College football has turned itself into a free-for-all. Schools hopping from one conference to another. Name, Image & Likeness deals inviting all sorts of underhandedness. The transfer portal bulging with players changing teams. Entire rosters remade in the Coach Prime model.
Yet the sport, despite itself, is enjoying a season for the ages on the field with five teams a perfect 9-0 followed by six others at 8-1 -- all trying to survive into the last four-team, pre-expansion College Football Playoff.
Then there’s Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh in the middle of it all, the national stain on the season, its perfect record stinking.
The presently No. 3-ranked Wolverines are a display of excellence and embarrassment in equal measure.
If the mounting evidence of its cheating scandal involving stolen signals is as true as it appears, this is a university and football program that should be disqualified from competing in the CFP for a national championship.
The reward of glory and a financial windfall is not deserved by any team found to have blatantly cheated.
Evidence indicates Michigan in violation of rules scouted and stole opponents’ play signals in a scandal centered on a since-resigned football staffer named Connor Stalions.
Cheating in sports is always ridiculous on the face of it, from the gall of its origin to its execution.
The Houston Astros in 2017 conveyed stolen signs by banging on a trash can, low-tech espionage that helped them to a World Series win that should forever have an asterisk attached.
Michigan had Stalions disguised as a Central Michigan staffer usurping information on a sideline during a game in a flourish of outlandishly brazen stupidity.
An NCAA investigation advances at glacier speed but the Big Ten is moving quickly and already has notified Michigan of pending discipline for violation of its sportsmanship rules.
(So it’s official, then. Stealing other teams’ signs to tip you off on whether a pass or run is coming -- that’s unsportsmanlike, in case there were any doubt and you needed it codified.)
Michigan in turn now claims that in 2022 Ohio State, Purdue and Rutgers shared its signs. It’s a diversionary tactic in the everybody-does-it category, and it is not expected to weigh in the Big Ten’s pending punishment.
The problem here is that the expected punishment will not fit the crime.
The Big Ten as soon as Thursday could suspend Harbaugh for two games and fine him $10,000, a proverbial slap on the wrist. (Harbaugh you’’ll recall already served a self-imposed three-game suspension to begin this season for unrelated violations.)
First-year Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti could with executive board approval suspend Harbaugh for all three remaining regular season games, and should, but that still would not be enough. And any suspension is likely to be met with a legal challenge from Michigan and Harbaugh.
Harbaugh pleads ignorance, says he had no idea Stalions was doing what he was doing.
That stretches credulity to the snapping point, but even if you believe Harbaugh ignorance is no excuse. He’s the boss of Michigan football. It’s almost worse if this was going on without his knowledge. The NCAA’s phrase for that is “lack of institutional control.”
It is why the NCAA could mete out punishment to the Michigan program in 2024, retroactive to current crimes.
Meantime, if the only 2023 punishment is a two- or three-game suspension for Harbaugh, the real possibility exists that the CFP could include tainted Michigan among its four finalists. The Wolverines in that case could be playing for a national title in the place of a deserving school that did not cheat.
The proper punishment still could come on a football field, though.
Michigan plays at No. 10 Penn State this Saturday, then, after a game at Maryland, closes its regular season vs. No. 1 Ohio State on November 25 in a likely winner-take-all to reach the Big Ten championship game.
So there are two real chances that Michigan might still lose and fall from the top four.
It would feel like justice done.