Jim Harbaugh and Michigan just can't seem to close the gap between the Wolverines and archrival Ohio State
College football is often distilled into a sport with a dichotomy between the haves and the have nots.
Take whatever measure you want and chances are there are typically two sides to the coin. You're either in the top 25 or you're not. You're a Power 5 school or a Group of 5 program. You're a blue blood or an up-and-comer. You're bowl eligible or you're not. You're led by an offensive-minded head coach or a defensive-minded one. You're either getting extended in the offseason or your head coach is on the hot seat. And so on and so on.
But really, what makes this sport truly great is that it really not very black and white at all. It's constantly subjective. It's shades of gray and pastels of various colors on the regular. The average fan may debate No. 4 and No. 5 just as much as they may bring up the difference between a team sitting at No. 25 and the one simply receiving votes in whatever poll suits your fancy.
Perhaps the most important of these focal points, however, is the thin line between good and great in college football. The past few seasons of Alabama and Clemson exchanging blows in their heavyweight fight for the national title had refocused the discussion somewhat on the line between elite and excellent but this 2019 season has reinforced that the real dividing line to focus on is the one between good and great.
And no perfect example showcased that in the final weekend of college football than that of the two biggest rivalries in the sport at the Iron Bowl and during "The Game."
You can start in Ann Arbor. For most of the past two years, we asked if Michigan can't beat this Ohio State team now, then when will they? As the clock read zeroes at the Big House once again, the answer may very well be… not anytime soon.
That is through no fault of their own. The Wolverines have done everything they can to ensure that wins over the rival Buckeyes will not only come, they'll come on the regular. Hire the alum who knows the school and has the track record of success at every level? Check. Recruit top-15 classes regularly? Check. Build every facility advantage you need? Pretty much. Re-tool the offense when needed? Yep.
And yet... the gap between an elite program like OSU and what UM has fielded has remained static. The aggregate score of the past two meetings: 118-66. Head coach Jim Harbaugh tried to downplay both a coaching and talent gap but it exists for all to see — as was laid bare once again in the two rivals' annual meeting.
To be fair, the gap has narrowed from when Harbaugh took over but the fact remains, Michigan is a good, top-15-caliber program right now. Ohio State? They're an elite College Football Playoff contender every single season. That latter trajectory isn't changing under Ryan Day from the looks of it and the former's isn't budging either pending some surprising shakeup either.
In fact, the Wolverines are a perfect example of how in college football, that supposed thin line between very good and being elite is, in fact, a mile long. Winning 10 games is hard enough, getting over the hump to consistently win titles and control a league is a Herculean task and not for everybody no matter the coaching resume of those in charge.
UM's plight is one shared by plenty of others like Wisconsin and Florida presently while Ohio State measures itself against the Alabamas, Clemsons, LSUs and Georgias of the world. Programs that were once in the latter category, like USC and Florida State, know all too well that backsliding into the former group is just a bad season — heck a bad recruiting class or assistant coach hire — away too. Even at one of those elite programs, they're not immune to such fluctuations that are typical in a sport reliant on 18-24-year-olds and full of leadership constantly shifting between job to job.
Take another example further south. Alabama had everything needed to win the national title this season when 2019 began. The Crimson Tide had the talent with No. 1 recruiting class after No. 1 recruiting class. They had arguably the sport's best coach in history running the show. The schedule was more than manageable. The Heisman Trophy runner-up was at quarterback and the entire team had a motivating factor few could have imagined in that lopsided result from January at the hands of Clemson.
The stars were all aligning for the Crimson Tide to re-take the trophy… until they didn't. Instead, the program will find itself without having beaten a single top 25 team, lacking a division title (much less a conference one), and will be sitting around without numerous key players for a bowl game few will want to play in against a normally overmatched opponent. For the first time since 2009, Bama will enter the postseason with two regular-season losses and the only program to make every College Football Playoff will, assuredly, not be part of the latest one.
There are plenty of reasons why. Perhaps the greatest dynasty of the sport, certainly of the past decade, got hit with an avalanche of injuries from Tua Tagovailoa to most of their defensive front seven. Mistakes of their own ranged from a penchant for ill-timed turnovers to penalties. They did run into some truly exceptional play from their opponents but all those missed kicks, all those officiating decisions that may have gone against them, all those miraculous moments turned in by the other side well, added up.
When you're forced to tread water in certain areas of the field, one wrong move can be a back-breaker. After years of being on the right side of those, the Tide suddenly found themselves much more consistently on the wrong one.
It took a heroic effort from wideout Jalen Waddle for things to even remain close Saturday at Jordan-Hare and this is against an Auburn squad that had previously done hardly anything offensively against the best teams on their schedule. It proved once again that even the best can get tripped up in the right circumstances when things just don't align correctly.
Some programs are better than others at making sure those stars don't align often. That's the difference between being a regular in the top five and just fighting for a place at the table. The line between good and great in college football is much wider than you would think and we were all reminded of that as the 2019 regular season wrapped up this weekend.
Tweet of the Week
No. 9— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) November 30, 2019
Joe Burrow pic.twitter.com/q00BGBPfr8
Play of the Week
Mississippi State is bowl eligible because Ole Miss pretended to be a peeing dog pic.twitter.com/mZ0f13Z4Nd— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) November 29, 2019
And got the Rebels' coach fired too...
Stat of the Week
Nick Saban has lost twice this month despite his team scoring 40+ points.— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) December 1, 2019
During Saban’s entire football career since 1970, his teams were otherwise 120-1 when scoring 40+ points. (Oilers lost 47-41 in OT to Bills in 1989).
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky
Team of the Week: Virginia
Goat of the Week: Don Brown, Michigan defensive coordinator
Heisman Five: 1. Joe Burrow (LSU), 2. Chase Young (Ohio State), 3. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 4. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 5. Lynn Bowden, Kentucky
Projected Playoff: 1. LSU, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Oklahoma
Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Penn State vs. Utah, Sugar Bowl — Baylor vs. Georgia, Orange Bowl — Virginia Tech vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — Alabama vs. Memphis
Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
1. Ohio State
10. Penn State
15. Notre Dame
Best of the rest: Michigan, Iowa, Boise State, Virginia, Cincinnati, USC, Navy, Appalachian State, SMU
Pac-12 Championship Game: Utah vs. Oregon (Friday, Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.)
The Utes have all the momentum coming into this one but the Ducks are the one team in the league that is evenly matched against them along both lines. Justin Herbert hasn't played like the senior quarterback he's capable of but that could change a little on the big stage. This feels like a game where Oregon takes the early lead before a fluke play and a turnover helps the Pac-12 South Division champions pull away for that elusive conference title. The Pick: Utah -6.5
Big 12 Championship Game: Baylor vs. Oklahoma (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas)
So much on the line in this one and rematches can always prove tricky, especially as recently as these two have played each other. The Bears' earlier second-half collapse has to be looming in the back of their minds but it would be surprising if they didn't play more like they did in the first half against the Sooners in racing out to that early lead. OU won't turn the ball over like they did but this still looks like it will be a close one that simply comes down to Jalen Hurts making one more play than Matt Rhule's team does. The Pick: Baylor +9.5
Sun Belt Championship Game: Louisiana at Appalachian State
The Mountaineers had an easy win last week against Troy and were led by their balanced offensive attack, featuring one of the best players few know outside of the conference in running back Darrynton Evans. He had 69 yards in the first meeting with the Cajuns' and forms quite the tandem with quarterback Zac Thomas, who hasn't seemed to miss a beat without top WR Corey Sutton. Louisiana should be able to put up more points than in their last meeting but the reigning champs are just too good all-around to let this one slip away at home. The Pick: Appalachian State -6
MAC Championship Game: Miami (Ohio) vs. Central Michigan (Ford Field in Detroit)
Jim McElwain's hire at CMU flew under the radar at the time but he's done one of the more remarkable jobs in the entire sport getting his team here after they won just one game a year ago — with multiple quarterbacks no less. The RedHawks' loss to Ball State spoiled a run of five wins in a row and they've not been great against MAC West teams overall. The league has been anything but predictable this year so might as well roll with the underdog and Miami's offense outscoring CMU. The Pick: Miami (Ohio) +6.5
Conference USA Championship Game: UAB at Florida Atlanta
Hats off to UAB head coach Bill Clark, who has seemingly done the impossible with the Blazers two years in a row. This year's squad doesn't have the veteran flavor that 2018's did and a lackluster schedule hasn't helped their cause. The defense should help them keep this close for three quarters before Lane Kiffin's Owls break out a big play to secure another CUSA championship. The Pick: FAU -7.5
AAC Championship Game: Cincinnati at Memphis
They should have just stayed on the field last week and played a double-header to settle things in the American. They'll still play two, but that truly would have been a sight to behold. While the Tigers' 34-24 win was impressive, it would be surprising if the Bearcats' defense didn't tighten things up and make this one close throughout. Memphis stays ahead by a touchdown most of the game and tacks on a field goal late to notch the title and secure the Cotton Bowl berth in the end either way. The Pick: Memphis -10
SEC Championship Game: Georgia vs. LSU (Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta)
The Bulldogs would actually do the College Football Playoff Selection Committee quite the favor if they pulled off the upset in this one to make it a pretty easy-to-pick final four. The Tigers though, look like a team of destiny and for as good as their opponents' defense has been this year, they really haven't seen the kind of aerial attack that Joe Burrow and company have put together. UGA should be able to move the ball okay offensively but in the end, the West Division rules supreme once again by a comfortable margin. The Pick: LSU -6
Mountain West Championship Game: Hawaii at Boise State
Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin doesn't get enough credit for the coaching job he's done, surviving the key loss of defensive coordinator Andy Avalos to have the MWC title game back on the blue turf and using three different quarterbacks throughout this season. The Rainbow Warriors let their first meeting get out of hand in what was a perfect BSU game, which doesn't seem like it will be the case on Saturday. Boise wins to avenge last year's loss in this game but by less than two touchdowns of a fun back-and-forth one. The Pick: Hawaii +15
ACC Championship Game: Virginia vs. Clemson (Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.)
The Tigers haven't really seen a quarterback like Bryce Perkins since the first month of the season and his ability to create plays when the pocket breaks down should help UVA threaten a time or two. The Cavaliers will have to capitalize on any trips they get in the red zone to keep this one close though, which is no easy thing against Clemson's defense. The Tigers roll as usual but it takes a quarter or two before Trevor Lawrence and company start hitting the big plays. Something says Travis Etienne goes wild and gets Dabo talking Heisman on the podium too. The Pick: Virginia +29
Big Ten Championship Game: Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis)
It felt like Wisconsin was punched in the mouth in the third quarter against the Buckeyes during the first meeting and then stumbled and fell. The Badgers' resolve will be a little better this time around and it would shock me if they even lead at halftime in Indy by playing ball control and forcing a string of three-and-outs as Jack Coan makes a play or two through the air. Eventually though, OSU gets things cranked up and pulls away down the stretch once again to lock up the No. 1 seed. The Pick: Ohio State -16.5
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.