The bowl game has become an annual metaphorical zombie for the Michigan football team. The team traverses to some warm, southern city, still wallowing from the letdown weeks prior, patently unmotivated to face off against an SEC opponent. For the last three years, the Wolverines have taken their lumps, underperformed, then haphazardly spewed that next year will be different.
In some ways, it’s understandable. Expecting a bunch of college kids to recuperate from the most devastating loss of their lives to properly prepare for a glorified exhibition game is, perhaps, too idealistic. The equally-understandable fad of skipping bowl games so as to not risk injury (and poor game tape) doesn’t help.
This year could be the same. But Michigan has a unique opportunity here to make it different.
Saturday, it was announced that Michigan will head to Orlando, Fla. to face off with Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. This is not a Crimson Tide team on par with those of the recent past, with the injury to quarterback Tua Tagaviloa casting a pall over a forgettable season in Tuscaloosa.
But it could be a game of euchre for all I care — if Jim Harbaugh and Michigan beat Nick Saban and Alabama in anything, it will matter. It will matter for recruiting. It will matter to a downtrodden fanbase. It will matter for morale. It will matter as a springboard to next year.
“A very, very elite team,” Harbaugh said on a conference call Sunday. “Our preparation will have to at its highest level. Good to know who you’re going to play and get started on preparing for the bowl game. Will be a big-time matchup. We’re very much looking forward to it.”
The Wolverines haven’t won a bowl game since 2015, a 41-7 win over Florida, which provided a bridge from Year One of the Harbaugh era into a season that should have ended in a College Football Playoff berth. Optimism was at an all-time high. It seemed a matter of if, not when, Harbaugh would bring this program to glory.
Each year since that win in 2015, Michigan has lost the last two games of its season. Harbaugh has garnered a reputation for his team falling flat at the end of the season (a tad harsh, given one of those games is against Ohio State, a perennial CFP team, but still.)
Though you can scoff, a win against Alabama would give Michigan double-digit wins for the fourth time in five years. The last time Michigan had four double-digit-win seasons in five years? 1976-1980.
Dismiss that if you wish, but it’s a testament to both the understated success Harbaugh has had in getting the program back on track, and also the unreasonable expectations this fanbase places on him. It’s not unreasonable to expect a Big Ten title here and there, to be sure, but it’s willfully ignorant to blanketly chalk up his tenure to a failure.
Of course, there is the possibility — nay, the likelihood — that the Citrus Bowl will be nothing more than a superior team beating down an inferior one. The Crimson Tide are more talented at every position, perhaps quarterback aside. Even in their worst year since 2010, they will be a double-digit favorite. As they should be.
But you want to do something that will quell mounting concerns about the future of this program? Here you go. Beat the team that has won five of the last 11 national titles, the program that has defined the last decade of college football and the coach who will go down as perhaps the greatest to ever do it. More importantly, for the first time in Harbaugh’s five years in Ann Arbor, beat a team that is, on paper, more talented.
“My feeling about the team is we’re right there at the top,” Harbaugh said after last year’s 41-15 loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl. “But we have to put it over the top, especially in the big games at the end of the year.”
A win on New Year’s Day will do little to appease the necessity for this team to start beating Ohio State. It will not make Michigan de facto Big Ten champions. It will not secure anything in the future. It won’t drastically alter the trajectory of anything as it relates to this team’s standing in the national landscape.
But a win against Alabama will send Michigan to the offseason on a high note and restore some semblance of optimism that brighter pastures lie ahead.
Optimism. Remember what that felt like?
Marcovitch can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch