Michigan ‘thrilled’ to draw Alabama? CFP surprise did Big Ten champs no favors

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On a day when followers of college football knew multiple fan bases would be gutted as this year’s national semifinalists were revealed, it stood to reason that the most-discussed images were likely to originate from Athens, Georgia … or Austin, Texas … or Tallahassee, Florida … or Tuscaloosa, Alabama — the four locales whose flagship universities were jockeying for two remaining spots alongside Michigan and Washington, the only teams who could watch the selection show knowing their inclusion was assured.

But as the bracket for this year’s College Football Playoff was unveiled shortly before 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, the most surprising reaction had nothing to do with those cities at all. Instead, the video that made immediate waves on social media was filmed at the downtown Indianapolis hotel where the top-seeded Wolverines had gathered to watch the selection show. When head coach Jim Harbaugh and his team learned of the committee’s decision to seed SEC champion Alabama at No. 4 ahead of ACC champion Florida State — thus pairing Michigan and the Crimson Tide on one side of the bracket — the conference room echoed with far more groans than cheers.

Harbaugh disputed the outside world’s interpretation of the Wolverines’ reaction on a conference call with media members and Alabama head coach Nick Saban several hours later. 

“No, we’re excited to face them,” Harbaugh said. “It’s iconic. It’s Alabama. It’s Roll Tide. It doesn’t get any better [than] to be playing in the Rose Bowl. Just going to appreciate the tradition of the Rose Bowl. Playing a great team like Alabama, I mean, it always has meaning. What we did was special. Not only yesterday, but the entire season, the whole group that we have. We’re thrilled. We’re thrilled to be where we’re at. We’re thrilled to be playing Alabama, thrilled to be playing in the Rose Bowl because it’s going to be competition. That’s what this team lives for.”

With three undefeated teams and four more carrying just a single loss ahead of the final rankings reveal, almost nothing about this year’s field felt certain. Would Washington leapfrog Michigan to claim the top spot after a second victory over Oregon? Would the SEC be left out of the College Football Playoff for the first time since the event’s inception? How did the selection committee feel about the undefeated Seminoles, whose starting quarterback Jordan Travis suffered a gruesome leg injury in the penultimate game of the regular season? If Alabama made the semifinals, was Texas guaranteed a spot courtesy of an impressive road win against the Crimson Tide in early September?

The slow trickle of the selection show boiled down to a heart-stopping moment that pitted Florida State (13-0), Alabama (12-1) and Georgia (12-1) against each other for the final spot, which was ultimately awarded to the Crimson Tide. And in doing so, the selection committee bypassed an undefeated Power 5 conference champion for the first time. 

[Michigan’s reaction to facing Alabama goes viral]

“In the eyes of the committee,” said Boo Corrigan, the chair of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, during a conference call on Sunday afternoon, “Florida State is a different team without Jordan Travis. One of the things we do consider is player availability, and our job is to rank the best teams. And in the final decision looking at that, it was Alabama at [No.] 4 and Florida State at [No.] 5.”  

Which meant that in an instant, with cell phone cameras rolling, the Wolverines were forced to process a bait and switch from the Seminoles to the Crimson Tide. From a Florida State team whose two best quarterbacks were unavailable during Saturday night’s ACC title game, to an Alabama team whose dual-threat leader, Jalen Milroe, is playing as well as any signal-caller in the country amid a 10-game Tide winning streak. From a coach who has never been part of the College Football Playoff in Mike Norvell, to arguably the greatest coach in college football history in Nick Saban, who has won six national championships with the Crimson Tide and seven overall.

Breaking down Michigan vs. Alabama, Washington vs. Texas

Breaking down Michigan vs. Alabama, Washington vs. Texas

Michigan had massacred 11 of the 13 opponents it faced this season en route to earning the College Football Playoff’s top seed. But instead of being paired with a Florida State team everyone wanted to play following Travis’ season-ending injury, Harbaugh’s crew must tangle with the sport’s hottest team instead. With a 27-24 win over Georgia on Saturday, Alabama became the first team to defeat the Bulldogs since the Crimson Tide accomplished the same feat on Dec. 4, 2021.

“I felt like our team deserved the right to be in the playoffs,” Saban said on Sunday’s teleconference. “They earned the right to be there. I was just very anxious and hopeful that they would get the opportunity to do that. So it made a bit of a sleepless night in a lot of ways. We were trying to prepare for the opportunity, if we got it, but also concerned about what opportunities we’d have if it didn’t work out.”

Now it’s Harbaugh who might be in for a few sleepless nights given the caliber of his opponent and a dismal 1-6 record in bowl games with the Wolverines. That includes a blowout loss to Saban in the Citrus Bowl to end the 2019 season, a game in which Alabama quarterback Mac Jones threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns while the Crimson Tide’s defense held Michigan scoreless in the second half.

This year’s pursuit of a national title won’t be easy following back-to-back losses in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

“This is the moment I was born for, it feels like,” Michigan tailback Blake Corum told reporters after watching the selection show. “Being able to be the No. 1 team in the nation, first of all, [to] play in the Rose Bowl against a great Alabama team, SEC vs. Big Ten. Does it get bigger than this? I don’t know.  

“I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it. We’re blessed right now, man. So thankful.”

Though not all of their faces seemed to show it. 

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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