Home » What I learned about presidential politics watching the Rose Bowl

What I learned about presidential politics watching the Rose Bowl

When the University of Michigan Wolverines beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 27-20 in an overtime Rose Bowl thriller earlier this week, they did more than secure a berth in the national championship next week: They defied historic norms, beat the media’s conventional wisdom, and made history amid a rapidly changing landscape. Sound familiar?

That’s right, I’m about to pen a piece crafting an analogy between one of my favorite escapes—watching Michigan football—and the fraught presidential election year on which we are embarking. And while the venues are distinctly different, several common threads run through sports and politics that are worth being mindful of this year. If you’re a sports fan of any kind, this should be fun for you. If not, please allow me a point of personal privilege.

For the uninitiated, Michigan’s Rose Bowl rival, Alabama, led by coaching legend Nick Saban, isn’t just any college football team—it’s the football team of the new millennium. In the past decade alone, Saban’s Alabama team has won seven Southeastern Conference titles and four national championships, making it likely the best 10-year run of any major-college football team for over half a century. In the 2020 Citrus Bowl, Alabama trounced Michigan, which is led by Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, 35-16.

Harbaugh, who specializes in engineering team turnarounds, has led Michigan to three consecutive Big Ten titles and a shot at playing for the national championship after each. But heading into Monday’s matchup, Harbaugh was weighed down by a lackluster bowl record as Michigan’s head coach, winning just once in seven bowl game appearances.

So while Michigan was ranked No. 1 and Alabama No. 4 before the game, the sports media spent the week grilling Michigan’s defensive players over their chances, mainly obsessing over how they would ever stop Alabama’s exceedingly talented young quarterback, Jalen Milroe. By game time, Michigan’s defensive players entered the game with a chip on their shoulders.

“We was getting so disrespected all season, man,” Michigan defensive linebacker Michael Barrett said in a post-game interview. “All the bulls–t that’s been thrown at us, we just overcome it all together. We got some dogs in here, man. We will not be denied.”

Sure, Michigan was the No. 1 seed, but the media simply failed to objectively size up the matchup for what it was. Michigan’s defense had absolutely dominated opponents the entire season, yet none of the experts spent any time chewing over how Alabama might blunt their defensive schemes, stymie their pass rushers, and manage one of the stoutest interiors in the country. In fact, on Alabama’s first offensive series of the game, Michigan sacked Milroe twice (two times in three snaps!) before Alabama was forced to punt away the ball. Ultimately, Michigan’s defense would hold the Tide to just 288 yards, the team’s lowest yardage since the 2017 season.

Yet on game day, for instance, USA Today posted “expert predictions” from six analysts, and not a single one picked Michigan to win. That’s not a knock on any single one of those analysts as much as it is a lesson in groupthink.

Anyone who read the political media’s coverage leading up to the 2022 midterms knows how wildly off-base the pervasive “red wave” predictions proved to be—a narrative that persisted in spite of high-quality polling and a series of special elections that suggested otherwise.

What I found in the lead-up to the Rose Bowl was that the sports media was equally as susceptible to the distorting influence of conventional wisdom as the political media was. And that insight led to this conclusion: Reporters and analysts are simply terrible at assessing any environment that breaks with historical norms. Democratic voters and activists would do well to remember that this year. Forget the chatter, forget the noise. Keep your head down and do the work, because even the most reasoned and informed analysis is nothing short of a shot in the dark during moments of political upheaval and change.

That insight segues nicely into my second post-Rose Bowl axiom: In a contest that’s essentially even on paper, mental and emotional resiliency wins the day.

Michigan’s defense played spectacular ball, but its offense and special teams (generally punting/kicking) played an undeniably sloppy game. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy nearly threw an interception on the very first play of the game, but official review showed the defender stepped out of bounds before snagging the ball. That was just the beginning of what left me (and surely other fans) with a sinking feeling at times from my perch in the stands. Every college football fan knows, for instance, that a Saban team makes its opponents pay when they miss an extra point following a touchdown—another mistake Michigan made.

But as one Michigan podcaster noted on The Wolverine, you only have to make one more play than your opponent. Down by seven with 4:41 left to play, Michigan’s offense went to work, tying up the game at 20-all with 1:34 to go. Finally, the game came down to an overtime shootout in which Michigan struck first, with senior running back Blake Corum slipping several tackles and twirling his way into the endzone for a 17-yard touchdown.

To stay alive, Alabama had to answer. But Michigan’s defense held, stuffing Milroe in the final play of the game and sealing the Wolverines’ 27-20 victory. It surely felt like sweet validation to the Michigan defensive front.

To my mind, the X factor in the closing minutes of the game was the mental resiliency of a player-led team that had weathered a gusher of obstacles throughout the season. Michigan was haunted by controversy this year, from a sign-stealing scandal that dominated headlines to the suspension of its head coach, Jim Harbaugh, for a total of six games. But even without their head coach on the sidelines, the players shut out all the noise and the naysayers and surpassed every milestone the media successively tagged as the true test of their grit: fending off Penn State’s vaunted defense; defeating arch-rival Ohio State with wide receiver marvel Marvin Harrison Jr.; and ending a five-game bowl drought by defeating SEC royalty in the granddaddy bowl game of them all.

Michigan had a team full of seniors, some of whom put their NFL dreams on hold to come back and take care of what they dubbed the “unfinished business” of winning the national title. I always liked their chances if they got into a real shootout with ‘Bama because the team had proven so cohesive throughout a year that easily could have broken them. They were mission-driven, never panicked, and never gave up on each other, no matter what the circumstances—another valuable lesson for Democrats heading into what will arguably be the most challenging presidential election cycle of our lifetime.

This year’s presidential race will be close, as all the polling is telling us. Do yourself a favor and tune out conventional wisdom, believe in the power of collective action and commitment, and never panic—it’s just wasted energy waiting to be spent on something more productive.

And remember, just like in last year’s midterm elections, Democrats and pro-democracy allies can defy expectations again this year no matter what the media says.    

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January 2024