ANN ARBOR, Mich. — You might be familiar with the refrain that comes from some of the country’s more notable major college football programs.
“Rankings? We don’t need no stinkin’ rankings?”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, however, sees those weekly polls in a different light than some of his counterparts. To him, the rankings are a form of motivation.
“We’re trying to see how high we can climb, how far we can go,” Harbaugh said. “Striving to be the best.”
The top 25 — typically arbitrated on a weekly basis by the media and by FBS coaches — isn’t just fodder. Harbaugh uses those polls as motivation for the Wolverines, who are ranked fourth in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll and fifth in this week’s USA Today Sports Coaches Poll.
And while many debated where Michigan stood after 2 p.m. Sunday, when the AP released its weekly Top 25, the Wolverines weren’t necessarily dismayed by the fact that they were fourth in the nation. And if they were, they made no mention of feeling slighted by the fact that the AP voters kept them at No. 4 for a second week in a row, following Saturday’s 45-28 comeback win over Colorado, combined with Ohio State’s 45-24 win over already-floundering Oklahoma and Louisville’s 63-20 blowout of former No. 2 Florida State.
“We check it,” Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said. “It’s a priority. But I don’t think it’s something we really drool over. I don’t really think we pay that much attention to it, to where it becomes a distraction for us.”
Michigan linebacker Mike McCray owned up to this much: Everybody at every school, he said, tends to look at the rankings.
But he also knew that Michigan’s fate in this week’s AP Top 25 poll hinged upon the outcome of other games.
“Because Louisville blew out Florida State, I had a feeling they might have jumped us,” McCray said. “We know where we are, but we’re not really worried about.
“It’s a motivation for us, but we can’t really dwell on it. We have to go out every week and prove ourselves.”
This top-five ranking isn’t virgin territory for the Wolverines (3-0), who host Penn State at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Michigan Stadium. But it’s certainly unfamiliar territory in recent years.
The last time Michigan was a top-five team in the Associated Press top 25 poll was in August 2007, when the Wolverines opened the season at No. 5. Following Appalachian State’s historical upset of Michigan on Sept. 1, 2007, the Wolverines fell out of the polls for six weeks, and finished 18th in the final AP Top 25.
Even in 2011, when the Wolverines finished 11-2 and won the BCS Sugar Bowl, they were ranked no higher than No. 11 in the AP Top 25.
In 2013, Michigan was No. 11 in the preseason polls, and steadily dropped, falling out of the polls in November after a 29-6 loss at Michigan State.
This summer, the Associated Press ranked college football’s top 100 teams of all time and ranked Michigan at No. 7. Michigan has been ranked No. 1 34 times, the last time in January 1998. The Wolverines were ranked in every AP Top 25 poll in the 1970s — including an eight-week stretch at No. 1 in 1976 — and has appeared in 73.3 percent of all the AP’s Top 25 polls.
Michigan finished as high as second in the AP Top 25 and in the coaches poll in 1985, Harbaugh’s third season at Michigan as a player.
By comparison No. 1 Ohio State — Michigan’s archnemesis — has appeared in 77 percent of all of the AP Top 25 polls, including No. 1 105 times
But again, Michigan certainly isn’t dismissive of what’s on paper, even though tight end Jake Butt needed a second to affirm that, yes, his team is a top-five team.
“We stayed at No. 4, right, and some other teams bounced around, right?” Butt asked this week.
Yet while he stressed the importance of the rankings, he was pragmatic about what kind of direct influence Michigan has on moving up or down in the polls. It’s worth noting that the College Football Playoff committee doesn’t release its initial rankings for the four-team postseason until Nov. 1.
“You always want to be the best at anything you do, and you always want to strive for that No. 1 spot,” Butt said. “All we can really control is how we play, and the ratings are really up to other people, at that point.
“We’re focused on winning. And if we continue to win games, obviously, that will translate into higher rankings.”