Let’s get to know what team Michigan will play in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29 in Atlanta.
Kirkland Crawford, Detroit Free Press
For Michigan football, none of this seems ideal, even if it could be much, much worse.
On Sunday, the Wolverines were selected to play in their second New Year’s Six bowl game in the past three years. And within minutes, a gaggle of exasperated fans — still stinging from what might have been and why it wasn’t — let out a giant sigh.
Florida, again. A non-playoff bowl, again. The Peach Bowl is better than the Outback Bowl or something worse, to be sure.
But in today’s all-or-nothing world of college football, getting close and missing out can often feel worse than never having a chance.
“Our players have played a great season, our coaches have coached a great season,” U-M coach Jim Harbaugh said Sunday on a teleconference, when asked how he planned to pick up the pieces after Michigan’s collapse against Ohio State. “We’ve overcome every adversity and nothing changes. It just means the work isn’t done.”
Michigan’s 62-39 loss to the Buckeyes last month was no doubt soul-crushing for anyone involved with the program. A shot at a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff spot was, basically, four quarters away. And the Wolverines weren’t even close.
And yet the importance of what Michigan can gain at the Peach Bowl against Florida later this month in Atlanta probably depends on who you ask.
The Wolverines have a chance to notch 11 wins for just the third time this century, and finishing strong can be productive in on other ways, too.
In 2015, a dedicated Michigan club finished a 10-3 season with a dominant victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl. That win propelled a large number of returning players into the offseason and served as validation that they were on the right track.
And yet Michigan also has lived the alternative, when last year’s team was forced to spend eight months reflecting on what went wrong in an 8-5 season.
Finishing does matter from the standpoint that the alternative can be a nightmare. Michigan stumbled its way down to the Outback Bowl last season and then went out and lost the game.
The Wolverines spent the following month missing out on high-profile recruiting targets they’d spent months working on, and they seemed nowhere near the dance floor for the next available batch of top prospects.
Plenty of that has changed, even with the setback in Columbus. Michigan’s recruiting class ranks No. 8 nationally, according to 247Sports, and the Wolverines are pushing hard for 5-star defensive end Zach Harrison. There’s still hope to make a serious winter splash on the all-important recruiting trail.
Recruiting mailbag: Any more Michigan football decommits?
Blow this bowl game, though, and everything gets tougher.
This game should also be a great opportunity for some of the younger players on Michigan’s roster to begin the process of finding out what it’ll take to be an every-down player next year. Rashan Gary will not play, and has declared for the NFL draft. Harbaugh said Sunday he’s not aware of any other players who have made the same decision, but perhaps others will opt to sit in preparation for the draft.
Either way, the focus throughout bowl prep will be on the continued development of this roster and team overall. If the playoffs are the standard, then Michigan is not good enough right now.
And the month of December offers an opportunity to inch closer to that.
Michigan made progress this season, even if it didn’t take the next step as a program. The program is on better ground now than it was last December. Another late-season collapse, with a bowl loss included, would scrape at that progress.
Fifteen years ago, this game might have injected more life into Michigan’s fan base, even against a familiar opponent. This is a prestigious bowl because the college football system says so. Once upon a time, that was good enough.
Things have changed now and everyone knows it.
Michigan hasn’t lied to itself. The Wolverines believed they had what it took to break their Big Ten title drought and find a playoff spot. They didn’t. It hurts, and there’s no way anything that happens in the Peach Bowl will fix that.
But it’s a start.
And for Michigan, it’ll have to do.
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.