Michigan claws back in Rose Bowl, tops Alabama in OT to make CFP final for first time

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PASADENA, Calif. — Every college football season has one long thread that connects all the little moments, and all the big games, from the long hot offseason to the final kickoff a week into the new year.

For the 2023 campaign, Jim Harbaugh is that thread. 

The Michigan head coach’s suspension dominated talk early on as he sat out three games following an NCAA investigation. Then his program became embroiled in further negative headlines as sign stealing became the topic de jour in tandem with fall arriving in earnest.

So perhaps it was no surprise that Harbaugh was at the center of yet another classic Rose Bowl, hugging his players with the strength of a mother bear as he ran around the field at the “Granddaddy of Them All” following a remarkable 27-20 overtime victory over No. 4 Alabama on Monday night.

What likely made the embattled coach proudest was the way in which the Wolverines emerged victorious. They not only went toe-to-toe with Nick Saban’s mighty SEC champions but wound up out-slugging them in the process. They overcame a series of self-inflicted special teams mistakes to get into position to tie the game in the final few minutes, and they also stepped up defensively by stuffing Tide quarterback Jalen Milroe at the goal line on fourth down to set off a raucous celebration at the site where every Big Ten fan grows up wanting to be, with roses clinched in their teeth as they hold a trophy aloft.

It was a perfect moment with the perfect thread that has tied this wild, up-and-down season together.

Here are a few other thoughts from an incredibly dramatic 110th Rose Bowl Game between the two winningest programs in the sport: 

Play of the Game

Given the looming impact it had on a game that went to overtime in the dying embers of the very first day of the New Year, it’s hard to overlook the missed extra point off a botched snap following Michigan’s second touchdown in the second quarter. Special teams miscues certainly kept the Wolverines from having a more comfortable lead early on and directly contributed to a score line that saw the Big Ten champions’ late fourth-quarter drive (with just over 90 seconds left on the clock) result in an equalizing score instead of one that could have allowed them to walk away with a one-point win over mighty Alabama.

Turning point

There are drives and there are legacy drives. In the case of Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, the final few minutes of the fourth quarter exemplified what he is all about and offered plenty of redemption after making several critical mistakes in last year’s semifinal loss to TCU.

The junior quarterback — who his coach has called the greatest in school history — wound up completing six of his last seven passes in the final stage of the game and was nearly flawless on the team’s final two drives of regulation. McCarthy found Roman Wilson on a long second-and-4 for the game-tying touchdown with 94 seconds left and was fantastic on the only possession in overtime to put backfield mate Blake Corum in position to cross the goal line for the winner.

Key stat

Michigan is now 31-0 in the last three seasons when Blake Corum scores a touchdown. The veteran tailback finished the game with 83 yards and his one score on the ground came from 17 yards out in overtime.

What’s next for Michigan?

Houston — and a chance to ensure that all this season’s negative headlines won’t matter one bit. The school has a chance to become the first out of the Big Ten to win the national title since Ohio State did so in 2014 and the Wolverines will be looking to notch their first trophy since 1997 at the same time.

What’s next for Alabama?

In the immediate aftermath of a loss like that, the Tide’s first one-and-done in a semifinal game since the 2015 Sugar Bowl against Ohio State, there will likely be plenty of second-guessing about what transpired in the Rose Bowl from those in and around Tuscaloosa. Questions will surely be asked about the overall game plan that saw Milroe take so many unimpeded sacks and the lack of a purposeful run game as time ticked off the clock at the venerable venue in Pasadena. The chatter on message boards and in bars across the South will surely have plenty of teeth-mashing over a defensive performance that allowed one too many big plays on a few long marches to the end zone.

Yet for all the disappointment sure to be inherent in this loss by Alabama, the program itself will surely be able to use the benefit of time to see that this was much more of an overachieving campaign when considering how many new faces stocked the starting lineup. Perhaps there will even be further recognition of how this was Nick Saban’s best coaching job with the Tide and, given what returns, likely the start of another run of dominance instead of any sort of end. 

Given that the throes of realignment are set to take place officially over the summer and the playoff expands from four to 12, this will certainly be a new era in the sport. Even in the wake of the loss on Monday night to ring in the New Year with the worst sort of hangover, the Tide is well positioned to recover and move back into a position where they lord over most of their opposition once again. 

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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