Warning: some of this will be analysis, but most of it may be venting.
After winning his second national title in three seasons, Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney was adamant in post-game interviews that if his team could reach college football's summit just about anyone can. But is that really true?
Right away, let's do away with this excuse -- "Michigan can't nationally compete because it won't cheat." That's victimology talking, and I basically have no tolerance for victimology in general. It's almost always the language of losers and suckers. The data usually contradicts victimology as it is.
For example, under Jim Harbaugh the Wolverines have signed more combined four-and-five star recruits than Clemson has in the last four classes according to the 247 composite rankings. Clemson's average recruit ranking these past four years is 91.6. Michigan's is 90.02. So even if Clemson is doing all the cheating they're accused of according to internet legend, they're cheating to recruit at the same level Harbaugh currently is. In other words, throw that whiny excuse out.
How about tradition? Maybe that's our next excuse.
Clemson didn't even get invited to a bowl game until 1939. Michigan claims eight national titles before then. Prior to winning its first national title in 1981, Clemson had finished in the top 10 of the AP Poll only twice. During that same time frame from 1936-1980, the Wolverines finished in the final AP top 10 a total of 24 times. After winning that 1981 national championship, Clemson didn't finish higher than eighth in the final AP Poll again until making it to the 2015 college football playoff. From 1982-2014 the Wolverines finished better than eighth in the final AP Poll 10 times. This excuse is lame.
It's the money and facilities, right? That has to be where Clemson has the decided edge.
Last year Forbes ranked Michigan's football program the third most lucrative in the sport. Just ahead of Alabama and Ohio State. Clemson's program wasn't even in the top 25. 247 did rank Clemson's facilities the second-best this year, and the Wolverines at 16th. But Tennessee's were ranked fourth in the country, and no one in their right mind thinks that program is ahead of Michigan's. Same for Oklahoma State, whose facilities were ranked better than the Wolverines, too. Poof goes another excuse.
Oh, wait, Clemson's players aren't real student-athletes like Michigan's are expected to be.
Make no mistake, Michigan is by any measure an elite public university. Currently ranked 27th among all national universities according to U.S. News and World Report. Only three other public universities were ranked higher. But Clemson is ranked a respectable 66th in the same survey. Right behind Big Ten peer institution Maryland, and ahead of fellow Big Ten members Minnesota, Michigan State, Indiana, and Iowa. Furthermore, Clemson is ranked much higher than fellow football factories Oklahoma (124th) and Alabama (129th). Clemson is coming off posting its highest football graduation rate in 20 years (85%). Michigan's slightly better 87% graduation rate is the second-best in its conference. Clemson's star defender, All-American Christian Wilkins, turned down Stanford to go to Death Valley. He got his bachelor's degree in less than three years, and just earned his masters, too. Boom goes the dynamite on another excuse.
If only Michigan had a 5-star quarterback like Trevor Lawrence though, right?
Lawrence, the first freshman quarterback since 1985 to win a national championship, is a stud. By the way, Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a No.2 final ranking right behind wishbone wizard Jamelle Holieway and Oklahoma back then. But I digress. Anyway, Lawrence was a consensus 5-star in the 2018 recruiting class. Ranked the No.1 overall player in the country with a .9999 grade according to the 247 composite. Michigan's Shea Patterson was a consensus 5-star in the 2016 class. Ranked the No.4 overall player in the country with a .9982 grade according to 247. So that difference is minuscule. Yet another excuse bites the dust.
But that Clemson defensive line, man, they're legit.
Indeed, they are. The best defensive line I've seen in college football since Florida State and Miami's heydays at the position. However, in the last four years Clemson has finished third, fourth, tenth, and and sixth in the nation in total defense. Michigan has finished second, third, first, and third nationally in total defense. And unlike Clemson, the Wolverines had to change defensive coordinators during that span as well. That excuse is gone in sixty seconds.
Come on, Steve, look at all those receivers Clemson has.
The receivers Clemson put on the field in the national championship game came to campus with an impressive .9533 average grade from the 247 composite recruiting ranking. The wide receivers the Wolverines brought to the Peach Bowl had a pretty impressive average grade in the 247 composite themselves -- .9271. That's a .0261 difference per player. Hardly a distinction that makes a difference. Therefore, feel free to take that excuse and stick it where the sun doesn't shine.
Enough, Deace, you know the offensive line has been holding us back.
In the last four years not a single Clemson offensive lineman has been selected in the NFL draft. Let me repeat that: in the last four years not a single Clemson offensive lineman has been selected in the NFL draft. Yeah, you heard me. Michigan has had two offensive linemen selected. Only two Clemson offensive linemen from its last four teams were on a current NFL roster at the end of the 2018 regular season. Four former Wolverine offensive linemen who played for Harbaugh were. Your excuses are now a black hole sun. Won't you come, and wash away the rain.
With all the excuses deconstructed and dismissed, we're left with only Occam's Razor to rely upon. So the verdict is clear -- the biggest difference between the Michigan and Clemson programs is coaching.
The national championship game was basically a replay of the Michigan-Ohio State game. With Alabama pitifully attempting to play man-to-man all over the field, and getting burned repeatedly in the downfield passing game -- just like what happened to Michigan. Meanwhile, Clemson built a three touchdown lead in the game when it only had 27 yards rushing at one point. And just like against Notre Dame in the semifinals, when it was obvious the running game wasn't going to carry the day, Clemson was willing to open up the offense to do what it took to win. Just like Michigan didn't in Columbus, or Atlanta.
Clemson has finished above its preseason AP Poll ranking six straight seasons. Michigan hasn't exceeded expectations since Harbaugh's first season. Clemson is 9-2 against top 10 teams the last four years, while Michigan is 1-9. Clemson has changed its culture in the process.
It wasn't too long ago that "Clemsoning" was actually a college football vocabulary world. Synonymous with not showing up, or getting shown up, whenever stepping into the sport's spotlight. Michigan wears that (pardon the pun) scarlet letter now. We are the team puckering on the 18th hole. We are the self-inflicted, self-perpetuating meme.
Given his previous track record of success, we know that Harbaugh is capable of reversing this ominous trend. But given what we saw at the end of this season with the window of opportunity wide open, we're uncertain if he's willing to.