Michigan football acknowledges College Football Playoff chances ahead of MSU showdown

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There were several signs that rivalry week had arrived at Schembechler Hall on Monday as coach Jim Harbaugh and select players spoke ahead of No. 6 Michigan football's game Saturday against No. 7 Michigan State.

In Harbaugh’s case, rivalry week was met with a heightened terseness when fielding questions. He was more short-winded than usual and declined to elaborate on a larger percentage of inquiries compared to his normal Monday news conferences.

For the players, rivalry week meant detailing their mental approach to a game that doubles as both an in-state showdown and Michigan’s initial crack at a ranked opponent this season.

“It’s an elimination mindset,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve got a playoff mindset at this point. Win this game, that will help your chances.”

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Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh takes the field before the game against Rutgers at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh takes the field before the game against Rutgers at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Harbaugh’s comment marked the first time someone from the program referenced U-M’s chances of reaching the College Football Playoff beyond the long-range platitudes about wanting to compete for national titles. As members of a Big Ten conference that might only be afforded a single berth in the CFP, the Wolverines have begun contextualizing Saturday’s game on a more macro level. Beating Michigan State would give Michigan more wins over ranked opponents than Ohio State, which lost its only matchup against a team, Oregon, in the Top 25 earlier this season — though the Buckeyes host No. 17 Penn State on Saturday night.

To put it another way, a win over Michigan State might afford Harbaugh’s club a greater level of control over its potential CFP destiny.

“I think it would mean a lot for us and us as a program,” left tackle Ryan Hayes said. “I think it could really help propel us through the rest of the season. We’ve got a few more really tough games that we’ve got to prepare for, and this would really help us with our momentum and confidence going into the rest of the season.”

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Respect for RB Walker

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III runs past Rutgers linebacker Drew Singleton during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Piscataway, N.J. Michigan State won 31-13.
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III runs past Rutgers linebacker Drew Singleton during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Piscataway, N.J. Michigan State won 31-13.

Among the layers of intrigue surrounding Saturday’s game is the presence of three terrific running backs that rank among the best in the Big Ten and the country at large.

Michigan tailbacks Blake Corum (104.1 yards per game) and Hassan Haskins (86) rank 19th and tied for 34th nationally in rushing while MSU star Kenneth Walker III leads the country with 142.4 yards per game.

The respect for Walker’s game-breaking ability shone through during interviews with Harbaugh and his players.

Said Harbaugh: “He’s got great vision. Really good balance. I mean, he runs their zone schemes, their man schemes extremely well. Fast. He looks to be about a mid-4.4 guy. But he’s also big, too. The most impressive thing with him is the yards he gets after contact. I think it’s about 4.5 yards after contact. He’s a fine back.”

Said inside linebacker Josh Ross: “It’s definitely important to keep Kenneth Walker contained this game. That’s a guy that can make big plays and can make you pay if you’re not in the right spots on defense. Definitely it’s going to be a goal for us to contain him and stop him and neutralize him for sure. That will be a big piece for us.”

Health of O-line unclear

Michigan mauled its way through Northwestern despite missing both starting guards due to injury. Right guard Zak Zinter (leg) and left guard Trevor Keegan (shoulder) were sidelined after dropping out of U-M’s win over Nebraska before the bye week.

Harbaugh offered no additional information when asked about their potential availability for Saturday’s game against the Spartans.

“We’ll see,” he said.

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Backups Chuck Filiaga and Karsen Barnhart filled in for the Wolverines against the Wildcats and would likely do the same this weekend.

“It was pretty seamless,” Hayes said of playing without Zinter and Keegan. “All through camp, all those guys have been rotating in. They’ve all had game experience, and it’s been pretty easy to plug and play.”

A friendly neighbor

The Harbaugh family shares something of a connection with Michigan State coach Mel Tucker dating to his stint as the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Georgia.

Tucker worked in Athens, Georgia, from 2016-18 before accepting his first head-coaching position at Colorado. And during his time with the Bulldogs, he got to know Harbaugh’s sister, Joani, and her husband Tom Crean, the men’s basketball coach at the university.

“He was neighbors with my brother-in-law Tom Crean and my sister Joani down in Georgia,” Harbaugh said. “Have great things to say about him. I’ve talked to Mel, I’ve been on calls with him and I think he’s doing a tremendous job.”

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. Send questions for his next U-M mailbag.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football: Potential playoff appearance riding on MSU game