The Michigan Wolverines got over the hump last Monday by winning a College Football Playoff game. Now, just a day away from the National Championship against the Washington Huskies, the Wolverines were able to practice in a “normal” game-week schedule to prepare instead of waiting another month between games.
This may not seem like a significant difference, but for the players and coaches, repetition and staying on schedule brings a sense of normalcy in the face of pressure.
For the last two seasons, Michigan went into the games against Georgia and TCU riding highs of beating Ohio State and winning back-to-back Big Ten Championships. What the Wolverines couldn’t do, however, was be more prepared than their opponent when both teams had a month to analyze and game plan for one another.
This season, Jim Harbaugh and the coaching staff said they wanted to change up how they prepared for the first game to emphasize mental stability and not overanalyzing their opponent.
“We haven’t been in full pads as much, so it’s been a little bit of a toll off our body.” quarterback J.J. McCarthy said leading up to Alabama. “This first couple weeks, we really just took things kind of light, easing into things and you know it’s been kind of fresh every single day. I think that’s going to be the biggest difference, keeping it balanced.”
Whether it played a factor or not, Michigan broke its 0-2 record in semifinals games when it defeated the Crimson Tide on Monday. For the National Championship now, the team won’t have to wait a month to play Washington. After the Wolverines defeated Alabama, they flew back to Ann Arbor on Monday night to have a regular week of practice before flying to Houston on Friday.
“We decided to fly right back after the game in Pasadena,” Harbaugh said. “Felt like it saved us some hours, get back to Ann Arbor, get rest in our own beds. Allowed a lot of the guys to sleep in each day. And then Friday, traveled here. That approach really, it was the same — we try to duplicate an in-season week as far as the preparation, what we do on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. And it had been about a month since we had done it that way. But I think it was good.”
For the players, a full practice week without classes, sleeping in their own beds and breaking up film, lifting and run-throughs are much more preferred to four weeks of preparing for the same opponent.
“Having that whole month off can kind of throw off your timing a little bit,” Cornelius Johnson said. “You got guys going home, and holidays and finals and school and all these things different things going on within that month.”
Harbaugh told the media earlier this season he runs practice three times a week so the team can prioritize rest, which allows the players to feel fresh and ready for each game. With the Rose Bowl and National Championship taking place on a Monday, Michigan could run a similar schedule throughout the week.
By practicing for a month, players are susceptible to their thoughts and overthinking the moment in front of them. With a week to prepare for the biggest game of their lives, the team can focus on what’s immediately in front of them.
“Just going back into a normal game week, I think I like it better just because it’s like, it’s right there,” Rod Moore said. “You know, you’re not really being anxious and waiting up until the game all those days. Honestly, if you want to be honest, got kind of tired just practicing every day for three weeks.
“I’m just happy that we get to go out right on Monday, especially it being the National Championship and it being a regular week, we don’t have school either so you still get a lot more preparing time and I think it’s going to be a real good benefit to do that.”
Kris Jenkins added: “You definitely get a lot more preparation time for the first playoff game, but you’re definitely antsy. You just want to play that game. Like, 20 days into preparation you can’t wait to play that game. Now that we got seven days, it’s happening quicker, but we’re excited. It feels back on schedule.”
The Wolverines aren’t the only ones that tried to make the game week feel normal. Washington coach Kalen DeBoer preached the same message that Harbaugh recounted.
“I think with our Sugar Bowl being such a late game and us actually gaining hours going back to Seattle, we just stayed the night there,” DeBoer said. “Sent the coaching staff back early, right after the game, let them get to work on the plan. And then much like coach Harbaugh said, I think I felt the same way. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, trying to make it as familiar as we have, just like we’ve done the entire season, the last two years. Being in our own beds and being around our own facilities, just the efficiency that it allowed us to have. We felt that was the best-case scenario.”
Given this will be the last time we see a four-team CFP, both the Wolverines and Huskies won’t have to be faced with this timeline going forward. All they can do is trust their preparation and show the world what they got on Monday.