The first College Football Playoff rankings came out on ESPN and it was pretty predictable. Two SEC teams, Clemson and Michigan with Pac-12 leader Washington and Ohio State trailing behind.
I'll admit, my first instinct was to get annoyed at Clemson being ahead of Michigan. I've watched both teams this year and I'm personally not that sold on the Tigers this season, not nearly as much as last year. Deshaun Watson is one of the best QB's in the country if not THE best this season, but the close calls against Troy and North Carolina State are what give me pause. A shanked field goal as time expired may very well have saved their season and that's a hell of a tightrope to walk. Granted, the Louisville win is strong and likely the biggest reason for their strength of schedule being higher, but I think Michigan's defense would give Clemson some problems up front and I don't think the Tigers' 11th ranked defense would hold Michigan to 17 points or less.
All of that being said, it's all conjecture and it doesn't matter. What DOES matter is that in Year 2 of the Jim Harbaugh era, he's got Michigan ranked in the CFP for the first time ever, with a team still largely comprised of senior leadership from players he didn't recruit himself, but through his coaching and that of his staff have gotten the most out of a talented group that just two years ago weren't playing in a system to reach their full potential, but now are playing sky high and aiming for the big prizes.
So in looking at the first CFP rankings it was obvious that defending national champion and NCAA juggernaut Alabama would be No. 1, and they'll likely stay there for the rest of the regular season into the start of the playoffs. Clemson and Michigan following them up was to be expected as well, but the true surprise might be Texas A&M at 7-1 jumping undefeated Washington to be No. 4. Again, that's a strength of schedule argument and A&M playing in the SEC against some of the perceived top teams in the country helps them, especially since that one loss the Aggies have is to No. 1 Alabama.
As far as Michigan goes, there's a lot to like about being 3rd in the CFP at this point. It is only the first ranking on November 1, so there's a whole month or so of football to be played that can and will change things. This is just the starting off point, but even at that it's a great starting off point for Michigan because it doesn't change their objectives, which is to win out and claim the Big Ten title. Now we know with a virtual certainty that sitting at No. 3 to start, achieving those goals would certainly put them in the playoff.
On top of that, assuming that Michigan, Clemson and Alabama all win out, we would be looking at a Michigan-Clemson matchup in the first round of the CFP, which would give the Wolverines a chance to prove on the field if they are better than Clemson or not. There's a lot of football left to be played between now and then, but it's still a solid projection.
Michigan hosts Maryland this week, which has former Michigan defensive coordinator DJ Durkin at the helm of a program looking to make a good bowl game. With Perry Hills at QB, that game won't quite go the way of last season's 28-0 shutout, but it's still a game that the Wolverines should win at home, just as they should win at Iowa the following weekend, even though it's a night game at a tough venue in Kinnick Stadium. You get past those teams and then it's Indiana at home one week before "The Game" against an Ohio State team that has had their struggles and got tagged by Penn State a few weeks ago. They'll be taking aim at the rest of their schedule as well and gunning for Michigan's playoff spot without question.
If Michigan can win the next four games and claim the Big Ten East Division, they'll go to Indianapolis for the first time in school history for The Big Ten Championship Game against the West Division winner, which is very much up for grabs this year. Nebraska leads the pack at 7-1 and 4-1 in the conference but Wisconsin, the team that just beat the Cornhuskers in overtime are tied with Minnesota at 6-2 overall, 3-2 in the Big Ten. Iowa and Northwestern are also 3-2 in the conference but are 5-3 and 4-4 overall respectively.
So we could be looking at Michigan playing Nebraska or Wisconsin in a rematch for the conference championship, and if the Wolverines can take home that prize they'll be set for an almost certain matchup with Clemson in the playoff. Of course, to get there they must take care of business against the rest of their regular season opponents, starting with Maryland.
I still can't believe that we're talking about this legitimately in only Year 2 of the Harbaugh Era. The fun for us Michigan fans is truly just beginning.