Niyo: Prior expectations color bowl bid reactions

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Wilton Speight

This wasn’t the perfect storm that Michigan needed. The Wolverines needed a blizzard, and all they got this weekend in Ann Arbor were a few flurries.

But this was the imperfect ending that college football fans have grown to expect. And how you feel about where you’re headed next has as much to do with where you’ve been — rowing the boat in Kalamazoo, for instance — as it does where you expected to end up.

“Well, there’s a lot of cotton falling from the sky here in Kalamazoo today, a lot accumulating on the ground,” said Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, whose team capped a storybook season by accepting a first-ever berth in the Cotton Bowl on Sunday. “How ironic.”

For the Wolverines, there was only logic, however. And no matter how you tried to twist it, their postseason fate was sealed this weekend when three teams ahead of them in the playoff rankings — Alabama (13-0), Clemson (12-1) and Washington (12-1) — all won conference championship games to solidify their standing in the eyes of the selection committee.

“We knew it was a long shot,” said Chris Wormley, Michigan’s senior defensive end. “We knew our chances were slim as it was.”

And none in the end, with Michigan (10-2) finishing sixth in the final rankings, one spot lower than it was earlier in the week when the committee chairman, Kirby Hocutt, had fueled hopes of a playoff path for the Wolverines by noting a “razor-thin” margin separating them the top four.

Reality cuts like a knife, though, and Saturday’s results — leaving four Power 5 conference teams with one loss or fewer — severed most of the suspense from Sunday’s announcement. As expected, it’ll be Alabama-Washington in one playoff semifinal, and Clemson-Ohio State in the other.

Michigan, doomed by a pair of late-season, last-second losses, will head to Miami with an Orange Bowl berth opposite Florida State (9-3) on Dec. 30. As consolation prizes go, that’s not a bad parting gift. But for the Wolverines’ senior-laden roster — and a fan base starving for more — it’s certainly not what they had in mind even a few days ago.

“It’s disappointing, it is,” senior co-captain Jake Butt admitted. “But you’ve got to remind yourself that we put ourselves in that position. The season was in our hands, and we didn’t get things done when they needed to get done. So it’s disappointing. But you can’t just dwell on the past. There’s still a big game to play. … We’re not going to let that opportunity slip by, worrying about what could’ve been.”

Kalamazoo, land of Cotton

Fleck, meanwhile, insisted he had no worries when he kicked off championship weekend crowing about luxuries of cotton, of all things.

"I’m going to wear everything cotton from here on out,” Fleck said after the Broncos (13-0) capped an undefeated regular season with a win in the Mid-American Conference championship game at Ford Field on Friday night.

Michigan sees shot at redemption vs. Seminoles in Orange Bowl

And sure enough, Western Michigan is indeed headed for the Cotton Bowl, one of the prestigious New Year’s Six games. It’s a far cry from Fleck’s first bowl trip two years ago to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise. Further still from the 1-11 finish in his first season in Kalamazoo in 2013. And whether this turns out to be his last there — Fleck is arguably the hottest coaching candidate in the country right now — it’s a testament to belief.

Truth is, Fleck planted this seed way back in January, flashing a Cotton Bowl logo on the wall during a team meeting to show his players “what the expectations were going to become.” And now here they are, getting ready to “Row the Boat” — Western Michigan’s trademarked slogan — against a third Big Ten opponent this season in Wisconsin.

The Badgers, of course, blew a big lead in Saturday night’s Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. And the jubilant coach after that comeback — Penn State’s James Franklin — couldn’t help but cry foul afterward about his own team’s likely fate.

Franklin told his team to be appreciative of whatever opportunity it got, and Sunday the Nittany Lions learned they’re headed to the Rose Bowl to face USC — a rematch of their last major postseason trip in 2009. But it was a bit harder to appreciate the irony of Penn State’s fate, left out of the playoffs in favor of another Big Ten team — Ohio State — they beat on the field (24-21 in October) and in the standings.

“You feel for Big Ten champs — and any conference champions — that don’t get in,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose Buckeyes are the first non-champion to make the playoff in its brief, three-year history.

Winning isn’t everything

But feelings aside, there’s an inherent flaw in the system to begin with, as simple math alone guarantees a four-team playoff has to exclude at least one major conference champ. This year, they managed to exclude two, with the Big 12 champ (Oklahoma) also getting passed over.

That prompts the question Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight was asking Sunday, like so many fans have in recent weeks.

No Michigan in CFP; it’s Alabama, Clemson, OSU, Washington

“Hopefully they broaden (the playoff),” Speight said. “They see the dilemma they had with it this year and say, ‘OK, we need to expand this from four teams.’ ”

But don’t count on that happening anytime soon, as Bill Hancock, the CFP executive director, reiterated Sunday, “We are confident that four is the right number. … I don’t anticipate any discussion about expanding.”

As for the debate about who’s in and who’s out, well, this year it’s Penn State’s turn to complain.

“There’s no perfect system,” Franklin said Saturday night. “Obviously, I feel strongly that … every time I turn on the TV or read an article, people said this year the Big Ten was by far the strongest conference in college football. I’ve heard that over and over again. We just won the Big Ten conference championship.”

And yet that wasn’t enough. Not this time, at least.

“Every year is going to be different,” Hocutt said. “Football seasons are like snowflakes, they’re all different. Next year we’ll be standing here talking about some other way it fell out. And that’s great.”

Depends on who you ask, though. And where they’re headed for the holidays.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF

Semifinals

Saturday, Dec. 31

Peach Bowl: 1. Alabama vs. 4. Washington, 3 p.m. (ESPN)

Fiesta Bowl: 2. Clemson vs. 3. Ohio State, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Championship

Monday, Jan. 9

At Tampa, Florida

Semifinal winners, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)