ANN ARBOR — The game might not mean a Big Ten championship or berth into the College Football Playoff title game, but Jim Harbaugh is treating his team’s bowl game this year in a similar vein.
With seventh-ranked Michigan set to play Florida in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29 in Atlanta (noon, ESPN), the team has the opportunity to achieve 11 wins in a season for just the 10th time in program history. The last time it happened was 2011.
And for Harbaugh, that’s enough to serve as motivation.
“Hungry for another win,” Harbaugh said Sunday during the Peach Bowl news conference at Crisler Center. “That’s our mindset.”
It was a message Harbaugh delivered to his players more than week ago when the Wolverines (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten) were selected to play in the Peach Bowl, one of four New Year’s Six bowls not designated as part of the four-team playoff this year.
While there might be little to play for from a trophy of bragging rights perspective, 11 wins looks much more satisfying than 10, of which Michigan has finished with two out of the last three seasons under Harbaugh.
“That’d be the primary (motivation),” Harbaugh said. “Getting our team prepared to play a really good, uber-talented, twitched-up team like Florida, that’s a great challenge. The competition is always the best part, and the objective is to win. Hungry for that 11th win.”
Michigan’s starters returned to the practice field on Saturday, and continued on Sunday before taking a bulk of the week off to study up for final examinations. Preparations for Florida will continue later this week, with the team scheduled to depart for Atlanta next weekend.
There, they will continue practicing inside the 74,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium ahead of the Dec. 29 game. Defensive end Rashan Gary, who has announced he will forego his senior season to declare for the NFL draft, will not play. And there could be others.
But that hasn’t stopped the mental preparation from players in the early going, Harbaugh said.
“(Practice) was good,” Harbaugh said. “It was better than any I can remember, where there was a break of two weeks, where the team came back sharp and good. I was really pleased, as were the other coaches who had the same feeling watching the tape.
“I really felt the guys were crisp and sharp. That was really encouraging.”
The Peach Bowl also marks the final collegiate football game for at least 12 fifth and sixth-year seniors, along with others who decide to depart early for the NFL or transfer. Players like Devin Bush, Jr., Lavert Hill and David Long, all juniors, have decision to make about their future.
“For those who weren’t in the locker room in South Bend when the team had adversity in the opening game and the way the team came back and won 10 straight games,” Harbaugh said. “To be in that locker room at Northwestern, the effort that the team put out. And they did week after week after week.”
Harbaugh cited the wins over Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State — all part of the Chase Winovich-coined “revenge tour” — as signs of the program showing growth. Playing in another game, and picking up with another victory, would be part of that, he said.
“So many tremendous victories with this team,” Harbaugh said. “And then to see them come back after the time off they had, as I said, I think they were really sharp, really crisp in their practice. And retention to everything that we’re doing, I think we’re off to a really good start and really excited about playing in the Peach Bowl.”