College Football Analyst
We’ve got a new national champion in the College Football Playoff era.
Michigan won its first national title since 1997, defeating Washington, 34-13, as Jim Harbaugh completed the Wolverines’ drastic turnaround in three seasons. The way Michigan won Monday night’s game was nothing short of impressive, with its defense slowing down Michael Penix Jr. and Washington’s dynamic aerial attack.
I broke down my thoughts on the game itself in a recent episode of my podcast, “The Joel Klatt Show.” But here, I want to focus on Michigan’s turnaround and the program’s rare path to winning the title.
This year’s College Football Playoff and, particularly, Monday night’s game, were a really important moment for the sport. That’s not necessarily because it wasn’t an SEC team that won it all or that the conference wasn’t represented in the title game, it was because of the type of team that won.
The way Michigan built itself was different from what we’ve seen out of national title winners in recent memory. If you weren’t recruiting in the top four or five in the country annually for four or five consecutive years, you really didn’t have a chance at winning a national championship.
This was the case for at least a decade. For instance, let’s go back to Alabama’s win over Notre Dame in 2012. The Fighting Irish rolled into that game ranked No. 1 and undefeated, but the gap in talent between them and the Crimson Tide was so large, resulting in a 42-14 Alabama win. When we entered the CFP era, some of those semifinal games were lopsided. Alabama’s rout of Michigan State in the 2015 Cotton Bowl (a 38-0 win for the Crimson Tide) sticks out among them.
What does Michigan winning the CFP Championship mean for the future of CFB?
The gap between the top three or so teams in the country and everybody else was so large that there wasn’t a lot of hope for the other teams in college football. How many times were we going to get Alabama-Clemson or Alabama-Georgia in the national championship game? Or how many teams, other than those three, were going to have a legitimate shot to win the title?
That’s how it felt for a long time in college football. The reason for that was the lack of mobility. Players, essentially, couldn’t go anywhere. With the dominance a select few had in recruiting, those teams were likely to be in the spots they wound up in by the end of the year.
You would have to be in the top four or five on an annual basis in order to win the national championship. The composite ranking, which just takes a look at your roster and how talented it is, had to show that your team was top-five in talent to win a title. If your team wasn’t up there, you weren’t even close to winning a title.
That gap was there from the end of the BCS era and almost all the way through the four-team era in the College Football Playoff – until now.
College football is changing, and it’s changing for the better. Michigan wasn’t one of those teams that ranked in the top five in recruiting annually. The Wolverines had the 10th-ranked recruiting class in 2020, the 13th-ranked class in 2021, the ninth-ranked class in 2022 and the 17th-ranked class in 2023. Over the four years, Michigan’s recruiting classes ranked outside of the top 10, on average. Its composite ranking for this season was 14th. It only had two five-star players on its roster.
That’s the team that just won the national championship, and that’s unbelievable news for all of college football.
There are plenty of teams, programs, coaches and fan bases that should have an enormous amount of hope moving forward now that we have a different era in our sport. There are so many teams that I can think of that should be thrilled by Michigan’s win because of what it does for its title chances. Some of those teams have even recruited better than Michigan has in recent years.
This Michigan season showed that you can tackle and develop your way to a national championship. Is it hard? Of course, it’s hard. Michigan needed to get beaten badly by the eventual national title winner, Georgia, in its first CFP appearance two years ago and lose a tight game to TCU in the CFP last year to win it all this year.
But going beyond Michigan’s win on Monday night, Washington, Georgia and TCU, plus Michigan, were the four finalists over the last two years. Only one of those teams is a lot different – Georgia. The other three are actually quite similar. Michigan, Washington and TCU had a lot of development and veteran leadership to get to the title game when they did.
In the opening montage of my podcast, I say “We’re entering the Golden Age of college football.” Nights like Monday are why I continue to reiterate that message. This upcoming era of college football should, and will be, really great.
Just think of all the teams that have similar talent as Michigan and now have hope they can do what the Wolverines did. Ole Miss is recruiting at a high level and has the top transfer class in the country. What Washington was able to do this year should give Oregon hope that it can do something similar. A team like Utah should feel like it can have a shot at the title.
Penn State has to think to itself, “Why can’t we do that?” It should give hope to people in East Lansing, knowing that it has built a program that made it to the CFP and beat Michigan regularly not too long ago under Mark Dantonio. Can Michigan State replicate it under Jonathan Smith? How encouraging is this for Texas A&M, who tried to match the teams at the top but has had to change direction?
CFP Championship: J.J. McCarthy, Michigan defeat Michael Penix Jr., Washington
The fact that Michigan was at the bottom of the barrel in the COVID season three years ago and has gone 40-3 since then to win a national title should leave us with the question: Who else can do this? Maybe it’s not just Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.
In fact, this should give Ohio State a lot of hope. Michigan was at the bottom of the barrel when Ohio State was playing for a title in 2020. I know Ohio State fans don’t feel great after what you saw on Monday night, but it can turn around very quickly. You might be there next year with the moves the Buckeyes have made in the transfer portal recently.
It just goes to show you that college football isn’t all about the stars. I know that’s been a common phrase over the last few years, that stars matter. They do, but they matter less because there are more teams and the talent is spread out.
That’s great for college football. Prior to Monday, the last eight title games featured one of Alabama, Georgia or Clemson. Now, we’re entering an era where a lot of teams feel like they’ve got a chance to make the national championship.
And that’s a great thing for college football.
Joel Klatt is FOX Sports’ lead college football game analyst and the host of the podcast “The Joel Klatt Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @joelklatt and subscribe to the “Joel Klatt Show” on YouTube.
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