What If 'The Spot' Favored Michigan, Not Ohio State?May 14, 2020
November 26, 2016, at the Horseshoe. Trailing 27-24 in double overtime, the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes are facing a 4th-and-1 against the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines and their ferocious defense. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett fakes to Curtis Samuel, runs left, absorbs a hit, glances off his teammate's backside and falls to the ground.
He's right at the line of scrimmage. "The spot will decide it!" ESPN's Chris Fowler exclaims.
Rather, The Spot will decide it.
History says Barrett picked up the first down, and Samuel scampered 15 yards to the end zone on the next snap for a 30-27 rivalry win. Ohio State advanced to the College Football Playoff, ultimately falling to Clemson 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.
But what if officials had ruled Barrett fell inches shy of the line to gain? What if coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan won 27-24 and reached the Big Ten Championship Game instead of Penn State?
This question is the fourth installment of B/R's "What If?" college football series.
- What if Joe Burrow stayed at Ohio State?
- What if Justin Herbert went pro in 2019?
- What if Reggie Bush hadn't pushed Matt Leinart?
First, let's talk Samuel. Without his miraculous eight-yard gain on third down, Ohio State likely would've lost anyway.
Even if Samuel had reached the line of scrimmage, the Buckeyes would've been looking at a 4th-and-9. Barrett would've been 15-of-32 for just 116 yards. While possible, sure, it's unlikely Ohio State would have converted the fourth down.
The perfect mix of skill and luck helped Samuel set up a memorable play within this fierce rivalry.
In this what-if universe, however, Barrett drops tantalizingly short of the first-down marker, and the importance of Samuel's amazing play is immediately—and forever—forgotten.
Meanwhile, Michigan erupts into jubilation, snapping a four-game skid in The Game while sealing a Big Ten title berth.
Harbaugh and Co. head to Indianapolis and take on Wisconsin. Earlier that season, Michigan had earned a 14-7 victory over the Badgers thanks to an incredible defensive showing in which it allowed only 159 yards. The Wolverines again shut down Wisconsin to win the Big Ten and seal a place in the College Football Playoff.
And, well, Clemson defeats Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl anyway. In a showdown featuring two elite defenses, it's reasonable to think Clemson star Deshaun Watson would fare better than Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight.
The bigger impact, however, is felt within the Big Ten.
After toppling Wisconsin, Michigan would have celebrated its first conference crown in 12 years. Penn State wouldn't have ended an eight-year slide—or, subsequently, not secured the defining moment James Franklin needed to legitimize the rebuild.
Yes, an eight-game winning streak to end the campaign would've provided a great selling point for Franklin. But a Big Ten championship trophy and Rose Bowl appearance is a whole lot better than boasting about sharing the division title with a Michigan team that walloped Penn State 49-10 earlier in 2016.
Look no further than the next recruiting cycle for evidence.
In general, positive results on the field are likely to translate to recruiting success the following season. Penn State jumped from 15th nationally in 2017 up to sixth. Michigan, conversely, whiffed on several key prospects and dropped from fifth to 22nd.
Armed with a Big Ten title and a CFP appearance, it's inarguable that Ann Arbor would be a more attractive spot for top recruits.
Would Penn State still sign a top-10 class? Probably. But the talent gap between Michigan and Ohio State only expanded as the Buckeyes added the nation's second-ranked group for 2018. While injuries and youth didn't help Michigan in 2017, Harbaugh and his staff couldn't point to a Big Ten championship.
Instead of telling a top prospect to "look at this trophy," Michigan was limited to "remember how close we were?"
And that's remained the same through 2019.
What would happen on the field post-2016 is a theoretical. Maybe the Wolverines would be trapped in their current trend of struggling on the road against top teams anyway. Perhaps the Buckeyes would continue to thrive under Urban Meyer and/or Ryan Day and still win three straight Big Ten championships.
But the perception of Harbaugh's tenure would have a different tune—or, at the worst, demand a nod to 2016's excellence.
Football, however, is a game of inches. The Spot is a perfect reminder of that fact.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from NCAA.com, cfbstats.com or B/R research. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.