INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan is headed back to the College Football Playoff, armed with the experience of failure and the confidence that better results lie ahead.
The second-ranked Wolverines pulled away from Purdue early in the second half Saturday to win the Big Ten championship game 43-22 and capture back-to-back outright league titles for the first time since 1991 and 1992.
Michigan remained perfect on the season and continued to dominate, outscoring opponents by 347 points, its best regular-season points differential since 1905, when Michigan held a scoring edge of 495-2.
But after raising the Big Ten championship trophy, singing “Mr. Brightside” and celebrating on the Lucas Oil Stadium field, the Wolverines immediately turned their attention to the CFP. All offseason, they were driven not by beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten in 2021, but by a 34-11 loss to Georgia in a CFP semifinal that was never competitive.
“I love our chances,” quarterback J.J. McCarthy said. “Last year, it was kind of bright lights, everything’s new, Big Ten championship, College Football Playoff. But going into the offseason, it gave us so much momentum. We knew we could get there and we could get back. This whole offseason, it was all about winning it.
“Everything’s great that happened today, but the job’s not finished. We’ve got a lot bigger plans.”
McCarthy, who passed for 161 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Purdue, was Michigan’s backup in last year’s CFP semifinal. That day, he completed seven of 17 passes for 131 yards and the team’s only touchdown.
But the loss motivated him and his teammates to return to college football’s biggest stage.
“It drove me so much that this victory tonight doesn’t really feel like anything,” McCarthy said. “That’s something that’s really hard to come by. I mean, back-to-back Big Ten championships is amazing, but that feeling that we had last year, this is just making sure that feeling never happens again.
“It was just a drive and a fire inside of us that was just ignited, and it’s still burning.”
Michigan will learn later Sunday its CFP location and opponent, but the Wolverines likely will need to win their semifinal for another shot at Georgia, the defending national champion. If Michigan remains the No. 2 seed, it likely will face TCU or perhaps archrival Ohio State, which the Wolverines beat 45-23 in Columbus on Nov. 26.
“Please, please, bring it on,” McCarthy said. “That would be truly a blessing if we get a shot to play those boys again.”
Tight end Luke Schoonmaker, who had 56 receiving yards and a touchdown against Purdue, said a CFP rematch with Ohio State would “probably go down as one of the best ever.” But Michigan is ready for any opponent, even Georgia, after a loss that left “a sour taste” throughout the offseason.
“We’re a different team this year,” Schoonmaker said. “We have a bunch of playmakers on both sides of the ball. Even better, we can all play together, use all that great talent.”
Michigan has had to evolve late in the season after a knee injury to star running back Blake Corum, who underwent surgery Friday and did not attend the Big Ten title game. Without Corum, the Wolverines have leaned on Donovan Edwards, who built on his 216-yard rushing performance against Ohio State with 185 yards and a touchdown against Purdue.
Edwards earned championship game MVP honors. He became the first Michigan running back to record 400 rushing yards in a two-game span since Mike Hart, the team’s running backs coach, in 2004. The last Michigan player to do so was quarterback Denard Robinson in 2010. Edwards said he’s “made for the big moments.”
“This guy comes alive in the big games,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “His whole career, whether it was high school, college, he just hits another gear. He takes off to another level.”
Harbaugh, whose job was in jeopardy entering the 2021 season, said that he didn’t change his approach, which players appreciated during Michigan’s turnaround. The team’s goal is now to change its performance and push for its first national title since 1997.
“We want revenge. We want to make up for our run last year,” Schoonmaker said. “I know everyone’s got that in their mind. This is amazing, I have no words for tonight, I’m so proud of everybody. But in the back of everyone’s heads, we know what we need to do.”