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ROSE BOWL / No. 1 Michigan 21, No. 8 Washington State
16 | COMMENTARY

Michigan's Chances Are Overrated

January 02, 1998|MICHAEL WILBON | THE WASHINGTON POST

PASADENA — An awful lot of people are treating this Rose Bowl outcome as a given. That Michigan will absolutely, positively beat Washington State to stay atop the final college football polls, leaving Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning with only pride to play for Friday night in the Orange Bowl.

Excuse me.

The University of Michigan, a mortal lock in the Rose Bowl?

Have I been watching the wrong Grandaddy of 'Em All all these years? Hasn't Michigan lost to just about everybody the Pac-8 and Pac-10 has had over the years?

Don't get me wrong, I'm rooting for Michigan big-time. I'm a Big Ten alum. I grew up in Big Ten country. And it's killing me that the Big Ten hasn't had the undisputed No. 1 team in the final polls since 1968. The ACC, which is widely perceived as a "basketball league" has had two No. 1s (Clemson and Florida State) since the Big Ten has had one. And who's more responsible for that drought than Michigan, the league's preeminent school?

Not only that, but this Michigan team is so balanced, so smart, so well coached and creative, so downright charismatic (and therefore un-Bo like), that it's easy to root for the Wolverines. They've got the best team in the country, plain and simple. Still, don't cancel your Friday night plans to be a couch potato (again) just yet.

Here's all the evidence one needs to go light on those Michigan-by-20 predictions: The last eight times Michigan has come to the Rose Bowl ranked in the top 5, the Wolverines have gone home losers seven times. Seven out of eight. Now, we're not going to explore all the possible reasons Michigan has gone belly-up on New Year's Day because half the ones offered up are too whiny and bogus to consider. There's only one I put any stock in and here goes:

It's too hot and too sunny for any kid in the midwest to come out here and be at his best, mentally or physically. When you're from the heartland, a trip to California means, "VACATION!!!" and I don't care what Michigan's Lloyd Carr or any other football coach says. There hasn't been sunshine in Ann Arbor since October. It hasn't been above freezing since early November. Washington State is cold, but not wind-off-the-lake-freezing-the-mucus-in-your-nose cold. In other words, the Pac-10 teams ought to win. They've got every advantage known to man.

If the Pac-10 schools want to prove anything, let them make the Rose Bowl a home-and-home affair, playing the "Ice Bowl" in Soldier Field every other year. Let's see how those surfer dudes would do in the other guy's environment. (Probably about as well as the Tampa Bay Bucs who, last we checked, are 0-18 all-time in games where the temperature is 42 or lower. Weather update from Green Bay, where the Bucs will play Sunday: cold, wind, glaciers moving at 2 mph out in the "bay" with a wind-chill of -35. Ooooh, fun.)

In addition to any atmospheric advantages, the Washington State Cougars can flat-out play offense.

I'm picking Michigan to win 30-20 but I'm wincing even as I type the words. I'm going to say this and all you whining Tennessee fans can write and call if you want: I'd take Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf over Manning if I had the top pick in the NFL draft. And Leaf, who's like Steve Young and Mark Brunell but five inches taller at 6-foot-6, has a posse of receivers, the kind Michigan hasn't had to play against all season in the run-dominant Big Ten. Personally, I think the Cougars receivers talk a little too much smack, but they've backed it up all season.

Plus, Michigan, which loves to blitz, may have to make some radical changes because leaving cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Andre Weathers to fend for themselves against traditional two- and three-receiver sets is one thing. But how do you blitz and still account for four or five people running pass routes? Washington State may make enough silly turnovers to self-destruct, but if Leaf starts hooking up early with Shawn McWashington, Shawn Tims, Chris Jackson, Kevin McKenzie and Nian Taylor, this isn't going to be easy for the Wolverines.

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