PASADENA – A year ago, when it rained in the fourth quarter of Penn State’s Rose Bowl victory over Utah, we figured it was just Mother Nature registering her objections to what figured to be the upcoming changes in Pasadena’s pride and joy.
On Monday, the sun shone brightly, that fourth quarter sunset was as spectacular as always, and Michigan and Alabama reminded us that even in a new era, there’s still room for good old-fashioned smash-mouth football.
It is a new era, in a world in which there will no longer be a Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl will always be part of the College Football Playoff (and, for at least the next couple of years, will continue to occupy its 2 p.m. slot on New Year’s Day).
But physicality will always be the basis for this sport. Monday, the No.1 seed Wolverines used it to outlast No. 4 Alabama. They tied the game with 1:34 to play, took a 27-20 lead on Blake Corum’s 17-yard touchdown run on the second play of overtime, and sealed the victory with one last stand, ganging up to stop Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe on a fourth-and goal run up the middle at the 3. Sophomore edge rusher Derrick Moore was officially credited with the tackle, but he had plenty of help.
“That was two teams that were really physical, really tough teams up front,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said afterward. “If ever a game was going to be won up front, it was going to be won with toughness and physicality, and our guys were just there in rhythm and got it done. Epic game. Epic game.”
It was, to be sure, traditional Big Ten football, the type we’ve seen so much of here in past New Year’s Days. Now, like it or not, this is going to be Big Ten territory and USC and UCLA had better be ready to compete in the trenches.
(And a thought comes to mind: Are the days of one or the other – and, in this century, mostly USC – playing a quasi-home game here on New Year’s Day about to be history?)
“The offense doesn’t go unless those big boys (linemen) go,” said Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who drove his team 75 yards in eight plays and 3:07 to Corum’s touchdown, with 1:34 left in the game. “This game was going to be won in the trenches, and I feel like they did a tremendous job taking out two great edge rushers, two great interior guys. … Those big boys, we owe it all to them.”
This College Football Playoff semifinal might have been a blast from the past, but it’s also a glimpse of the sport’s future.
The Big Ten and the SEC will be the overwhelmingly dominant forces in what now will be a Power Four, and while the SEC (4-4 in bowls) won four of its six head-to-head bowl meetings with the Big Ten (5-4 overall) over the last month, this was the one that meant the most.
It was also a reminder of how sublime college football can be when the game is meaningful. We’ve seen way too little of that over the last few weeks, with opt-outs and departures for the transfer portal turning many of the lesser bowls – officially grouped under the “Bowl Season” umbrella – into glorified exhibitions.
The other aspect of Monday’s semifinal? Michigan and its twice-suspended head coach are one victory away from total vindication, at least for now.
Remember, Harbaugh served a three-game suspension, imposed by the university, at the start of the 2023 season amid allegations of recruiting violations by the NCAA and reports that the coach refused to acknowledge that he had lied to or misled NCAA investigators. That suspension covered three non-conference games at the start of the season.
Then came the sign-stealing/illegal scouting allegations at midseason that prompted the Big Ten to suspend Harbaugh for the final three games of the regular season for violating the conference’s sportsmanship policy by what it called “conducting an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years, resulting in an unfair competitive advantage that compromised the integrity of competition.” The university originally intended to appeal the suspension but at the last minute dropped its appeal.
So when Harbaugh and his players use the term “adversity” – and it came up a number of times in Monday’s post-game news conference – they don’t mention that it was, in a sense, self-inflicted.
“It’s almost been an unfair advantage, all the things that the team has gone through,” Harbaugh said Monday evening, and consider the circumstances as you digest those words.
“We don’t care anymore. Don’t care what people say. Don’t care about anything that comes up. We just know we’re going to overcome it because it’s unanimous support from every single guy on the team.”
For the record: Michigan is 14-0 amid all of these controversies and adverse conditions. It’s the ninth school to win 14 or more games in the modern era, and it is poised to win its first national championship since 1997, when it went 12-0 and defeated Washington State – the Ryan Leaf-led Cougars – to finish atop the AP poll.
And Harbaugh’s skill at sliding past inconvenient matters came up one more time at the end of Monday’s presser, when Rachel Bachman of the Wall Street Journal asked him “what the chances are that the championship game might be your last one at Michigan.”
In other words, might the NFL – and particularly the Chargers – be in Harbaugh’s future?
“My future consists of a happy flight back to Ann Arbor, Michigan,” he replied. “Can’t wait.”
On that note, the presser ended, one more bit of “adversity” turned aside.