Wojo: UM left to imagine what could’ve been

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Columbus, Ohio — Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are bitter, for a lot of reasons. Bitter they had a lead and an enormous opportunity and let it slip away, bitter at perceived injustices, bitter that the Buckeyes found another crushing way to beat them.

There’s a distinction between deserving something and earning something, and the fine line generally is drawn by the final score. Ohio State earned its epic 30-27 double-overtime victory and almost assuredly will land in the playoff.

Michigan’s defense earned tremendous accolades and the rivalry earned its lofty status, drawing the year’s highest TV ratings, by far. But do the Wolverines deserve more? Ah, the loaded question, reloaded and unloaded in Harbaugh’s seething commentary on “outrageous” calls by the officials. Easy answer: Probably, but not because of questionable officiating.

They lost two road games by a combined four points, and if you watched Saturday, with Michigan in control much of the way with an injured quarterback, you can’t say Ohio State was appreciably better.

The problem is, there’s no easy answer for where Michigan stands, its 10-2 record both compelling and incomplete. Wilton Speight did throw two game-changing interceptions and lost a fumble at the Ohio State 2. Michigan’s offense did go into a shell in the fourth quarter, failing to gain a first down. Nevertheless, I’ll go ahead and sift through what it all means, as long as everyone agrees “what we think” is not the same as “what we know.”

I think Ohio State and Michigan are the two best teams in the Big Ten. I think Alabama, Clemson, Washington and Ohio State are the four best teams in the country. I think Wisconsin and Penn State are worthy Big Ten championship-game combatants, but not playoff-worthy. I think a lot of unlikely things would have to occur for Michigan to sneak into the playoff.

Near as I can tell, there’s one path for it to happen. Washington would have to lose to Colorado in the Pac-12 title game, or Clemson would have to lose to Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, or both. Penn State would have to beat Wisconsin in less-than-impressive fashion.

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Michigan could then make the argument it’s the best two-loss team and deserves the fourth spot. Washington and Clemson both fell at home before reaching their title games, and Michigan posted a tidy 49-10 victory over Penn State in September. In this scenario, Michigan would have three top-10 victories — Penn State, Wisconsin, Colorado — and two tight road losses. For what it’s worth, the Wolverines only dropped to fifth in the Associated Presspoll Sunday, and probably will land around there in the playoff rankings when they are released Tuesday.

So close, yet so far

If you want to argue Michigan should be punished for losing the only two tough road games it played, that’s fair. Win one — Iowa or Ohio State — and you shut everybody up.

But it can’t be debated in a vacuum. Almost every Big Ten team dropped its toughest road games. Penn State lost at Pitt and Michigan; Wisconsin lost at Michigan (14-7) but won at Iowa. Outside of Ohio State, nobody else posted a notable road victory.

If this played out, the selection committee would have to prove whether it values a conference championship over head-to-head results and bodies of work, and that’s not what it’s previously stated. Heck, the committee might even have to decide between Ohio State and Penn State, which beat the Buckeyes 24-21.

Odds of all this happening: Not good. And could you imagine the uproar if the committee put in two Big Ten teams, Michigan and Ohio State, ahead of the conference champion? Yikes. Michigan likely is headed to the Orange Bowl, lugging along its angst, wondering how it could’ve made one more late play against the Hawkeyes or Buckeyes.

If you saw the latest and possibly greatest Collision in Columbus, you probably won’t stop discussing it anytime soon. But what exactly did we see – two great defensive teams slugging it out, exchanging punts and figurative punches? Or two talented teams with inconsistent offenses?

This is where it gets blurry, and partly explains why Harbaugh went on his measured rant. He surely didn’t want the focus on his quarterback’s mistakes, and Speight played admirably with a sore shoulder. And in the immediate aftermath, official’s calls were on his mind, including his own unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Emotions got best of him

Did Harbaugh show proper decorum ripping the refs? No, and blaming officiating seldom looks good. But he followed the form of a tempestuous rivalry in which Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes took turns shredding decorum, as well as yard-markers. No one advocates an escalation, but if you bill the rivalry as the sport’s most passionate, you can’t freak out over emotional reactions when the stakes are highest. Not coincidentally, “bitter” was Schembechler’s go-to word when he felt wronged.

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When the anger subsides, I think Harbaugh will acknowledge other factors, and realize his focus on officiating was too narrow. But questions can be asked without leveling sordid accusations. For instance, it is curious that in an intense game that essentially lasted five quarters, counting overtimes, Ohio State was penalized twice for 6 yards. (Michigan had seven for 59 yards). Michigan sacked J.T. Barrett eight times but didn’t draw a holding penalty.

Officials clearly missed a pass-interference call in the second overtime when Michigan receiver Grant Perry was grabbed by Gareon Conley. Not as clear was the controversial fourth-down spot that could have ended the game in Michigan’s favor. Barrett appeared to be inches short, but I don’t think the replay was conclusive enough to overturn it, and the Buckeyes won on the next play.

And there’s the fine line right there, in a two-snap sequence. One call that could have gone either way, literally, and then a 15-yard Curtis Samuel run that slipped through Michigan’s hands. The Wolverines will lament one and the Buckeyes will celebrate the other, and the bitterness and boasting will roil for the next 365 days.