Wolverines see much to gain from Orange Bowl victory
Ann Arbor — There will be an excursion to Miami Beach, a bowl-arranged dinner at a mall restaurant and another all-you-can eat meal, but for the Michigan Wolverines, the Orange Bowl is much more than that.
Michigan, No. 6 in the nation, was so close to making the four-team College Football Playoff, and when that didn’t happen, a new bar was set. The Wolverines’ goal now is to reach 11 victories, which would be the program’s sixth 11-win season since 1905.
It would show improvement from Jim Harbaugh’s first season as coach last year when they went 10-3, including a New Year’s Day victory over Florida.
The Wolverines (10-2) will face Florida State (9-3) on Dec. 30 in the Orange Bowl, and their focus is one thing — not fun in the sun but winning the game.
“It’s a business trip,” said fullback Khalid Hill, who announced Thursday night he’s returning for his fifth season. “A lot of teams go thinking, ‘Oh, OK, we’re going to go on vacation.’ It’s a bowl game. You get to go to a different place and play someone else. It’s a business trip, as coach Harbaugh says.
“You get to have fun after the game. We’ll be as serious as possible. Last year, we took it very seriously. There was no going out. It was straight books, in your hotel room and practice. That was it.”
While they won’t be playing for a national championship, reaching 11 wins puts them, they said, in elite company and rarefied air.
“Eleven wins is kind of a big deal,” senior defensive lineman Ryan Glasgow said. “Nine wins is pretty good, 10 wins and you’re getting there. Once you get to 11 or 12, I feel you’re one of the marquee programs in the nation.”
The players who will return next season say they saw what beating Florida in the bowl game after last season meant for momentum and motivation.
“It means everything,” said defensive lineman Maurice Hurst, who also has decided to return for his final season. “It puts a nice taste in your mouth. I’ve been there before where we lost to Kansas State (after the 2013 season), and you have that bitter taste in your mouth the entire offseason.
“You lost that game and you didn’t only lose, you got beat pretty bad. It puts a poor taste in your mouth. Beating Florida, we had that positive attitude going throughout camp and throughout everything knowing we were playing our best football toward the end of the year and kind of keep the ball rolling. I think it’s great momentum going into the offseason to prove you’re a great team and that your best football is yet to come.”
The players saw how buying into Harbaugh’s business approach worked for them last year. So it has been easy and natural for them to go along with it this year, as well.
“I don’t think anyone really approaches a bowl game like coach Harbaugh and the rest of this staff,” quarterback Wilton Speight said. “I know we’ll be focused and ready to go just like last year.
“(This approach) puts you in the best opportunity to win. Anything you do in life you should have a business-type approach in my opinion. Be mature, realize the opportunities you have and take full advantage of them.”
The Orange Bowl is a New Year’s Six bowl and still considered prominent though it is outside the playoff this season. It is one more opportunity to play, one more opportunity to prove something.
“We’re going out with a bang showing everybody what our preparation was,” cornerback Channing Stribling said. “I don’t care what bowl game it is, I’ll still be happy to play. We still have to prepare for this game like it’s still a national championship game.”
Michigan lost two of its final three games by a total of four points, including a three-point loss at Ohio State in double overtime. The Wolverines know how close they were to breaking into that elite, elite group, and they’re still smarting from that.
It’s also one of their main motivators. But the veterans also remind themselves that two years ago, Michigan finished 5-7 and didn’t qualify for a bowl.
“The Orange Bowl is a big game,” Glasgow said. “We’re happy to play in the game, it’s just not where we wanted to be at this point in the season. We’re not going to take it for granted. Two years ago we might not even be able to fathom that we’d be here at this point. We’re happy to be in the Orange Bowl but not quite satisfied, I think is a good way to put it.”
The Wolverines feel that if they can get a big win over Florida State and the nation’s second-ranked defense, they could make a case for being considered among the nation’s top teams.
“When we play Florida State, and if we come out with a win and it’s a decisive win and we beat them pretty good like we did last year against Florida, I think the argument could be made for us being in the top four,” senior defensive lineman Chris Wormley said.
But first, Michigan has business to tend to.