They’re all still playing for something.
So we might as well start there with a little holiday cheer in a local sports scene that sure could use it: The college football season isn’t over in Michigan.
While Ferris State preps for its national semifinal game in the NCAA Division II playoffs this week, all five Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the state are going bowling together for the first time in history.
Michigan, Michigan State, Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan each have one more game to play. A 12-day stretch that begins Dec. 21 with CMU taking on San Diego State in the New Mexico Bowl will end with Michigan facing Alabama — yes, Jim Harbaugh vs. Nick Saban — in the Florida Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando.
And if that seems like a bigger deal for some than others, especially in this playoffs-or-bust era, so be it. It’s also a good time to remember the law of unintended consequences as it applies to this sport: Be careful what you wish for this time of year.
In Michigan’s case, it’s a return to the Citrus Bowl, the scene of Harbaugh’s first postseason trip as the Wolverines’ head coach at the end of the 2015 campaign. It’s also the site of his last bowl win, as Michigan throttled Florida, 41-7, in that game but since has lost its last three.
This time around, there’s no ignoring the elephant in the room. That’s because Citrus officials jumped at the chance to pit Michigan (9-3) against Alabama (10-2) in a matchup that’ll boost ticket sales, draw huge TV ratings, and provide plenty of fodder for Paul Finebaum, among other national pundits.
If you’d asked for a show of hands six months ago, every Michigan fan would’ve signed up for a game against Alabama in January. Now, though? Some will tell you this feels like a no-win situation for the Wolverines.
Still, it is a fascinating way to kick off the new year, with two brand-name programs meeting for only the fifth time ever. And this game does feature two of the highest-profile coaches in the sport as Harbaugh finally goes head-to-head with Saban, who is tied with the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant for No. 1 all-time with six national titles, including five of the last 10 as Alabama’s head coach.
“The Alabama team is a great team,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “I have the utmost respect for them. They’ve set the bar for college football over the last many years. They’re a model of success.”
Indeed, for the first time in the six-year history of the College Football Playoff, the Crimson Tide won’t be a part of it. And that raises the kind of questions about motivation that other top teams have had to deal with in recent years.
Will Alabama, which fell out of the playoff picture after close losses to LSU and Auburn last month, face some of the same issues Michigan dealt with last year in the Peach Bowl after another loss to Ohio State shattered its playoff hopes? Four key starters — Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Karan Higdon and Juwann Bushell-Beatty — sat out the bowl game against Florida, avoiding the injury risk and shifting their focus to the NFL Draft. And it certainly showed in the final result.
Alabama has at least a half-dozen potential first-round picks in the 2020 draft on its current roster, including receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III and offensive tackles Jedrick Wills Jr. and Alex Leatherwood. Saban, who was has been outspoken about the playoff system diminishing the importance of the bowls, was asked Sunday about the possibility some of his players may opt to skip the Citrus Bowl.
“I’m sure that guys are going to make individual decisions based on their circumstance and their situation,” Saban said. “But who we want to focus on is the guys who are looking to the future.”
For Michigan State, that’s also the case at the end of another disappointing season. Losers of five in a row at one point, the Spartans managed to beat Rutgers and Maryland to secure bowl eligibility.
And while the thought at the time was that might mean a trip to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, instead they’re headed to New York for the Pinstripe Bowl against Wake Forest. (The Big Ten landing two other New Year’s Six bids, in addition to Ohio State’s playoff berth, meant the league didn’t have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill out all its tie-ins.)
That’s hardly a tropical destination, and unlike the Dec. 26 game at Ford Field, the Pinstripe Bowl won’t be played indoors. Two years ago, the kickoff temperature at Yankee Stadium was 23 degrees, with a wind chill of 12.
“I think we’re conditioned for that at the very least,” Dantonio said.
Besides, after Dantonio handed out hats that read “program win” a week ago to his players after they managed to clinch a bowl berth, the Spartans weren’t in a position to be picky.
“Regardless of which bowl game we went to, we were going to embrace that and move forward,” Dantonio said. “I think the main thing is, what makes everybody happy is when you win the bowl game.”
Of course, nobody’s going to be happy about the way this season went, and Dantonio understands that. But he insists he’ll put off any decisions about looming staff changes and the like until after the early signing period — Michigan State still expects to sign all its committed recruits, he said Sunday — and the bowl game that’ll follow.
As for the opponent, Wake Forest lost three of its last four games — to Virginia Tech, Clemson and Syracuse, all on the road — but the Demon Deacons are in a bowl game for the fourth consecutive year under coach Dave Clawson. They’ve won their last three bowl games, too, averaging 42 points a game against Temple, Texas A&M and Memphis. So there’s some work to do yet for Dantonio & Co. to make the math work in their favor.
“I just know that 7-6 is better than 6-7,” Dantonio said, “and it’s better than 6-6.”
A .500 finish almost wasn’t good enough for Eastern Michigan, as there were 79 eligible teams for 78 bowl slots this season. And as expected, it was a Mid-American Conference — with eight eligible teams and only five guaranteed bowl tie-ins — team that got left out in the cold.
Fortunately for the Eagles, it was Toledo — a team it lost to in overtime back in late October — that drew the short straw. Eastern Michigan drew the Quick Lane Bowl bid vacated by the Big Ten and will play Pittsburgh on Dec. 26 at Ford Field. It’s the first time in program history EMU will play in a bowl in consecutive seasons, and a third trip — albeit a short one this time — in four years under head coach Chris Creighton. It’s also a chance to take down another Power 5 opponent in Pitt, which hasn’t won a bowl game since it last played at Ford Field in the Little Caesars Bowl in 2013.
Central Michigan is bowl-bound after completing the biggest single-season turnaround in the country, going from 1-11 in 2018 to 8-5 with an appearance in the MAC title game under first-year coach Jim McElwain. Now they’re headed to Albuquerque, where they’ll face a San Diego State team that’s one of just 13 in the nation to make a bowl game each of the last 10 years.
Western, meanwhile, is still stewing over its last loss at Northern Illinois, which cost the Broncos a trip to the MAC title game and now leaves them with a Dec. 30 date in the First Responders Bowl in Dallas against Western Kentucky to try to end the season on a positive note.
“It hurts more (that) we’re that close and couldn’t finish it out, and that’s something that we can’t let happen,” WMU coach Tim Lester said. “A lot of angry coaches and players, but we have a chance to play one more.”
For once, they all do around here.