It was a simple notion. Peyton Manning, having recently signed with the Denver Broncos, likened the "wanting" to go to all of the teams that were courting him to his high school days when he pointed out that he "wanted to go to Ole Miss,[I] wanted to go to Florida, [I] wanted to go to Michigan.*]"
*-Let's be clear, Manning is as PR savvy an athlete as they come. Throwing Michigan in here while being interviewed by Rich Eisen, getting a verbal "AH-HA!" out of Eisen and a bit of fun interplay between the two during this rather standard interview is nothing lost, potential for gain as you can't rewrite history.
Inspired by Bill Simmons entire chapter of "What If" in The Book of Basketball, I compelled myself to consider several questions related to "What if Peyton Manning had played for Michigan instead of Tennessee?"
As a historian, I am now morally required to mention that counterfactual history is fiction and that speculative fiction is a notoriously hard genre to write well. Instead of reaching conclusions, I shall raise questions.
1994: Freshman Year (Michigan 8-4, Holiday Bowl. Quarterbacks Coach: Kit Cartwright)
Todd Collins was Michigan's senior quarterback in 1994 and was Team MVP (and eventual second round draft pick by Buffalo), so I don't know if Manning would have had enough to supplant him as a freshman. Manning, in fact, as highly touted and as big a brand name as he was, only started at UT as a freshman because of injuries to the two quarterbacks ahead of him (one of which was future MLB player Todd Helton.) 1994 was also the year of the freaking Miracle at Michigan and the freaking Kerry Collins/Ki-Jana Carter nightmare against Penn State (oh yes, the era before "We own…Penn State.") I don't know that Manning would have saw much action this year. One of the questions becomes then becomes redshirting, which I do not think would have happened, but again a question is raised.
I also need to raise one point here. If we accept Manning at face value on wanting to come to Michigan, part of that may lie in Cam Cameron as quarterbacks coach. Cameron left Michigan in 1994 to become the Redskins quarterback coach, so we don't know if Cameron was part of the draw for Manning.
1995: Sophomore Year (Michigan 8-4, Alamo Bowl. Quarterbacks Coach: Kit Cartwright)
One of the major questions would need to answer with our monkeying with the timelines is the Moeller situation. The Moeller situation is worthy of its own what if, but let us presume that it still happened and Michigan still hires Coach Carr. One of the major turning points here would need to examine is the presence of Manning on the quarterback depth chart in 1995 fall practice. Would he have beat out Scott Dreisbach for starting duties (we presume he would have beaten out Brian Griese as Dreisbach did, It would also meant that Michigan would have had two scions of former NFL starting quarterbacks on their roster, which is kind of neat to think about. It would have been like Beilein's penchant for picking up the sons of NBA stars 15 years later.) Here's where it gets really interesting. Manning's Vols only lost ONE game in 1995 to, you guessed it, Florida, beating Alabama and beating Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl. The question would then become this: Sticking Manning on an 8-4 Michigan team, with Tshimanga Biakabutuka in the backfield, with Amani Toomer and Mercury Hayes (and Tyrone Butterfield) at receiver, with Jay Riemersma at tight end, could a sophomore Manning have done enough to win any of all of those three regular season games, the maddening 19-13 loss to Northwestern during their miracle season, the 28-25 loss to Nick Saban's Spartans in East Lansing, or the 27-17 loss to Penn State late in the season at Beaver Stadium. My gut tells me they win the Penn State game, but they still drop the Michigan State game. As for the Northwestern game, I don't know, at that point, I'm going up against something that feels like destiny. Then again, maybe it wouldn't have mattered if Michigan's offense had a tell during that game. It's also worth remembering that any speculation on this season in the pro-Manning direction costs you two of the greatest moments in Michigan Stadium history, Mercury Hayes catch to beat Virginia and Biakabutuka's 313 yard game against Ohio State. Then again, part of me desperately wants to know what Peyton Manning would have done in the legendary 5-0 snow game against Purdue.
1996: Junior Year (Michigan 8-4, Hall of Fame Bowl. Quarterbacks Coach: Stan Parrish)
Peyton Manning lost a game to Memphis his junior year. I need to point this out. I once firmly believed that Peyton Manning only ever lost games in college to Steve Spurrier's Florida teams, hence one of the greatest disses in all of college football history ("You can't spell Citrus without UT.") But no, he lost to Memphis at Memphis 24-17. So it's worth remembering that our memories are faulty. I love Michigan's 1996 season because, well, it was my Freshman year and getting to go to every home game, do you have any idea how awesome that was? They just give you tickets. OK, yes, you have to pay for them, but I mean, come on, I get to go to every Michigan football home game?! But there were some really bad hiccups. Another loss to Northwestern (ugh!), the 9-3 slog at Ross-Ade, and a third straight loss to Penn State (man, I am really reopening some old wounds for myself here.) Dreisbach was Michigan's starter for the entire regular season (though he was injured in the Ohio State game, leading to some further Brian Griese heroics to beat the Buckeyes 13-9. Good times. Good times.) So we know that Manning would have likely been the starter as well. Would Peyton Manning have been worth two more wins? Would he have not inexplicably lost to Michigan State (to build on the Florida corollary from his UT days?) Would we still have lost that Purdue game in the muck and the mire as a fluke loss? Hard to say.
1997: Senior Year (Michigan 12-0, Rose Bowl, National Champions. Quarterbacks Coach: Stan Parrish.)
And here's where the entire thing hinges. Manning on Michigan cannot improve the result from 1997. In fact, it might have detracted from it. For starters, there's no way Charles Woodson wins the Heisman if Manning is the Michigan quarterback. But I also would posit that Manning does not win the Heisman either (no, he probably would. The narrative would be there.) My better question would become, does Michigan win the National Championship if Peyton Manning is Michigan's quarterback? (Actually, there's a flaw in that too. Manning finished his degree at Tennessee in three years. He came back in 1997 for any number of reasons, but if you can see a situation where the 1996 Michigan team wins the National Championship, then maybe he goes in the draft? (Then again, the New York Jets had the first pick in the 1996 Draft. That just raises further questions.) But would Manning as "unable to win the big game" Manning during his college career (fair or not) have dropped a game somewhere? Hard to say.
In the end, the speculation is just that, speculation. There's no way of knowing. I'm happy with how things turned out, good, bad, happy, sad.