Hayes: Free at last, Michigan's drive for a national championship starts now
It’s all downhill from here for Michigan. The heavy lifting is over, the scandal behind them.
Relax and play free — and maybe win it all.
“I like to speak things into existence,” Michigan tailback Blake Corum said earlier this week. “So after we win the Big Ten Championship, we still have a lot to prove.”
That’s what the post-sign stealing scandal is all about.
Michigan isn’t exhaling, isn’t throwing it into neutral now that the Big Ten has officially closed the book and the NCAA won’t do the same for months. But the outside distractions, the suspension of coach Jim Harbaugh for 3 games, are all in the rearview.
This team, for the first time this season, can zero in and play without the unknown shadowing its every move. It’s time to think championships. Plural.
It’s time to think Playoff and redemption and retribution. A quarterback who has been dying for another shot to make it right, and a team desperate to make a statement amid the cheating narrative.
It begins Saturday in the Big Ten Championship Game against Iowa, where unbeaten Michigan is more than likely bulletproof. Even with a loss to Iowa — which would be the biggest upset in championship game history — the Wolverines more than likely are in the Playoff.
But this team isn’t thinking about heading to Indianapolis with a get out of jail free card in its pocket. Michigan is focused on making a statement, on proving a point.
Just like it did the last 3 weeks of the regular season when the Big Ten decided to use the NCAA coach responsibility rule to punish Harbaugh for alleged future scouting violations by staffer Conner Stalions. Michigan won its 2 biggest games of the season — at Penn State, Ohio State — without the suspended Harbaugh on the sidelines.
Michigan players say they don’t listen to the outside noise, that they focus on the team and every opponent, every week. You know, parroting Harbaugh’s mantra.
But don’t kid yourself. Players’ lives run through social media, the very fuel of who and what most players are.
And the narrative on social media is undeniable: Michigan wins games because it knows every team’s signals. Because the Wolverines cheat.
Nearly a week later, the Columbus Dispatch is still reporting stories of how many tickets Stalions allegedly bought to Ohio State games the past 2 seasons, and how many were used, and how many were sold after market.
The story included a photo of the view from the seats, showing a direct line — near the 50-yard line — to the Ohio State bench. Translation: Michigan cheated to beat Ohio State.
Michigan players spoke of the narrative after last week’s win over Ohio State, even though they proclaim it’s not front burner. With Harbaugh leading the way, you can almost guarantee it is.
You don’t think the Michigan vs. Everybody slogan is just some random decision, do you?
A day after last week’s, last-minute win over Ohio State, Harbaugh said on a conference call that it was, “Probably the happiest I’ve ever been. One of the happiest moments of my life.”
At the very least, one of the best exhales of his life. Not because of guilt — assumed or not — but because of what Michigan has gone through since the beginning of the season.
Since the NCAA first took a run at Harbaugh for a completely different investigation.
That was the NCAA prior to this season, trying to suspend Harbaugh for 50 percent of the season for, they claim, his decision to deliberately mislead investigators looking into illegal contact with recruits from coaches on the Michigan staff. Not Harbaugh — assistant coaches.
The university balked at the 6-game suspension, and instead self-imposed a 3-game suspension on Harbaugh. So this unbeaten season, the season of redemption after last year’s ugly Playoff loss to TCU, began and ended with Harbaugh serving 3-game suspensions.
The NCAA didn’t mortally wound Michigan, it gave them something to fight for. It gave them the villain they needed to maintain focus during preparation and execution of those 6 games.
And now here we are in the first step of the postseason process, a conference championship game that leads to the Playoff — which leads to 2 crucial steps of unfinished business.
Michigan still owes Georgia from the ugly loss in the 2021 Playoff semifinal. Michigan still owes itself for imploding in the 2022 Playoff semifinal loss to TCU.
It begins Saturday night with an awkward trophy presentation from Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti to Harbaugh. It could end in January with another presentation.
The one Michigan has been pointing to all along.
The one they can speak into existence.