ATLANTA — Between every platitude, reassurance and compliment from players and coaches, this season was supposed to be an inflection point for the trajectory of Michigan football.
The No. 1 defense was back. Karan Higdon was primed to be the bell-cow running back. Highly-recruited wide receivers were making a sophomore leap. Shea Patterson was the new man under center.
Of course, that sentiment vanished into thin air after getting embarrassed by Ohio State. Yet, it still seemed like progress was made. Facing Florida in the Peach Bowl for a shot at an 11th win — what would be just the third time in two decades — should have been enough motivation to warrant a ceremonious close to the 2018 season.
Then the 10th-ranked Gators pummeled the Wolverines for their second consecutive humiliation, 41-15, to win the Peach Bowl and send Michigan back to Ann Arbor with nothing to show.
“I thought they were ready,” said coach Jim Harbaugh after the game, his third consecutive bowl game defeat.
Maybe, they actually were ready. But preparation didn’t make the Wolverines care about the game after College Football Playoff and conference title hopes were dashed. Florida did, and now it has a New Year’s Six Bowl victory and newfound confidence to reclaim a spot as a top-tier team in college football.
It took the Gators one year after hiring coach Dan Mullen to get to this position.
Four years of toe-tapping and waiting on Harbaugh to produce results has Michigan where it is now — a proverbial treadmill masking as forward progress.
“I don't know how they prepared. But I don't think they prepared too well,” said Florida defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who finished with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. “(We) definitely came out there and won the game on both sides of the ball.”
Added wide receiver Van Jefferson: “I guess they just wasn't on they game today. … We just came out and executed better than they did.”
The formula was simple. The Gators didn’t turn the ball over, had three of their five touchdowns on untouched routes and stunted Michigan’s archaic offense. It’s hard to fault the bluntness of Gardner-Johnson and Jefferson when it’s backed by a dose of truth.
Even from the opening kickoff, the discrepancy in energy levels displayed which team wanted to be there, and which team did not. Florida, galvanized by a largely blue and orange crowd, jumped around and waved their arms. The entire Michigan football team planted their cleats in the ground.
“We got a thing called the Juice Crew and that’s run by (strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage),” Jefferson said. “So I feel like our energy was way higher than theirs was. That gave our whole team energy to go play hard.”
On the other side, the blame can be pointed any which way. The Wolverines surely missed Devin Bush Jr., Rashan Gary, Karan Higdon and Juwann Bushell-Beatty. Elite programs with multiple weeks to adapt can fill that void. When there are too many directions to assess blame, eyes go to the man in charge.
The general lethargy and missteps by Michigan beg the question: What can’t Harbaugh see that everyone else, including the opponent, can see so vividly?
“My feeling about the team is we're right there to the top, but we have to put it over the top,” Harbaugh said. “Especially in the big games at the end of the year.”
In a matter of two games, the fever pitch present amongst Michigan faithful right before the Nov. 24 kickoff in Columbus has been reduced to somber sighs.
This is no longer only about getting the right personnel or perfecting the playbook. The Wolverines have shown flashes of brilliance in every facet of the game. But making it mean something is another obstacle, one in which it now has eight months to reflect on.
“This thing takes time,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “In hindsight, coming to Michigan, I maybe underestimated the amount of time and effort it would take to get over that hump. … We’re close.”
In other words, there is always next year.