After going 13-0 this season, the Michigan Wolverines are tied for the fifth-most College Football Playoff appearances in this being the 10th season of the format. Every single team tied with them or ahead of them on that list has won at least one national title in that span except for one: the Oklahoma Sooners.
Like Michigan, Oklahoma went to three-straight College Football Playoffs from 2018-2020; its other appearance was in 2016, the second year of the CFP’s existence. In three of those seasons, the Sooners lost to the championship runner-up each time. However, their most recent was an embarrassing loss to a Joe Burrow-led LSU team that was one of the best in college football history.
There were some similarities among those Oklahoma teams and the Michigan teams that we have seen over the last few seasons. The first is the mindset heading into the semifinal rounds.
Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban, by far the most successful coach in the CFP era, commented in his press conference this week about what his eight appearances have taught him:
Yeah, I think early on in preparation for these games when you have this long span of time, we probably practiced too much, and by the time we got to the game, our players were probably mentally and physically maybe not in peak performance.
So as we’ve transitioned through the years, we’ve kind of learned how much you need to practice and how you can psychologically get them in the right place at the right time. But some of the teams that you play in the playoffs, none of them are not going to be really, really good teams. I think the way you prepare and compete for games like this is — and the psychological disposition you have about how difficult it’s going to be is very important to every team. Hopefully, our team has the right disposition because they’re going to play a great Michigan team.
In the first year that Michigan made the College Football Playoff, several leaders of the team were talking about the accomplishment that just happened. Cade McNamara spoke about how happy he was for Jim Harbaugh to win a Big Ten Championship. Andrew Vastardis, the starting center, was focused on the haters who said they only had a 2 percent chance of winning the Big Ten Championship.
Oklahoma had a similar thing happen, specifically revolving around Baker Mayfield. This Washington Post story highlights how Mayfield wasn’t focused on the CFP, but instead the story. The Sooners would face a Clemson team who beat them 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl a year prior. Mayfield said the team watched the game to listen to the announcers ripping on them for motivation. He also attacked the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal for a recent story about his transfer from Texas Tech and took a shot at TCU Coach Gary Patterson for how he recruited him out of high school.
The Sooners would lose to Oklahoma again, 37-17, in an Orange Bowl contest that wasn’t particularly close. Likewise, the Wolverines got caught up in the moment of being in the CFP and were crushed by Georgia, 34-11. In both of these situations, the much better football team indeed won, but these underdogs weren’t capable of even keeping it close.
Double or nothing
Moving to year two of Michigan’s run, new starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy admitted just as much after the Big Ten Championship win over Purdue saying, “Last year it was kind of the bright lights, everything was new, Big Ten Championship, College Football Playoff... Ultimately, this whole offseason it was about winning it. So at the end of the day, everything is great that happened today, but the job is not finished. We’ve got a lot bigger plans in mind.”
So the mentality of the team was in the right spot, but the team failed to perform against an inferior opponent that they were overlooking. Everyone had the No. 2 Wolverines slated for a rematch of the CFP game a year prior against the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs, as Michigan would be facing a TCU squad that a lot of the media said was lucky to be there. If Georgia were to lose to Ohio State, then it would have been The Game 2.0 between the Wolverines and Buckeyes. It was too easy to look past the Horned Frogs.
Michigan came out cocky running a “Philly Special” on 4th-and-2 on the opening drive of the game, and TCU kicked them in the mouth with a pick-six and a touchdown going up to 14-0 early in the game. The Wolverines played from behind and outside of their usual game plan for the rest of the contest, losing in a 51-45 shootout.
Oklahoma had a similar story in the 2018 CFP, the first year of head coach Lincoln Riley. Riley was the offensive coordinator of the team that made the playoffs in 2016, so this wasn’t his first rodeo. Mayfield would play in his second and final CFP in his three years as a starter on likely Oklahoma’s best team of its four appearances.
The Sooners overlooked No. 3 Georgia, but it happened much later in what became one of the greatest games of football ever played. No. 2 Oklahoma jumped to a 31-14 lead right before halftime and felt over-confident about winning far too early.
With under 10 seconds left, Oklahoma failed a squib kick that went right into the hands of someone on the front lines of the Georgia kick return. After one completion, the Bulldogs made it a two-score lead in the last second of the first half.
The Sooners' first five drives of the second half were punt, punt, punt, interception, punt, and Georgia took a 38-31 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. The game went into double-overtime, and Oklahoma missed a field goal, giving Georgia the ball as Sony Michel ran for the game-clinching touchdown, 54-48.
Like Saban said, every team you play in the College Football Playoff is really, really, good. Both Oklahoma and Michigan fell victim to believing otherwise in their second stints.
Learning from history
The good news for the Wolverines is that both of those things happened, and in 2023, they have their best team of this run. Michigan returned so many key players like Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards, Kris Jenkins, several members of the offensive line, and others that could have gone pro or transferred elsewhere.
Instead, Michigan has to prove that the “those who stay will be champions” mantra exists in Ann Arbor. Oklahoma was not as lucky as Baker Mayfield, star left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., and stud tight end Mark Andrews all left for the NFL Draft. Kyler Murray was waiting in the wings and won the Heisman the next season with the help of remaining players like CeeDee Lamb, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, and Kenneth Murray.
Murray’s success is why the Sooners were capable of getting back, but they were never good enough to get past the No. 4 spot in the rankings. Oklahoma ran into a No. 1 Alabama team that went up 28-0 early in the second quarter against them, and then faced that LSU team with Joe Burrow the next season who had seven first-half touchdowns. Lincoln Riley left the team, and Oklahoma hasn’t been back to the dance since.
The final lesson this Michigan team can learn is that if you’re the best, you have to play like the best, because this is finite. There is a chance the Wolverines look a lot different next year. Several leaders on both sides of the ball are going to the next level. The conference is expanding to add four more powerhouses in Washington, USC, Oregon, and UCLA. And who knows what happens with Jim Harbaugh as he continues to flirt with the NFL. They’ll have the benefit of an expanded playoff system moving forward, but who knows the next time there will be this good of a team coming out of Ann Arbor.
Michigan has all the right pieces to win it all this year. They are one of two undefeated teams, they have the experienced quarterback, the top-ranked defense, a historically great head coach. The expectation from day one of training camp has been a national championship. That was echoed after beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten Championship over Iowa.
Jim Harbaugh said this team still has more to accomplish. Corum echoed Kobe Bryant saying that “the job is not finished. We set these goals at the beginning of the season, and we hold ourselves to such a high standard, we must accomplish those goals.”
Mike Sainristil jumped in with his thoughts about what’s next: “The way we go about our goals is you put everything into the next goal, and there’s work — there’s more work to put in and more ways to get better.”
This team is not content, and they know that Saban’s Alabama squad is going to pose a threat while also understanding that Michigan has earned the No. 1 team moniker.
“We’re not going to go in there saying, ‘Oh, this is Alabama, a team that’s won and won and won and won. No. We’re that team.” pic.twitter.com/pgIg9809TX— Austin Meek (@byAustinMeek) December 3, 2023
To avoid a trajectory that could be similar to Oklahoma, Michigan needs to take the talent that they have on the field with what they have learned over these three years to do what the Sooners could not: win it all. Because opportunities like this one do not come around often.