The Michigan Wolverines shocked everyone last season by becoming the first team to begin the season unranked and make the College Football Playoff (CFP). Head coach Jim Harbaugh and the team were left for dead after a disastrous 2020 season, but rose like the Undertaker to throw the rest of the Big Ten off the top of Hell In a Cell.
Expectations have varied for the Wolverines entering the 2022 season. Some pundits are calling last season an “outlier” or even going a misstep further from the truth to call it a “fluke.” If you want to say that of the Ohio State outcome, sure, you’re wrong, but sure. But to say that of the season is insulting to those of us with the power of sight and short-term memory.
The Wolverines averaged 9.4 wins-per-season from 2015-19, so if any season were an outlier — for numerous reasons — it was 2020. Until the Covid-impacted season, Michigan’s worst year was an eight-win campaign in 2017 that was one quarterback injury away from running the triple option.
Meanwhile, Penn State and James Franklin can put up an 11-11 record over the last two seasons — not to mention Franklin’s career 1-7 record against Ohio State that gets mentioned as much as the word ‘talented’ at a David Guetta concert compared to the inundation of constant reminders Harbaugh faces about his record — and still get picked as the only other team along with the Buckeyes that can compete with the SEC powerhouses. Give me a break, Penn State gets more mileage out of 2016 than Kyrie Irving. I digress.
The month of August is the month of optimism for every team in the country. Everyone knows the major players, but several other teams are looking to replicate what the Wolverines did last year and rise from the ashes to reach the promised land.
Miami (FL) is hoping for a resurrection under new head coach Mario Cristobal and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ personable style of recruiting. LSU looks to be reinvigorated under Brian Kelly’s myriad of accents, and Nebraska is confident it can attain that elusive fourth win.
But what is the next step for the Michigan Wolverines fresh off their first trip to the CFP? History suggests this is only the beginning with teams averaging 10 wins following their first CFP appearance over the next three seasons, with a median win total of 31.
I looked at the three subsequent seasons after every team’s first trip to the CFP, tallied up their win totals and broke them up into four clubs. Where will Michigan land?
The LSU Nose Dive Club (2019, 11 wins*)
It has only been two years since LSU’s first trip to the CFP, one of which included the Covid-shortened 2020 season, so this tier is LSU’s and LSU’s alone.
After their first appearance in 2019 capped off an incredible undefeated season led by quarterback Joe Burrow and one of the best offenses in the history of college football, everything fell apart to the tune of 5-5 and 6-7 records. Several players and coaches left the program for promotional opportunities, while head coach Ed Orgeron was unceremoniously fired less than two years later.
We’ll see if Brian Kelly can right the ship and restore pride to Baton Rouge. “Go Tigers.”
The Roller Coaster Club (2014 Oregon, 20 wins; 2015 Michigan State, 20 wins)
Still coasting off the success of previous head coach Chip Kelly when it made the CFP, Oregon quickly began to slide under the guidance of Mark Helfrich. Following their appearance not only in the CFP, but also in the National Championship game, the Ducks began to slide posting records of 9-4 and 4-8, before Helfirch was fired and replaced with Willie Taggart.
Taggart restored the program to slightly above mediocrity (7-5) before bolting for the Florida State job and leaving the program to Mario Cristobal. Similarly to the Ducks, Michigan State rode the ups and downs before sinking back into the middle.
Following a magical 2015 season, Michigan State became the only team to post a losing record one year after making the CFP when the Spartans went 3-9. Then head coach Mark Dantonio would get up to 10 wins in 2017 before regressing to 7-6 in his penultimate season in East Lansing.
The Downward Spiral Club (2014 Florida State, 27 wins; 2016 Washington, 28 wins)
Both Florida State and Washington would post back-to-back 10-win seasons following their first trips to the CFP before steadily declining in a similar manner.
Jimbo Fisher’s eighth and final year as head coach in Tallahassee saw the Seminoles struggle to win seven games in 2017 before Fisher was forced to resign. Since Fisher’s departure, Florida State has had more head coaches (two) than winning seasons (zero).
Washington has endured a similar path as the Seminoles — head coach Chris Peterson’s final season in Seattle (three years after their first CFP berth) saw the Huskies fight to eight wins before replacing him twice over. At least the Huskies have one winning season to show for it.
The Blue Bloods Club (2014 Ohio State, 35 wins; 2015 Oklahoma, 35 wins; 2017 Georgia, 31 wins; 2018 Notre Dame, 32 wins)
The most common outcome for teams following their first CFP appearance is sustained success at just over a 10-win average per season.
After winning the inaugural CFP, Ohio State would return to the tournament two years later and has not slowed down its pace under head coach Ryan Day, reaching the CFP in two of his first three seasons (2019, 2020).
Oklahoma enjoyed a bevy of success under the recently-departed Lincoln Riley by reaching the CFP in three of the next four years following their first appearance. We’ll see if new Sooners head coach Brent Venables can maintain the competitive standard.
While competitive and never losing more than three games, Georgia was unable to reach the CFP for four years. But in their return last year, the Bulldogs capped off one of the greatest defensive seasons in history and claimed their first National Championship since 1980.
Notre Dame, everyone’s least favorite independent football program, has not lost more than two games in a season since its 2018 trip to the playoff. The Irish returned to the CFP in 2020 and will look to continue their success under new head coach Marcus Freeman.
The 40 Club (2014 Alabama, 41 wins; 2015 Clemson, 41 wins)
More exclusive than the real life 40/40 Club, reaching this level requires a consistency even out of the reach of Jay-Z.
Forty-one wins in three years is ridiculous; a standard of winning 13.7 games in each season.
Alabama is currently in the midst of the most dominant stretch of success in the modern era of college football. The Crimson Tide have only won fewer than 11 games twice since Nick Saban took over in 2007 and those both took place in the first four years of his tenure (2007, 2010).
While only a few years behind, Clemson has averaged 11.9 wins per season since 2011 (Dabo Swinney’s third year as head coach) and even overcame an embarrassingly anemic offense last season to only bottom-out to 10 wins.
So where will Michigan fall in these tiers? Time will tell, but expect greatness.