself to get good work from unlikely players; sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher led all first-year FBS players with 113 tackles.

Provided that every other part of a resume is complete, the selection committee has shown it is willing to look at upsets on a case-by-case basis. When combing through the playoff spots last year, the committee had to evaluate three teams with questionable losses: Oklahoma (vs. Iowa State), Clemson (at Syracuse) and Ohio State (at Iowa). All three teams won their conference tournaments and notched many quality wins, so what was the difference?

On paper, Clemson’s loss to Syracuse is by far the worst loss of any of the three. However, Clemson did lose quarterback Kelly Bryant to injury in that game, which the committee clearly factored, still putting Clemson as the No. 1 seed. Since Oklahoma beat Ohio State head-to-head, the Sooners had to be ranked ahead of the Buckeyes. Ohio State was close to a berth, but voters couldn’t just overlook a 31-point loss to the unranked Hawkeyes, opting to put in an 11-1 Alabama team with a weaker schedule but no garish losses, according to Kirby Hocutt.

So how does that apply to Michigan if Northwestern is the decent-to-good team it projects as?

If the Wolverines lose in Evanston, they are probably still alive in the playoff race. But they still likely need to win the Big Ten and probably sweep the first three games above, at the very least.

The “kiss your playoff hopes goodbye with a loss” games: vs. Western Michigan, vs. Southern Methodist, vs. Nebraska, vs. Maryland, at Rutgers, vs. Indiana

No playoff team should lose a game to any of those teams at home, and as for Rutgers, this happened the last time Michigan traveled to New Brunswick.

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If the Wolverines can make it through the gauntlet of a schedule and shoulder the burden of heightened expectations, they should have one of the best resumes of any team in the NCAA. The Big Ten is arguably the strongest conference in college football, and the Wolverines have the right combination of defensive production and offensive talent on paper to enamor the committee.