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Fiesta Bowl Preview: Michigan Returns to the College Football Playoff

Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Michigan has been here before. Defeated Ohio State. Captured the Big Ten championship. Advanced to the College Football Playoff. In fact, the Wolverines accomplished all of this just last year. This year, however, it feels different.

College Football Playoff: Fiesta Bowl

#2 Michigan Wolverines (13-0) vs. #3 TCU Horned Frogs (12-1)

3pm | ESPN | Michigan -7.5 | O/U 58.5

State Farm Stadium (Glendale, AZ)

Sure, Michigan’s first-round playoff opponent is different than it was last season, and this year the Wolverines come into their national semi-final match-up as favorites rather than underdogs, but it’s more than that. And if you’ve spent much time around Michigan’s players and coaches this season, you understand what I mean.

A team’s outlook or attitude is often described as an intangible, but with this Michigan team, it’s been downright tangible. Michigan carries itself differently than past Michigan teams have - with a combination confidence and looseness that hasn’t been seen in Ann Arbor in some time.

Put another way: Last year, Michigan believed it could win. Believed it could win the Big Ten. Believed it could advance to the college football playoff. But this year it’s more than that. This year, you get the sense that Michigan expects to win. And it’s been that way all season. Longer, in fact.

During the Big Ten Media Days in July, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh was very open about Michigan’s goals this season, something that hasn’t always been the case. “Our goals,” Harbaugh told reporters, “are to beat Ohio State and Michigan State in the same year. Win the Big Ten championship and the national championship. Those would be our four goals.” Harbaugh made the statement with a matter-of-fact sense of casualness and confidence, something he and the team have displayed all season. Even when times were tough.

When Blake Corum, a consensus All-American and Michigan’s team MVP, went out with an injury a week before the Ohio State game, Wolverine fans may have been distraught, but the Wolverines themselves didn’t blink. Harbaugh seemed almost nonplussed when asked about Michigan’s chances against Ohio State if Corum couldn’t play. “We’ll be fine,” Harbaugh assured reporters. “Whoever is able to play will play. We’ll be fine.”

Granted, Donovan Edwards isn’t your ordinary back-up, and Harbaugh acknowledged as much, but there’s a belief within this team that goes beyond tying its hopes to any one player. And Michigan is bringing that belief to Arizona.

That’s not to say that Harbaugh and the Wolverines are looking past their playoff opponent. TCU may not be a household name when it comes to college football playoff talk, but the Horned Frogs are deserving of their spot in the playoffs. Led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Max Duggan, TCU will challenge Michigan, and the Wolverines know this.

“They have a quarterback who’s a competitor. A real competitor,” linebacker Michal Barrett said of Duggan. Safety Rod Moore echoed his teammate’s sentiments. “He (Duggan) gives everything he has,” Moore said of Duggan. “(To win), we have to do the same thing, and give them everything we have.”

And that much is true. You only had to watch the Big 12 title game to understand why Duggan was a Heisman finalist, a game in which Duggan essentially willed his team into overtime. But TCU is more than just its swashbuckling quarterback. The Horned Frogs complement Duggan with a talented and productive running back in Kendre Miller (1,342 yards and 17 touchdowns on the season) and a cadre of talented and physical receivers, led by Quentin Johnson (a first-round NFL talent).

Led by Duggan, Miller and Johnson, all first-team all-conference selections, TCU will surely test Michigan’s defense. “They have weapons,” Moore continued, “On the outside, the inside as well as at quarterback.” But while Michigan acknowledges that it will have its hands full with the 12-1 Horned Frogs, the Wolverines aren’t shying away from the challenge.

“We’ve got more work to do,” a mostly stoic McCarthy said immediately after Michigan beat Purdue to secure its second consecutive Big Ten championship, “There’s more football to play. And we’ll be ready.”

And being around this team, you believe that Michigan will be ready. Ready for TCU. And ready for whatever comes next.