CHICAGO — To say the end of last season was bitter for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan football team would be an understatement.
Through the first nine games, the Wolverines were undefeated and ranked second in the nation, poised to make an appearance in the playoffs in just Harbaugh’s second year. That, after all, was the expectation for a senior-laden team that ended the previous year with a 41-7 thrashing of Florida.
Everything, it seemed, was going according to plan. And then it all fell apart.
Michigan lost three of its last four games, most painful of which was against their biggest rival.
A playoff bid that had once been in plain sight quickly disappeared as the Wolverines coughed up a late lead on the road against Ohio State.
That final, devastating stretch has lingered throughout the offseason. A trip to Rome — which Harbaugh said was the best thing he’s ever done as part of a football team — didn’t mask the stink of last year’s finish, either.
“I hope (it’s driven this team) a lot,” Harbaugh said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Day. “I know it has a lot of us. Myself included. Lost three out of the last four games. Okay, good. Maybe that will motivate us to put more into it. Coach better. Play better. Train harder. Put more of our heart into each and every one of those ball games.”
Michigan breaks for camp next Monday with a drastically different team in place. Gone are the All-Americans and award winners of yesteryear. Their replacements will be youthful and inexperienced.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a championship-winning football team. But that’s the expectation and goal that Michigan has entering this year, and it doesn’t have to look far to find a team to emulate.
Ohio State began last season as the youngest team in all of college football. Michigan will follow suit this fall, and if the Wolverines hope to have the same success the Buckeyes did last year, they’ll need their younger guys to step up. The talent is there, considering Michigan signed two consecutive top-five recruiting classes. It’ll be up to the staff to coax it out and avoid too many growing pains along the way.
“I feel good about the team,” Harbaugh said. “To start with, our second-newest guys, which is our freshmen that came at the mid-year, the ten that have really flourished and did exceedingly good in spring practice, and which makes me think that the newest guys that arrived on campus, 19 true incoming freshmen, because the ten did so well I think these 19 are going to do just as well because they were the same type of good players in high school that the 10 were.”
But Harbaugh's considerable excitement about his freshman class may even be trumped by his hopes for his sophomores, many of whom saw the field last year.
“And then the third newest, the freshmen that are going to be sophomores this year, I'm very excited for them,” Harbaugh said. “… All the youngsters in that class, very excited about them because everything they're doing now they've already done, they're doing for a second time.
“And the amount of growth that you can have from doing something for the first time and then doing it the next time or the second time, can be the biggest leap they have their entire college year, going from freshman year to sophomore year. Excited for that class.”
The foundation of the team, though, will still be built on Harbaugh’s fourth and fifth-year players — players such as Chase Winovich, Maurice Hurst, Wilton Speight, Mike McCray, Bryan Mone and Mason Cole, all of whom experienced the many highs and lows of last season.
And they, like Harbaugh, still have a bitter taste in their mouths from last year’s ending.
“… Those guys in particular that were in games last year, they were there when we won nine straight games and everybody is high-fiving in the locker room after the game,” Harbaugh said. “And they were also there when we lost three out of our last four games, two by one point and another game by three points in overtime. They know what it feels like. And they like the feeling of the high-fiving better than the other.
“And I feel like, okay, good. They've seen that. And maybe that's going to motivate them even more this year, give them more reason to put all their talent and pour their whole heart into everything that they're doing.”