The Michigan Wolverines are back for another shot at the College Football Playoff, and this year has a different vibe going for the Big Ten champions than last year. A year ago, Michigan was a fresh face in the playoff but was paired up against a Georgia team that was about to go on a national championship tear. This year, Michigan could still run into the Bulldogs, but it would be in the national title game instead of the semifinals.
After running the table through its regular season highlighted by a blowout win over Penn State, a runaway rivalry victory over Ohio State, and a Big Ten Championship Game victory over Purdue, the Wolverines have a very realistic shot at claiming their first national championship since 1997.
Here are five reasons why you should believe Michigan can win it all this season.
Michigan Football: 5 Reasons Why the Wolverines Will Win the College Football Playoff
1. Defense wins championships
If the College Football Playoff national championship comes down to how the defense performs, then Michigan is the school you should have the most faith in. The Wolverines bring the nation's third-best defense into the playoff after allowing just 277.1 yards per game this season. This is a major advantage in Michigan's semifinal matchup with Big 12 champion TCU. The Horned Frogs rank just 74th in the nation in total defense.
Defensive linemen Mike Morris and Mazi Smith are first-team All-Big Ten players leading the way on the line of scrimmage, and linebacker Junior Colson and defensive back DJ Turner help clean up things behind them.
2. J.J. McCarthy hitting stride at the right time
Michigan could not have asked McCarthy to prove he can carry the team at a more perfect time. As the season came down to the final stretch with a road game at Ohio State and the Big Ten Championship Game without star running back Blake Corum, it was McCarthy who stepped up and led the Wolverines to a pair of big wins.
McCarthy threw six total touchdowns in the last two games against the Buckeyes and Purdue in the Big Ten title game, and he was intercepted just once and sacked just once between the two games. While McCarthy may not have racked up a big passing total against Purdue in Indianapolis, his poise and leadership were evident as he has become more confident at the most important time.
If you had to rank all four playoff quarterbacks, McCarthy could arguably be your fourth on the list, although he did out-class Ohio State's C.J. Stroud already. But perhaps that just gives Michigan's young confident quarterback an extra chip on his shoulder.
3. Experience matters
Michigan and Georgia are both back in the College Football Playoff for a second straight season, and that experience should come into play. Although Ohio State as a program has more overall playoff experience, the Buckeyes missed out on last year's playoff, giving Georgia and Michigan a fresher approach to how to handle the four-team tournament.
Georgia may have won it all last year while Michigan's playoff trip was far less memorable, but expect the lessons learned from last year to be beneficial for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines as they make their return, this time as a favorite. Michigan got run over by the eventual national champions last year. It was a painful loss for the Wolverines, but the experience from that setback will provide a good lesson for what they need to do better this time in preparing for the playoff.
And on Dec. 31, Michigan will be the one facing a playoff newbie as TCU makes its first College Football Playoff appearance.
4. Locking down in the red zone
Hitting back on the idea that defense wins championships, Michigan appears to be in a good spot inside the red zone. The Wolverines don't have the best red-zone defense in the playoff (that belongs to Georgia), but Michigan does have a good reputation for not allowing touchdowns to be scored once opposing offenses enter that key area of the field. On 29 red-zone trips by opposing offenses this season, Michigan has only allowed 11 touchdowns to be scored. Michigan's red-zone touchdown percentage allowed is third in the nation, and second among playoff teams behind Georgia (No. 1 in the FBS).
Red zone defense will be huge in the playoff. Georgia and Ohio State own the nation's first and fourth-ranked red-zone offenses, respectively. TCU ranks just 80th in the nation in that category.
5. Jim Harbaugh brings a coaching advantage
There is no question Harbaugh has been a great fit for the Wolverines program. After guiding Michigan to largely successful seasons but failing to clear the big Ohio State hurdle with playoff-caliber teams, Harbaugh has throttled Ohio State and won the Big Ten in back-to-back years to firmly plant Michigan's flag at the top of the Big Ten. And given the recent history, it is a solid argument to make that Harbaugh sits atop the Big Ten coaching hierarchy.
And having College Football Playoff and big bowl game experience against Sonny Dykes of TCU is a luxury, not that anyone will be taking Dykes and the Horned Frogs lightly. But only Georgia's Kirby Smart has a national championship ring as a head coach. If things go well, Harbaugh could get one on his own hand this season.