ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The first drive of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl was, in a nutshell, emblematic of the entire 2018 Michigan football season.
Michigan came out guns blazing, with quarterback Shea Patterson running for 21 yards on the first play. Two snaps later, true freshman Christian Turner ripped off what was initially ruled a 46-yard touchdown.
The Maize and Blue half of Mercedes-Benz Stadium erupted, releasing a month’s worth of pent-up frustration and embarrassment that stemmed from the blowout at Ohio State.
But like Michigan’s former College Football Playoff hopes, the touchdown proved to be fool’s gold.
Not only was Turner short of the end zone, he was short of the first-down marker. Jim Harbaugh watched fullback Ben Mason run into the pile for no gain twice in a row as the Wolverines turned the ball over on downs.
There’s not much substance to dissect from the Peach Bowl itself. Michigan players said all the right things before and after the game, and it was clear that the game was meaningful for many of them. But with three of the team’s best players sitting out and no championship on the line, Michigan didn’t have an answer to Florida’s second-half tenacity.
By the end of the third quarter, the game had been decided and the only question was how ugly the game would become.
This outcome wasn’t completely unexpected, though. The two programs have largely swapped spots since their meeting in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. In that game, Michigan was the excited team under a first-year head coach while Florida floundered under Jim McElwain.
Now it’s the Wolverines wondering which direction they’re heading.
What’s next for Michigan?
Is Michigan the team that ripped off 10 straight wins during the regular season, rising to the top four in the CFP poll and walking into Columbus as a favorite? Or is Michigan the team that got its lid blown off by Ohio State with everything on the line?
The clear answer: Michigan is both, and it’s a difficult middle ground to escape.
Harbaugh faces another offseason of criticism after dropping the team’s two biggest games against Notre Dame and Ohio State. Michigan didn’t look competitive in either contest, and that’s what people will remember.
The cold, hard truth is that college football programs are judged differently in the playoff era. The haves win conference championships and compete in the semifinals. The have-nots fall short, as Michigan did this season.
The elite tier of college football, made up of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and perhaps Oklahoma and Georgia, is still far ahead of Michigan. Those teams win their conference titles virtually every season and either compete in the playoff or have an argument to be included.
So far, Michigan has never been a deserving playoff team when the final four are announced.
With that in mind, Michigan is in as good a spot as any program beyond the elite. Harbaugh has led Michigan to three 10-win seasons in four years and twice had a game against Ohio State that would determine the Big Ten East title and likely playoff participant.
It’s the losses to Ohio State in 2016 and 2018 that have driven the narrative that Michigan can’t get over the hump.
Harbaugh has taken a program that was the fourth or fifth best in the Big Ten when he arrived and cemented it firmly at No. 2 behind the Buckeyes. There was a wide gap between teams such as Michigan State or Wisconsin and Michigan, but now, the Wolverines have overtaken the rest of the league.
Ohio State is sitting alone at the top, but Michigan is next in line. The step from good to elite is the most difficult to take, but Harbaugh is in position to perhaps make that move, if he can just beat the Buckeyes.
Wins over Ohio State will translate to Big Ten championship game appearances, which will translate to playoff appearances. Harbaugh needs to win “The Game,” and the rest of the team’s goals will fall into place.
That’s much easier said than done.
Despite the shock factor of being blasted 103-54 in the last two games, Michigan doesn’t need to make drastic changes to take the next step.
First, Harbaugh needs to be willing to use his best players on offense, even if it means straying from the style that helped him turn around Stanford, go to a Super Bowl and land the head coaching job in Ann Arbor.
The Peach Bowl was a stark reminder that when Michigan matches up with a team of a similar talent level, it can’t just bully its way down the field.
The offensive line — while much improved — isn’t elite, and the running backs available during the bowl game didn’t scare the Gators.
Patterson’s mobility and Michigan’s talent at wide receiver should have been the focal points of the offense, but they weren’t utilized enough. Too often the offense took the field with multiple tight ends and no true deep threats.
Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black should have been dominating the playing time in terms of skill players, but they were rarely all on the field at the same time.
Michigan can win most of its games next season without making any changes. But when Notre Dame and Ohio State come to town, Harbaugh needs to have something up his sleeve. That’s when we’ll find out if he learned a lesson over the last month, or whether he’s too stubborn to evolve.
On defense, Michigan addressed its greatest need — speed — in recruiting. Players such as Daxton Hill, Jalen Perry and Quinten Johnson can better keep up with the speed of Ohio State’s skill players.
Don Brown — assuming he doesn’t leave for the recently reopened Temple head coaching job — will need to be more versatile defensively, as the Buckeyes have clearly found a counter to his endlessly aggressive scheme.
Michigan needs to make some major adjustments, but it has one of the best coaching staffs in the country to do so.
There will no doubt be some difficult holes to fill next season, primarily at middle linebacker and along the defensive line. Devin Bush, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich were three of Michigan’s best players, and although there are plenty of good players ready to step in, Harbaugh needs them to be great to navigate next year’s schedule.
The Big Ten East goes through Ann Arbor next season with Ohio State and Michigan State traveling to the Big House. Notre Dame will visit during the middle of Big Ten play, which will be a change of pace for the Wolverines in late October.
Road trips to Wisconsin and Penn State will also be difficult, along with tricky home tests from Army and Iowa.
Michigan will have a chance in every game, but without changes, it won’t take the next step.
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