Michigan’s Unique National Championship Forged From Adversity, Past College Football Playoff Failures

HOUSTON — One year ago, Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy stood on the sidelines at the Fiesta Bowl and watched purple confetti fall on State Farm Stadium in Arizona after TCU stole a bid to the 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship.

“We’ll be back,” McCarthy said in the postgame press conference. “I promise that.” And then he went out.

It was the first loss of McCarthy’s career at Michigan and a loss that resonated with the team. Since the team’s first meeting in January since the Fiesta Bowl loss, Michigan has been different. Training was more intense. The connection was stronger. A number of NFL draft-eligible players returned for another year of eligibility in search of the program’s first national championship in more than 25 years.

Three hundred and seventy-three days later, No. 1 Michigan is the national champion for the first time in the BCS or College Football Playoff era after a 34-13 victory over No. 2 Washington.

“To achieve things like that, you have to go to those dark places where everything isn’t great,” McCarthy said after the win. “Just the reaction, the urgency after the last game last year, it was different. I knew it. I knew the guys coming back. I had a feeling we would be where we are now.”

This durability was stress-tested during a truly one-of-a-kind run. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was twice suspended for a total of six games (meaning he only coached 60% of his team’s season) due to NCAA and Big Ten investigations into illegal scouting and prohibited recruiting and coaching during the dead period of COVID-19. The last time the coach of a team that won the AP national championship appeared in fewer than nine all-program games was in 1952 at Michigan State. The difference? The Spartans played a nine-game season, not a 15-game slate.

Michigan’s journey to an undefeated title hit another hurdle in early November when, hours before the Penn State game, Michigan players and administrators learned via Twitter that Harbaugh had been suspended by the Big Ten for violating the league’s sportsmanship policy amid of sign theft scandal. This led to lawsuits and infighting with Michigan’s own conference, leaving innocent players in the crosshairs.

“At certain times, we couldn’t even turn on our social media without being seen on the news,” defenseman Kenneth Grant said. “It was so crazy. I personally didn’t even want to be on social media anymore.”

Before the Penn State game, the players met and decided enough was enough. The program was locked. No matter who ran the program on an interim basis, whether it was offensive coordinator Sharon Moore or running backs coach Mike Hart (or even safeties coach Jay Harbaugh), there was only one constant: excellence. The Wolverines were the only team in college football to win every game on their schedule and beat four of the top 10 teams in the final CFP rankings to get there.

Early in the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship, Michigan faced a season-defining moment. The Wolverines jumped out to an early lead, but it dissipated. Washington pulled within one score when Michigan got the ball back with 9:15 left in the game.

From that point on, Michigan pounced like a leopard in one of the nature documentaries Harbaugh often shows his teams before big games. McCarthy found tight end Colston Loveland for a 41-yard catch-and-run, setting a school-record 26th touchdown in a season for Blake Corum. On the next drive, senior defensive back Mike Sainristil caught an errant pass from Michael Penix Jr. and returned it 81 yards deep into the red zone, a game that would be played for the next 100 years in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Two plays later, Corum got touchdown number 27 and the rout was complete.

“We’ve played in a lot of big games, we’ve played in a lot of close games,” Loveland said. “We have a lot of experience in close games. We have a lot of older guys that have been there. They know how everything works and what it takes to win.”

Sixteen starters return from Michigan’s 2022 Fiesta Bowl team Fourteen starters in Monday’s CFP title game against Georgia in the 2021 Orange Bowl semifinals, a 34-11 loss. This team’s DNA is forged in the fire of failure.

“That’s the mindset we had,” Sainristil said. “We just really wanted to get this thing done.”

On a stormy night in Houston, when the roof leaked and lightning flashed, Michigan won its first national championship since 1997 – the first of the title game era. This time, when the confetti fell, it was corn and blue. Instead of standing alone as a witness, McCarthy was surrounded by his family and teammates, raising the elusive oblong trophy.

“No high school has ever reached a thousand wins,” Harbaugh said. “No other college has reached a thousand wins. No other professional team has reached 1,000 wins. University of Michigan. To hit 1,000 wins and win the national championship in the same year, man, it doesn’t get much better than that. I’d really ask you that.

“Who better to have it than us?” Harbaugh continued. “Nobody!”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *