Wojo: Don't tell Wolverines Orange Bowl is fruitless game
Ann Arbor — You know the refrain, replayed loudly this time of year. It goes something like this: The bowl games aren’t what they used to be, they’re not as meaningful, they’re oddly named and played on random days and you don’t even have to win half your games to get in.
It’s become a handy echo chamber, especially since the four-team playoff was launched two years ago. And for any major program not named Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson or Washington, there’s a tinge of regret this holiday season. No doubt, Michigan lugs as much regret as anyone.
But don’t confuse disappointment with disillusionment. Don’t assume every bowl outside of the playoff games is rendered meaningless. Don’t do that to teams like Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan and Appalachian State.
And the message from the Wolverines: Don’t slap that tag on our game either. For the second straight bowl season under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan will play a traditional power in Florida for stakes not quite as high as hoped. When Michigan (10-2) faces Florida State (9-3) in the Orange Bowl Dec. 30, Hard Rock Stadium will be full and lots of people will be watching, and the Wolverines will have plenty to gain.
They could register the program’s sixth 11-victory season since 1905. They could beat another power in its home state in one of the exclusive New Year’s Six bowls. They could rightly say they’ve taken another key step, after blasting Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl last year. And by some measure, Michigan could restore a bit of luster lost in the crusher against Ohio State.
“It means everything to us,” said defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who gave an added boost Wednesday by revealing he’ll return for his fifth season. “Not being in the playoff is really upsetting for everyone. We want to go down as one of the greatest defenses, and this game plays a factor in that. I mean, I don’t think anyone really remembers us for anything if we don’t win this game.”
It’s a harsh self-assessment and not entirely true. But the Wolverines did finish third in their division and failed to reach the Big Ten title game. They lost to the Buckeyes by the narrowest margin and missed out on the playoff.
In a nothing-but-a-championship world — a world Harbaugh happily resides in — it takes a little digging to find deeper meaning. That’s too bad, but it was an inevitable consequence of the playoff system, and has been a growing consequence as the schedule swelled to 40 bowls. Why does it keep expanding? For all the ridicule, there’s obviously a market for it, even if the playoff diminishes the importance of the games in some eyes.
For two stars — Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette — their middling bowls didn’t mean enough to risk injury, and they stirred headlines and emotions by opting to skip the games to prepare for the NFL. I’m not comfortable judging someone else’s career choice, but I’m also not comfortable endorsing the idea of abandoning your team once the competition is deemed “meaningless.”
McCaffrey and Fournette have suffered injuries and harbor lofty NFL ambitions, so you understand what they’re doing. It doesn’t mean you have to embrace it. Let’s also understand this isn’t a referendum on the bowls, the bursting of some imaginary dam. It’s two high-profile players whose teams went through particularly rough seasons. Most players don’t have the stock or the circumstance to do the same thing.
Of all the teams in non-playoff bowls, Michigan probably has the biggest reason to be dispirited. It was sixth in the playoff rankings, just behind the other near-miss, Penn State, but the Nittany Lions have a Big Ten title to celebrate.
Under different circumstances, under a different coach, you might be concerned about the Wolverines’ mental readiness.
Turning up the heat
Under Harbaugh, I’d be shocked if they weren’t prepared, especially against a storied opponent boasting a star running back, Dalvin Cook, and a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, Deondre Francois. I could even tout the coaching matchup between Jimbo Fisher and Jim “Bo” Harbaugh, but I’m not that cheesy.
“A lot of times when people go on bowl trips, they think of it as a vacation, have fun, this game doesn’t really mean anything,” safety Dymonte Thomas said. “But if you’re a true competitor, any time there’s an opportunity to compete, you compete. Coach Harbaugh and Michigan, all we do is compete.”
Harbaugh has cranked it up, turning the bowl practices into a Christmas training camp, cranking up the heat in the Al Glick Field House to simulate South Florida weather conditions. Michigan players said they couldn’t imagine anyone skipping their last game, especially on a team packed with 43 seniors. All 11 defensive starters received some form of all-conference recognition, a remarkable measure of a unit that ranked first or second much of the season, then faltered in the fourth quarter and overtimes in Columbus.
If the Wolverines were playing the Seminoles one week after that loss, motivation would be a concern. They also have the reminder of last year’s blasting of Florida, which vaulted them into the early 2016 spotlight. Falling short this season was crushing, but is it now motivating?
“I think it is — where we were in the season, where we wanted to be, where we didn’t get, all those factors play a part,” defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow said. “Eleven wins is kind of a big deal. Nine wins and the season 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.”
It’s not the No. 1 goal, and it’s not the same goal for every team in a bowl. For the Wolverines, it’s a worthy one, packed with as much meaning as they can possibly find.