Refocused Michigan looks to cap season with Orange Bowl victory

Thursday, December 29, 2016 - 12:31pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher pose with the Orange Bowl trophy.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher pose with the Orange Bowl trophy. Buy this photo
Amanda Allen/Daily

 

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Neither Michigan nor Florida State will start off 2017 by winning a national championship, but coaches Jim Harbaugh and Jimbo Fisher won’t let anyone say that their seasons were meaningless.

The sixth-ranked Wolverines (10-2) fell short of a Big Ten Championship Game appearance and a potential College Football Playoff berth by losing two of their last three games, and the 11th-ranked Seminoles (9-3) slipped out of contention after a 3-2 start and a later loss to No. 2 Clemson.

As a result, the two teams will meet in the Orange Bowl on Friday night in a matchup of two of the most storied programs in college football history. And though both teams fell short of their lofty preseason expectations, Michigan and Florida State aren’t taking their New Year’s Six matchup lightly.

“Winning the Orange Bowl championship is our goal now,” Harbaugh said Thursday morning. “That’s a lot, in our minds. You want to win the most awards, you want to get the best grades, you want to excel at sports. We have the opportunity to win a trophy. … You want to go out and give it your very best, give it your all. We want to have dignity and pride, and you’ll have that if you do your very best.”

The inception of the College Football Playoff two years ago and its rampant media coverage has created a perception among some observers that the rest of the bowl games have diminished in value. Even Alabama coach Nick Saban — the only coach to make the playoff in its first three years — has said that he doesn’t blame players who lose interest in their formerly prestigious bowl games after falling short of the playoff. (“We created this,” he added.)

But with competitive coaches like Harbaugh and Fisher leading two big-name programs in just their third-ever meeting, that kind of cynicism hasn’t traveled to Miami.

“If you’re keeping score, it’s not meaningless,” Fisher said. “You play your tails off. It’s competition. That’s your job. That’s what you’re supposed to do. I don’t get the meaningless part, either. There’s no such thing as meaningless bowl games. … You win 10, 11 games, beat your rivals, go play an Orange Bowl or a Sugar Bowl or a Cotton Bowl or whatever bowl — the bowl in Orlando, the Russell Athletic Bowl — and all those games matter.

“What is wrong with that? One of the great things about college football is not everyone ends on a loss.”

With a large and talented senior class — led by tight end Jake Butt, cornerback Jourdan Lewis and fifth-year defensive end Chris Wormley, among many others — the Wolverines have even more to play for as they look to send those veterans off with a win.

Harbaugh turned nostalgic Thursday when he reflected on what that group has meant to the program, and he offered a glimpse at how they might be feeling heading into their final game in Michigan uniforms.

“You’re never really in anybody else’s skin but your own,” he said. “But I remember sitting in locker rooms in pee-wee hockey and little league football and baseball, knowing that was gonna be my last hockey game, or my last high school football game, or my last high school basketball game, last college game. … I bet everybody here can resonate with that feeling — at some point, they’ve been in that situation at some point in athletics. I’m pretty sure those emotions are (coming out), and it’s understood by our players.”

Many of the seniors passed on the opportunity to leave for the NFL Draft last season in the hopes of winning a national championship. Though the Wolverines fell short of that goal, they’ve refocused on the chance to end their careers with a major bowl win over a talented Seminole team.

It may not be the ending Michigan wanted, but it’s a chance for the Wolverines to put a capstone on a year Harbaugh says he will always remember fondly.

“As it continues, it’s been a great year,” Harbaugh said. “I’m blessed to be able to do what we do and (am) tremendously fortunate to have this opportunity to be out there on the field, see the practices come together over the last weeks and get ready to play for this. ... There’s sentimental emotions that have been with us and will be with us. It’s been good, real good.”