Michigan: Five story lines for bowl season

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

Who knows how long it will take for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, his staff and players to recover from the debacle at Ohio State in the regular-season finale. But the Wolverines better rebound quickly, because there will be a New Year’s Six bowl game – and a tough opponent to prepare for – in the next month.

The eighth-ranked Wolverines (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten), were upended, 62-39, at Ohio State last Saturday and they also lost the opportunity to play for a Big Ten championship and to stay in the College Football Playoff hunt.

Michigan will find out its bowl destination Sunday afternoon. If Ohio State gets a playoff spot, expect the Wolverines to play in the Rose Bowl. If Ohio State isn't selected for the playoff, the Buckeyes will go to the Rose and Michigan to either the Fiesta or the Peach.

Regardless of the bowl, Michigan’s destination is clear – the Improvement Bowl. OK, that’s not a real bowl, but you get the idea.

Here’s a look at some of the keys for the Wolverines as they prepare for their bowl game.

Figuring out what went wrong

As Harbaugh and the staff go about picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the beatdown at Ohio State, there has to be significant self-scouting these next few days and weeks before bowl practices begin in earnest the week of Dec. 10. And by self-scouting that means the coaches.

Why wasn’t this team better prepared for the Ohio State game? Why wasn’t the offensive game plan more interesting and innovative? And why didn’t the defense – yes, of course there were injuries in that game – adjust? Where was the pass rush?

For a team that had won 10 straight and had so much on the line, there has to be some deep introspection as to why the Wolverines had such a collapse. And then, they must determine how to avoid something similar in the bowl game.

David Long

Who’s going to skip out?

It is the new era of postseason college football, and players are thinking about their NFL futures and whether playing in a bowl is worth the risk. It’s up to each player to determine whether he wants to think about inserting “meaningless” before “bowl.”

Linebacker Devin Bush Jr. hasn’t said whether he will return for his final year of eligibility, but he did say on the Big Ten Network this week after being named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year that he plans to play in the bowl. But what about defensive end Rashan Gary, who announced two days after the Ohio State loss that he’s going to pursue the NFL Draft? What about cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill? Or defensive end Chase Winovich? Or running back Karan Higdon?

There is a strong argument that all could benefit from a strong showing in a bowl game. When former Michigan tight end Jake Butt opted to play in the Orange Bowl instead of sitting out a few years ago – when not playing in bowls really started to become a “thing” – he tore his ACL. That’s the risk and that’s the consideration, but isn’t that the case every game?

O'Maury Samuels

All about the youth

Coaches love making bowls because of the additional practices and the additional reps for younger players. This is when players such as running back O’Maury Samuels should get more work, as well as offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield, not to mention getting receiver Tarik Black – who broke his foot a week before the opener but was able to return for, really, the final third of the regular season – more work.

The early bowl practices will narrow the focus on the younger players while those who earned more playing time this season will get a chance to rest a bit. It’s unclear where backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey is in terms of his recovery from a broken collarbone, but these practices would be ideal for him, not to mention for freshman Joe Milton.

Business trip

Harbaugh has referred to Michigan’s bowl games as “business trips” and the players have embraced that. It will be interesting how they carry themselves in the days leading up to the bowl. This has been a confident group and that was very much on display during their 10-game winning streak.

Winovich coined the “Revenge Tour,” and while many of the players initially didn’t know he had said that, they all went along with that approach. There were T-shirts and hats and Ohio State was the last stop on the tour.

The loss to Ohio State undoubtedly was deflating, and the Wolverines will have to have to rediscover that confidence from the 10-game winning streak. But this time, they will need to do it with less talking. Coming off a loss like that at OSU, this bowl prep will have to be about bowl prep. Nothing more. All business.

Get healthy

After the Ohio State game, Harbaugh said the players injured didn’t suffer anything that would be considered long-term. Winovich was hurt in the Indiana game a week before Ohio State, and while his injury was never disclosed, he did play against the Buckeyes. This will give him an opportunity to rest, as well as Devin Bush, who suffered a hip point early in the second half and never returned against the Buckeyes. David Long also had a hip issue, as did receiver Grant Perry. Rashan Gary missed three games with an AC joint issue in his right shoulder, and assuming he plays in the bowl, this will be an opportunity to rest.

Every player is banged up by the end of a long football season, that’s no secret. So this time is vital for them to recover.