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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Michigan Football – Elite or Overrated?

Michigan Football – Elite or Overrated?

Are the Michigan Wolverines an elite program?
Publish Date: 05/07/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

ESPN and SEC Network personality Paul Finebaum is on record a few years ago as calling Michigan fans “some of the most unrealistic people that I’ve ever encountered,” and said, “When you win a championship, call me back. I have never met a Michigan fan that had an ounce of humility or didn’t think his team was the greatest of all time regardless of the record.”

When asked what is the most arrogant college fanbase in America, Finebaum responded that Michigan has won half a national championship in about 60 years and “they talk like they’re Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Penn State wrapped into one.”

Is the arrogance by Michigan’s football fans justified? Does Michigan football walk the walk and their fans just talk the talk? I thought I’d dig a little deeper into Finebaum’s assessment and look how Michigan compares to other schools.

Yes, Michigan is recognized as the all-time leader in wins and has a higher winning percentage than any other program. No doubt helped by 62 wins by 1929 against powerhouses Albion (17), Case (26), Mt. Union (7), Oberlin (9) and Ohio Northern (3). Those five schools compiled a 1-62-1 record against the Wolverines. That certainly boosts Michigan’s all-time winning percentage.

Credit certainly must be given to the Wolverines for beating the likes of Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin to the tune of a 357-101-8 record and a winning percentage of .775.

Michigan’s won one-half share of one national championship (’97) in the last 69 years of college football. Since 1950, and we’re not talking a small sampling size of data, we’re talking since the Korean War,  that’s 69 seasons of data. Does anyone dispute the fact that 69 years is not a small data range? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

Michigan’s last outright national championship was 1948. In 1997, Michigan was co-national champions along with Nebraska. That’s one-half of a national championship since 1950. According to https://www.ncaa.com/news/football/article/college-football-national-championship-history, the list of schools that have won at least a share of a national championship* since 1950 looks like this:

12- Alabama (‘61*, ‘64*, ‘65*, ‘73*, ‘78*, ’79, ’92, ’09, ’11, ’12, ’15, ’17)

7 – Ohio State (‘54*, ‘57*, ‘61*, ’68, ‘70*, ’02, ’14)

7 – Oklahoma (’50, ’55, 56’, 74*, ’75, ’85, ’00)

7 – USC (’62, ’67, ’72, ‘74*, ‘78*, ‘03*, ’04)

6 – Notre Dame (’49, ‘64*, ‘66*, ‘73*, ’77, ’88)

5 – Miami (’83, ’87, ’89, ‘91*, ’01)

5 – Nebraska (‘70*, ’71, ’94, ’95, ‘97*)

4 – Texas (’63, ’69, ‘70*, ’05)

3 – Clemson (’81, ’16, ’18)

3 – Florida (’96, ’06, ’08)

3 – Florida State (’93, ’99, ’13)

3 – LSU (‘58*, ‘03*, ’07)

3 – Michigan State (’52, ‘65*, 66*)

2 – Auburn (‘57*, ’10)

2 – Penn State (’82, ’86)

2 – Tennessee (’51, ’98)

1 – Brigham Young (’84)

1 – Maryland (’53)

1 – Pitt (’76)

1 – Georgia (’80)

1 – Syracuse (’59)

1 – Arkansas (‘64*)

1 – Colorado (‘90*)

1 – Georgia Tech (’90*)

1 – Iowa (‘58*)

1 – Michigan (‘97*)

1 – Minnesota (‘60*)

1 – Mississippi (’60*)

1 – UCLA (‘54*)

1 – Washington (’91*)

Sixteen schools have won multiple national championships since 1950, and another five have won a single undisputed national championship before getting to schools such as Michigan that have won a share of a national championship in the past 69 seasons. If Michigan fans think of Michigan as elite or upper echelon, shouldn’t the Wolverines have won more than just a half-share of one national championship in the past 69 years? Does that sound elite to you?

How about we compare Michigan to the rest of college football another way? Let’s look at a list of schools and how many seasons since 1950, that they had one loss or less (we’ll allow for ties even Michigan’s three in 1992), and won a major bowl game (Cotton, Fiesta since 1987, Orange, Peach since 2014, Rose and Sugar) or a playoff game that season. For this discussion, let’s call that a “very good year.”

Which schools had the most very good years (1 loss or less & a major bowl game or playoff win) since 1950?

16 – Alabama (’61, ’62, ’65, ’66, ’75, ’77, ’78, ’79, ’92, ’09, ’11, ’12, ’15, ’16, ’17, ’18)

12 – Oklahoma (’53, ’55, ’57, ’58, ’67, ’71, ’75, ’78, ’79, ’83, ’86, ’00)

(’54 and ’56 could not make consecutive bowl appearance as conference champion.)

12 – USC (’52, ’62, ’67, ’69, ’72, ’74, ’76, ’78, ’79, ’03, ’04, ’08)

10 – Texas (’61, ’63, ’64, ’68, ’69, ’72, ’81, ’04, ’05, ’08)

9 – Ohio State (’54, ’57, ’68, ’73, ’96, ’98, ’02, ’14, ’15)

(’61 opted not to go to Rose Bowl and in ’10 wins were vacated)

8 – Florida State (’87, ’88, ’92, ’93, ’94, ’97, ’99, ’13)

8 –  Nebraska (’63, ’70, ’71, ’82, ’94, ’95, ’97, ’99)

8 –  Penn State (’68, ’69, ’71, ’73, ’82, ’86, ’94, ’05)

8 – Washington (’59, ’60, ’77, ’81, ’84, ’90, ’91, ’00)

7 –  Miami (’83, ’87, ’88, ’89, ’91, ’00, ’01)

7-   Notre Dame (’70, ’73, ’77, ’88, ’89, ’92, ’93)

(’53 and ’66 Notre Dame chose to not go to a bowl game)

5 –  Clemson (’50, ’81, ’15, ’16, ’18)

5 –  Georgia (’59, ’66, ’80, ’83, ’02)

5 – Tennessee (’50, ’70, ’85, ’89, ’98)

4 – Auburn (’83, ’87* tie in Sugar Bowl, ’04, ’10)

4 – Florida (’96, ’06, ’08, ’09)

4 –  LSU (’58, ’61, ’62, ’03)

3 –  Arkansas (’64, ’68, ’77)

3 –  Michigan (’64, ’92, ’97)

3 – Michigan State (’53, ’55, ’13)

(’66 could not go to the Rose Bowl consecutive years as conference champion.)

3 – Wisconsin (’93, ’98, ’17)

Look how far down the list one must go to find Michigan. Since 1950, 17 schools have more 1-loss or less seasons with a major bowl victory and/or won a playoff game that year than Michigan. 17 schools! In only three of the past 69 seasons has Michigan had one loss or less and won a major bowl game that same season. Three out of 69, and I’m including 1992 in which Michigan had three ties that season.

As you can see, some schools have done it many, many more times than Michigan. Ohio State, Michigan’s rival, has done it three times as many as Michigan’s three times, accomplishing the feat nine times. Arkansas, Michigan State and Wisconsin also match Michigan with three one-loss or less seasons with a major bowl victory over the past 69 years. Does that strike you as being elite?

We’ve looked at national championships and very good years since 1950. I’ll even lessen the criteria on this next comparison. Since 1950, how many 10-win seasons with a bowl victory, any bowl victory, it could have been the Poulan Weedeater Bowl, it doesn’t matter, just so it’s a bowl victory has Michigan had compared to other schools.

For this discussion, let’s call a 10-win season with a bowl win, any bowl win, a “good year.” I think most schools would consider that a good year, although granted, a 10-win season at Alabama isn’t looked upon the same as a 10-win season at UCLA, but one would think a 10-win season and a bowl win shouldn’t get a coach fired. Although winning nine games is not always good enough, just ask Les Miles at LSU or Frank Solich at Nebraska.

We know Michigan seemingly can’t beat Ohio State to win a conference title, but they still could and should win 10 games in a season and then go on to a bowl game and meet an opponent that had an equivalent amount of success that season. You’re no longer playing against the likes of Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, etc.  Which schools had the most good years (10 wins & a bowl game win or playoff win) since 1950?

22 – Alabama (’52, ’61, ’62, ’66, ’75, ’77, ’78, ’79, ’80, ’86, ’91, ’92, 94, ’96, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12, ’15, ’15, ’17,  ’18) not including ’93 and ’05 both vacated.

18 – Oklahoma (’55, ’57, ’58, ’67, ’71, ’75, ’78, ’79, ’80, ’85, ’86, ’00, ’01, ’02, ’10, ’11, ’13, 16)

(’54 & ’56 consecutive bowl appearances prohibited by conference.)

18 – Penn State (’68, ’69, ’71, ’73, ’74, ’77, ’80, ’81, ’82, ’86, ’91, ’93, ’94, ’96, ’99, ’05, ’09, ’17)

17 – USC (’52, ’62, ’67, ’69, ’72, ’74, ’76, ’78, ’79, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’13, ’16)

16 – Florida State (’77, ’87, ’88, ’89, ’90, ’91, ’92, ’93, ’94, ’95, ’97, ’99, ’10, ’12, ’13, ’16)

16 – Georgia (’59, ’66, ’71, ’80, ’83, ’92, ’97, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’07, ’08, ’12, ’14, ’15, ’17)

15 – Nebraska (’63, ’70, ’71, ’80, ’82, ’84, ’86, ’94, ’95, ’96, ’97, ’99, ’00, ’03, ’09)

15 – Texas (’61, ’63, ’64, ’69, ’72, ’75, ’81, ’01, ’02, ’04, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’18)

14 – Ohio State (’54, ’68, ’73, ’86, ’93, ’96, ’98, ’02, ’03, ’05, ’14, ’15, ’17, 18)

12 – Clemson (’78, ’81, ’87, ’88, ’89, ’90, ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16, ’18)

12 – Tennessee (’50, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’87, ’89, ’95, ’96, ’98, ’01, ’04, ’07)

11 – LSU (’58, ’61, ’87, ’96, ’01, ’03, ’05, ’06, ’10, ’13, ’18)

11 – Notre Dame (’70, ’73, ’74, ’77, ’88, ’89, ’91, ’92, ’93, ’15, ’17)

10 – Washington (’59, ’60, ’77, ’79, ’81, ’82, ’84, ’90, ’91, ’00)

10 – Wisconsin (’93, ’98, ’99, ’05, ’06, ’09, ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17)

9 – Auburn (’72, ’74, ’83, ’86, ’89, ’97, ’04, ’06, ’10)

9 – Florida (’93, ’96, ’97, ’98, ’01, ’06, ’08, ’09, ’18)

9 – Miami (’83, ’87, ’88, ’89, ’90, ’91, ’00, ’01, ’03)

8 – Michigan (’80, ’85, ’97, ’98, ’99, ’02, ’11, ’15)

7 – Oregon (’00, ’01, ’08, ’11, ’12, ’13, ’14)

7 –  UCLA (’82, ’87, ’88, ’97, ’05, ’13, ’14)

As you can see, 18 schools, count them, 18 schools since 1950, have more 10-win seasons with a bowl victory than the University of Michigan. Alabama, Oklahoma, Penn State, USC, Florida State and Georgia have at least twice as many 10-win seasons with a bowl victory since 1950 than Michigan. Still think Michigan is elite? Leaders and Best? For as beloved as Michigan coaching legend Bo Schembechler was, he never won a national championship and his bowl record was 5-12.  His major bowl record was even worse at 2-10.

In the past 69 seasons, Michigan had one more 10-win season with a bowl victory than Oregon or UCLA. No one thinks of Oregon and UCLA as elite. No one. I ask you, how could a school and its fanbase rationalize that there are 18 schools with more 10-win seasons with a bowl victory than its school and consider itself elite? Is that not the definition of overrated? The very definition of overrated is having a higher opinion of (someone or something) than is deserved. They should put a picture of Michigan football and its fans next to the definition in the dictionary.

Well, what about recently? Michigan hasn’t won a Big 10 conference title in football since 2004. That’s 14 seasons ago.  Which teams have won Big 10 conference titles since 2005?

6 – Ohio State

3 – Penn State

3 – Wisconsin

2 – Michigan State

0 – Michigan

Does that strike you as Michigan being elite? Leaders and Best?

Michigan has also lost 14 of their last 15 games against their rival Ohio State. That’s hardly a rivalry, that’s more like Navy versus Notre Dame and Kentucky versus Florida. In fact, Navy has beaten Notre Dame and Kentucky has defeated Florida since the last time Michigan beat Ohio State.

In his four years at Michigan, the Wolverines’ ballyhooed head coach Jim Harbaugh has a record 1-9 vs. top 10 teams, 1-3 in bowl games, and 0-4 vs Ohio State. In each of the past three seasons, the Wolverines continued their tradition of ending the year poorly with a season-ending loss against Ohio State and then a bowl-game loss. In 2016, it was a 1-3 finish over the last four games, in 2017, an 0-3 finish, and in 2018 an 0-2 finish to the season.

For all the hubris that Michigan fans have, it’s hardly warranted compared to other schools. Michigan is the most overrated blue-blood football program. Their supporters always point to their past, but it’s been longer than 70 years ago since Michigan truly was elite. No one under the age of 75 remembers Michigan winning two national championships in their lifetime. Those that attended Michigan and experienced the 1948 national championship would now be in their 90s.

By comparison, Clemson and Alabama students still in school have experienced two national championships. If you want to watch highlights when Michigan was truly amongst college football’s elite, you will not find it on ESPN Classic. You might have to watch the History Channel because Michigan hasn’t been truly elite for a long, long time.

Photo credit:  larrysphatpage on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:  https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/

 

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