Friday morning’s joint press conference with Jim Harbaugh and Dan Mullen was supposed to feature nuanced back-and-forth team evaluations for tomorrow’s Peach Bowl.
But what happened on stage was almost 30 minutes of exchanging pleasantries.
As if the media were not in the room, Mullen spoke face-to-face with Harbaugh offering effusive praise for his team.
“They have a great scheme in what they do,” Mullen said of No. 7 Michigan. “But beyond that, the intensity and how hard they play and what they believe in what they're doing is evident on film when you watch Michigan.”
And Harbaugh reciprocated.
“The other thing that's been really impressive is that you get play out of all different classes,” Harbaugh said of No. 10 Florida. You have freshmen that are playing that you guys have come right in and coached right up right out of high school. That's been really impressive. You've got your sophomores, your redshirt juniors, you've got seniors, a few fifth-year seniors.”
The tenor of the room was hardly one emblematic of an intense rivalry. Rather, the two coaches essentially gave sentence-long synonyms of “just happy to be here.” Harbaugh discussed meeting Mullen’s family, even shouting out the golf prowess of Mullen’s nine-year old. The coaches took time earlier this week to sit down together and talk X’s and O’s.
The press conference was affable, but it was also the reality of what Michigan’s season was reduced to, and why fans on social media came out in droves to ironically share how little they care about the bowl game.
Both coaches and their teams want to win, of course. But the aura of the week hardly demonstrates a sense of urgency.
“Had a good week of preparation, and we have flipped the switch,” Harbaugh said. “We're in game mode and playing a great team in Florida. We've had a chance to watch them, and they are really, really good so we're excited for the competition and the challenge.”
If that analysis is any indication, there isn’t much left to say.
Winovich and Perry serving as gameday captains
With the absences of captains Karan Higdon and Devin Bush Jr., as well as Rashan Gary and Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Saturday’s game is an opportunity for the Wolverines to find new leadership and momentum for next season.
Through a month of practices, finding that beacon is still in process.
“I think it's been more of a collective type thing with our guys, Zach (Gentry), Chase Winovich, myself,” said junior quarterback Shea Patterson. “I think we all try to kind of learn by example. Karan was our guy, our offensive leader, and we all kind of followed him.”
Harbaugh has taken steps to temporarily fill that leadership gap, naming Winovich and senior wide receiver Grant Perry as gameday captains alongside junior tackle Ben Bredeson and senior safety Tyree Kinnel.
As for next season, Bredeson and Patterson have already announced their intentions to return. Michigan is still waiting on NFL decisions from some of its veteran players, including Gentry and cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill.
For Patterson, in both his decision to stay with the Wolverines and his demeanor throughout bowl week, he appears to be the natural selection to take the mantle and step up as a new offensive captain.
Bowl game decisions
The decision for players with NFL prospects to sit out of bowl games has become a contentious topic in the college football world.
While Higdon, Bush and Gary have all garnered favorable draft outlooks, their choice to skip the Peach Bowl has drawn noticeable ire from fans.
Harbaugh expressed his agreement with their decisions, but hardly with any excitement.
“Yeah, I mean, we respect it,” Harbaugh said. “It's someone's right to — we respect that it's their decision to make. We don't push anybody in the back to go play football.
“I will say even further, I think I've grown in terms of even respecting people when I don't agree with what they're decision is. It's just a respect that it's their decision to make, and it's the decision that they've made, and after that we're ready to play football.
The absences of the four players will give an opportunity for some of Michigan’s underclassmen to see the field and get gametime experience while preserving redshirts — players like Christian Turner, Joe Milton and Tarik Black.
But if that strategy is conducive to winning remains to be seen until tomorrow.