College Football Throwback Thursday: Michigan dominates in 1997, 2016
On Tuesday, the second College Football Playoff rankings were released, and Michigan held steady at No. 3, making the Wolverines an early top candidate to compete for the national title.
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So, since Michigan is likely to have another chance to secure its 12th national title, we throw back to the last Wolverines team to be named national champions and the road they took to get there.
The Wolverines began the 1997 season with a challenge, taking on No. 8 Colorado to open the season. While many expected Michigan to take an early loss there, the Wolverines posted a 27-3 victory and sent the Buffalos packing with Colorado’s worst loss since Rick Neuheisel took the reigns as head coach, according to the New York Times.
Just days before the game, Brian Griese, a junior quarterback at the time, was named the starter, and here, he proved to become a major leader of Michigan’s offense that year. While the offensive line started the season fairly inexperienced, sophomores Steve Frazier and Chris Ziemann along four interior linemen that had never started a game stepped up to allow Griese to make some serious impact, starting with the Colorado game where he completed 21 of 28 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, according to the New York Times.
From this win, according to Michigan Athletics, Michigan went from No. 14 in the preseason poll to No. 8. And, the Wolverines climbed to No. 5 before their next ranked matchup after defeating Baylor, Notre Dame, Indiana and Northwestern with an average margin of victory of 24 points per game.
Coming into its game with Iowa ranked 15th in the nation, the Hawkeyes had major offensive weapons in quarterback Matt Sherman, running back Tavian Banks and wide receiver Tim Dwight. While Michigan had the upper hand, it wasn’t an unfair fight. And the score reflected that. Michigan defeated Iowa 28-24, gaining its first lead with just three minutes left in the game, according to Bleacher Report.
It was defensive stars like Charles Woodson, who won the Heisman Trophy that year, that led the team to a win that day. Iowa’s Sherman completed only 8-of-21 passes for 86 yards and three interceptions, and Iowa’s offense as a whole tallied only 187 yards that day.
Michigan moved to No. 4 in the rankings and defeated Minnesota 24-3 next. However, in Week 9, the Wolverines faced their toughest competitor yet and competed in a pivotal game for their season.
Traveling to face No. 3 Penn State, Michigan looked to have a tough game against the Nittany Lions, especially after struggling against Iowa. But the Wolverines won convincingly 34-8. According to the Chicago Tribune, it was the most one-sided loss Penn State faced at home since 1931.
Again, Michigan’s top-notch defense aided in the win, only allowing the Nittany Lions to post three first downs and no third-down conversions in the first half. Also, Penn State posted about 300 yards below its average per game that day.
While the win pushed Michigan to No. 1, the season was not over, yet. While the defeat of Penn State looked to give the Wolverines the Big Ten title, two more ranked conference rivals, Wisconsin and Ohio State, stood in the way of conference-championship security.
Michigan traveled to Camp Randall Stadium to take on the Badgers. While the Badgers were ranked No. 23, it wasn’t another easy win for the Wolverines. Michigan won with only a 10-point lead, posting a final score of 26-16.
According to Wisconsin Athletics, Griese continued to post impressive numbers with 254 passing yards during this match. Without top-receiver Tai Streets, Griese’s season would not have been as impressive, as Streets tabbed five receptions for 108 yards and one touchdown against the Badgers. He had been posting numbers like this throughout the season, and today, according to Michigan Athletics, he still ranks in the top seven for career receptions, yards and touchdowns for UM.
No. 4 Ohio State remained the only team between the Wolverine’s and a chance to compete in the Rose Bowl.
The Buckeyes came to the Big House and had a chance to become the co-Big Ten champs while handing the Wolverines their first loss. But Michigan did not allow that to happen, winning 20-14.
The first quarter, according to Ohio State Athletics, remained a battle between defenses, where neither team posted points. However, in the second, Michigan ran into the end zone to tally the first touchdown of the day.
Also in the second, arguably one of the greatest plays in Michigan history occurred when Woodson nabbed a punt return and ran it back 78 yards for a touchdown. Many pundits say it was this play that secured him the Heisman that year.
The Buckeyes remained scoreless in the first half, but they made a comeback attempt in the second, posting two touchdowns. However, after Michigan put up another seven in the third quarter, the Buckeyes weren’t able to match the score.
The Wolverines were going to the 1998 Rose Bowl.
In Pasadena, Michigan faced Washington State, where it came out the victor 21-16 and became the 1997 national champions.
Multiple memorable plays were made by Michigan during the game, including the longest scoring pass of the season when Griese connected with Sheets for a 58-yard passing touchdown. Griese also broke Michigan’s record for passing touchdowns and completions during the Rose Bowl with three and 18, respectively, according to Michigan Athletics.
Meanwhile, Woodson nabbed the only interception of the game and tied for second for Michigan’s all-time pass break ups in a single game.
With that win, the 1997-98 Wolverines finished the season unbeaten and untied for the first time since Michigan won the 1948 title.
Will Michigan do it again this year? So far the Wolverines are undefeated again and have been creating a strong path to the CFP for themselves. So far this year, Michigan has defeated opponents with an average margin of victory of 37.3 points, and during the 1997 path to the title, the Wolverines posted an average 16.8-point margin of victory. The Wolverines still have to take on Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State, but if they do make it to the Playoff, the likes of an Alabama or Clemson may be in their way.
Still, so far this year, Michigan has been performing the best they have since 1997.