Michigan, with TCU up next, wants more out of this CFP run: ‘We’re going to go get it’


INDIANAPOLIS — Thirteen final thoughts on 13-0 Michigan as the Wolverines make their return to the College Football Playoff to face TCU in the Fiesta Bowl …

1. Sitting in his postgame news conference last year at the Orange Bowl, coach Jim Harbaugh said the ending of the 2021 season “feels like a beginning.”

In a way, Michigan’s journey to the 2022 CFP started right there. There was some unmistakable symmetry Saturday night when Harbaugh sat on the dais at Lucas Oil Stadium, flanked by J.J. McCarthy and Donovan Edwards — Michigan’s two “super sophs,” as Harbaugh called them — and reflected on winning back-to-back Big Ten championships.

“I point to these two guys,” Harbaugh said before excusing himself from further questioning. “I mean, when they came in, they said, ‘Coach, we’re winning the Big Ten Championship. We’re beating Ohio State, and we got it.’”

From the moment they walked off of the field in Miami, the Wolverines had their eyes on getting back to the CFP and making a run at a national championship. Now they’re officially in the Playoff as the No. 2 seed, headed for a date in the desert against No. 3 TCU.

2. Michigan’s celebration after Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game was a bit more muted than it was the year before. In the waning seconds of Michigan’s 43-22 victory against Purdue, Harbaugh mouthed a simple “good job” into his headset and walked to midfield. The stage came out, the confetti popped, but there wasn’t the same pent-up exhilaration that Michigan experienced a year ago.

That’s the difference between snapping a 17-year championship drought and going back-to-back. It also reflects the mindset of a team that viewed the Big Ten championship as a stepping stone, not an ultimate destination.

“We really weren’t shooting for that national championship last year,” McCarthy said. “It was, ‘Beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten championship.’ This year we’re shooting for it, and we’re going to go get it.”

3. Sometimes a team has to knock on the door a time or two before it’s ready to be a full-fledged national championship contender. Georgia had to do that. So did Clemson. If anyone at Michigan says they were thinking about a national championship coming out of the 2020 season, they’re revising the history. Michigan went 2-4 that season, and it wasn’t until late in 2021 that the idea of making the CFP or competing for a national championship became thinkable.

“2020 was dark, man,” wide receiver Ronnie Bell said. “In 2020, we weren’t thinking about no national championship. It feels good to be on the other side of the tunnel.”

The Wolverines will say they needed to go through those dark times to be the team they are right now. They’ve paid their dues. Now we’ll see if they’re ready to take that final step.

4. TCU is last year’s Michigan, the upstart joined by three teams that expected to be there. The Horned Frogs went 5-7 last year and were picked seventh in the Big 12. The value of being there before is hard to quantify, but that’s something Michigan will use to its advantage.

The Wolverines thought they were ready for Georgia last season, but they looked starstruck early in the game and fell behind 27-3 at halftime. That shouldn’t happen this time around.

“Last year, I feel like a lot of guys were looking around, like, ‘Yo, this stadium is crazy,’” Bell said. “I know I was one of them. Definitely the national championship mindset was on our minds as soon as the clock hit zero (Saturday) night.”

5. Even though Michigan has been here before, the Wolverines are finding ways to enjoy the journey. That was apparent when Michael Barrett and Kris Jenkins stole the scene during a live stand-up on ESPN, clowning around with the Big Ten championship trophy in the background of the shot.

About 30 seconds before Michigan’s logo showed up on the TV broadcast, an audible cheer came from the ballroom of the Indianapolis hotel where players gathered to watch before traveling back to Ann Arbor.

“It’s everything we’ve worked for,” McCarthy said. “It’s our ultimate goal to be in that position, and it feels really nice to have that satisfaction that the work’s paying off.”

6. Putting TCU at No. 3 and Ohio State No. 4 was the least controversial outcome for the CFP committee. I thought there was a case for the Buckeyes at No. 3, but the optics of rewarding a team that didn’t play in its conference championship game wouldn’t have been great. (If the Big Ten had the same championship setup as the Big 12 and Pac-12, Michigan would have played Ohio State instead of Purdue, but I digress …)

“Ohio State was not playing,” committee chairman Boo Corrigan said. “We knew who they were. As we talked about it as a group, we came to the conclusion that we believe TCU was No. 3.”

7. Truthfully, we didn’t need Michigan-Ohio State in the semis. The ratings would have been through the roof and both fan bases would have gone completely feral, but in a way it’s nice to keep the focus on the games and not the backstory. There’s no backstory with Michigan and TCU, which is refreshing.

That being said, McCarthy admitted there was a part of him that was pulling for a Michigan-Ohio State matchup.

“Deep down, a little bit,” McCarthy said. “Hopefully we see them in the big game.”

8. Stylistically, Michigan-TCU should be an entertaining matchup. Will this look like a Big 12 game or a Big Ten game? The Wolverines will prefer the latter, and getting ready for Michigan’s running game is going to be one of the biggest challenges for a TCU team that ranks in the middle of the FBS in run defense.

At one point Saturday night, Michigan had seven offensive linemen on the field. That’s not something that happens very often in the Big 12.

“The Big Ten, it’s a lot of smashmouth football,” left guard Zak Zinter said. “You know we’re going to run the ball and do what we want to. You saw us out there with a couple extra linemen on the field (Saturday). I definitely think it’s a little different.”

9. Michigan players haven’t seen a lot of TCU. They watched Saturday’s Big 12 Championship Game in the team hotel before departing for Lucas Oil Stadium, but it wasn’t the most intensive film study.

“We played at 8 o’clock, so I was going in and out of a nap,” Bell said.

One thing that stuck out to everyone was the play of quarterback Max Duggan, who nearly led the Horned Frogs to another comeback victory with some tough fourth-quarter runs.

“Their quarterback is a dog,” edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said. “I love his game.”

10. Based on the track record of both teams, the Fiesta Bowl won’t really start until the second half. TCU overcame second-half deficits five times en route to a 12-0 regular season and nearly had comeback No. 6 against K-State, rallying from a 28-17 fourth-quarter hole to force overtime.

Not many teams have smothered opponents in the second half the way Michigan has. In seven games leading up to Saturday, the Wolverines outscored opponents 157-20 after halftime. They continued that trend against Purdue, outscoring the Boilermakers 31-9 in the second half to turn a one-point game into a blowout.

11. One story line from Saturday night that shouldn’t be overlooked is the play of freshman cornerback Will Johnson.

Johnson, the top-rated recruit in Michigan’s 2022 class, had two interceptions, one when he jumped a slant route and another when he picked off an underthrown ball in man coverage against Charlie Jones.

Jones and Marvin Harrison Jr. are two of the top wide receivers in the country, and Johnson acquitted himself well against both. Michigan has another tough matchup ahead in TCU’s Quentin Johnston, so this is a well-timed emergence for one of most talented players on the roster.

“He is a freshman that came in and didn’t play like a freshman,” McCarthy said of Johnson. “He just had so much God-given ability that was backed up with his tremendous work ethic and his skills.”

12. TCU coach Sonny Dykes said he was putting his kids to bed last night during the Big Ten Championship Game and didn’t watch it closely, but Johnson’s two interceptions jumped out. So did McCarthy’s ability to make plays on the run.

“Certainly at the end of the game, they were very physically imposing last night against Purdue,” Dykes said. “I saw their quarterback make a ton of plays, improvise outside the pocket. I was really impressed with the things they could do.”

McCarthy threw one bad interception when he tried to force the ball downfield while scrambling, but he also threw three touchdowns, threading the ball into tight windows to Bell, Colston Loveland and Luke Schoonmaker. The uptick in explosive plays that started against Ohio State continued against the Boilermakers, as Edwards ripped off a 60-yard run — his third run of 60 yards or more in two games — and McCarthy averaged 14.6 yards on his 11 completions.

13. For teams in the CFP, the season is a furious buildup to the conference championship weekend, followed by the pre-Christmas lull. Players will take finals and rest their bodies. Coaches will do some last-minute recruiting before the early signing period. Everybody will take a deep breath and decompress a bit before digging into bowl preparation.

This isn’t a “mission accomplished” moment for a team that has been explicit about aiming for a national championship. It’s one thing to talk about that, and it’s another to be 13-0 and heading back to the CFP. The Wolverines are exactly where they wanted to be at this stage of the season, but merely getting here was never their goal.

“I’m going to enjoy the moment with my teammates, of course, but like I keep saying: There’s a bigger prize at the end of the season,” cornerback Mike Sainristil said. “We’ve just got to keep working towards that, and it starts with TCU.”

(Photo of Jim Harbaugh and J.J. McCarthy: Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images)


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