Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and athletic director Warde Manuel shoot down NFL rumors on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, at Crisler Center.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
Michigan football will finish the 2018 season against an all-too-familiar opponent, in a bowl that’s not the playoff with the Big Ten championship trophy residing somewhere else.
Yes, all of this is repetitive and far from scintillating on paper. But it won’t be boring.
It rarely is around here.
Jim Harbaugh’s public message the past two times he has addressed the media has centered around U-M finding an 11th win in the Peach Bowl against Florida on Dec. 29.
“Getting our team prepared to play a really good, uber-talented, twitched-up team like Florida, that’s a great challenge,” Harbaugh said. “Hungry for that 11th win.”
For the Wolverines, an 11th win is a consolation. If you’re in the crowd that values perspective, you’ll view an 11th win as an achievement considering where this program was four years ago. If you’re in the crowd that’s sick and tired of being sick and tired, you won’t care.
And a loss would enrage everyone, to be sure.
Either way, the intrigue heading into Michigan’s 2018 finish is about more than the final outcome. It’s about how, exactly, it happens.
This game could show plenty about the actual resolve from the core group of contributors who will be returning in 2019. And, in some instances, it could offer an early glimpse into the future.
Rashan Gary has already declared for the NFL draft and Harbaugh has confirmed he won’t play in the Peach Bowl. Asked specifically if others will be following Gary with the decision to sit out the game with their professional futures in mind, Harbaugh declined to give specifics.
But he all but confirmed Gary may not be the only one.
“I’ll let them make that decision or announcement,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t make announcements concerning that.”
All-American junior linebacker Devin Bush Jr. is projected by many, like Gary, as a first-round pick in the upcoming draft. Bush told the Big Ten Network late last month that he’d like to play in the bowl game. But few would fault Bush if he opts to skip the game and formally declare for the draft.
Junior cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill are both possible draft prospects. Neither has said anything publicly about what they’ll do next year, or if they’ll play in the Peach Bowl. Senior defensive end Chase Winovich says he’s playing. Junior quarterback Shea Patterson, who is also weighing the NFL, says he’ll play, too. Senior running back Karan Higdon, who will surely be a draft prospect, hasn’t made an announcement either.
Though, like the others, it’d be impossible to fault a player like Higdon if he decides to save his body in favor of full draft preparation.
Let’s get to know what team Michigan will play in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29 in Atlanta.
Kirkland Crawford, Detroit Free Press
In several areas, the Peach Bowl could be a chance for Michigan to find out what life’s like without some of the established core members of this year’s team.
If Bush doesn’t play, sophomore linebacker Josh Ross could find himself with a full stage to show how much he has grown in 2018. If either Long or Hill decide to sit out, Michigan should be able to give sophomore Ambry Thomas — a player who will absolutely be counted on for heavy snaps next season — an advanced audition. Gary’s absence will give more reps to Kwity Paye, Josh Uche and Aidan Hutchinson. All three could play massive roles next season.
Higdon is Michigan’s leading rusher. If he opts to save his body, that would mean more carries for junior Chris Evans and possibly someone like true freshman Christian Turner.
Maybe all these guys choose to play. U-M certainly won’t turn that down.
Either way, the emphasis on finishing continues to be pushed at Michigan. Because, frankly, there’s been very little of it during the Harbaugh era — or in the decade or so prior to his tenure.
Michigan closed the 2015 season as the type of “twitched-up” team Harbaugh called this version of Florida. Everything was new for that group, Harbaugh called it his favorite year in football. Most of that team was coming back, too. They treated the Citrus Bowl like a playoff game that would serve as a bridge to something bigger and, as a result, thrashed the Gators.
In 2016, after having its dreams crushed at Ohio State, the Wolverines half-limped into the Orange Bowl and fell behind big early. U-M fought back and nearly pulled out a win over Florida State, but that team was buoyed mostly by players who weren’t coming back.
Last year at the Outback Bowl?
Well, let’s face it: No one wanted to be there.
People may be bored with Michigan-Florida, but this game will draw eyeballs. Like any time U-M plays, it’ll be heavily watched by both supporters and those hoping for a stumble. The narrative surrounding the build to the 2019 season will be centered around whether or not Harbaugh and company can beat Ohio State. There’s no changing that.
But a respectful performance in the Peach Bowl could offer a brighter picture. A loss would simply darken the storm cloud some believe is already hanging over this place.
Either way, the game’s not irrelevant.
“This is a huge opportunity (for us),” Winovich said. “Make no mistake, this is a huge opportunity for our team. A must-win game against Florida.
“(Because) it will set the tone for next year. Good or bad.”
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NickBaumgardner.