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Wojo: No time for fun; just the game for Harbaugh, Michigan

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh answers questions on Thursday during a press conference in Fort Lauderdale.

Miami Gardens, Fla. — It’s not about beaches and bikinis, clearly. In Jim Harbaugh’s bowl world, there’s only one game to play and only one reason to play it.

The fun is not in the sand or sun, but in the football. The Wolverines again are employing that simple, steely mentality as they prepare to face another power program in its home state. Tonight’s Orange Bowl matchup against Florida State won’t define Michigan’s season, but sure could shine it up.

The Seminoles have the type of credentials the Wolverines aim to gain. Under Jimbo Fisher, Florida State has played in five straight New Year’s Six/BCS bowls, and won the 2013 national championship. This isn’t the highest stage but it’s a significant one, and to say the Wolverines are taking it seriously is beyond obvious.

At the final press conference Thursday, Harbaugh and Fisher did the obligatory picture-posing next to the glass bowl filled with oranges. It was formal and cordial, and then both coaches waxed poetic about the joys of competition and sentimentality for the seniors.

Harbaugh laughed when asked whether he enjoyed oranges – “I find oranges to be very refreshing, and same with orange juice,” he said — but wasn’t interested in playing any other games. That was painfully clear when a TV reporter made an ill-fated attempt at humor, asking Harbaugh if he was aware his players were disappointed they hadn’t seen any bikinis.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Harbaugh said, looking puzzled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

It was a silly question, Harbaugh’s least-favorite kind, and it didn’t fit his mood. There’s no messing around here, not when his program has another chance to make an impact. Last year, Michigan took its no-nonsense approach into the Citrus Bowl and whipped Florida 41-7. From there, the Wolverines entered a swirl of hype this season that wasn’t quite fulfilled, losing twice by a total of four points and missing the playoff.

Touchdown favorite

This Florida State team is better than Florida, with a great running back in Dalvin Cook, a defense that led the nation in sacks, and a four-game winning streak to close a 9-3 regular season. Yet Michigan is a solid touchdown favorite, for a few reasons.

One is an experience-laden defense ranked second in the country. Another is the improved health of quarterback Wilton Speight. Another is the sense the Wolverines are still hotly motivated by the climb, even after the bitter loss to the Buckeyes.

UM seniors sense one final opportunity in Orange Bowl

“Winning the Orange Bowl championship is our goal now,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a lot, in our minds. We want to win the most awards. We want to get the best grades. … I want (the seniors) to leave with dignity and pride, knowing that they went out and played the very best they could and gave it their all. You also want to win. That’s a lot, isn’t it?”

It’s enough to inspire the Wolverines, who didn’t spend much time frolicking here. The Seminoles took a trip to the beach and a spin on Jet-skis, and that’s one point of a bowl, to have fun with teammates. The Wolverines don’t dispute that. They just find their fun in different ways at different times, well before 11 p.m. bed check.

The players clearly buy into the approach, evidenced by how many top guys — Jourdan Lewis, Jake Butt, Chris Wormley, Taco Charlton — returned for their senior seasons. And recently, center Mason Cole, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and fullback Khalid Hill said they were coming back. It’s not clear if the bikini issue ever came up.

“I think we have even more meetings, more film, less time to do things (than last year’s bowl),” Wormley said. ”It worked last year. We beat a team by 34 points and I’m guessing they went out and got to enjoy Orlando a little more than we did. … I don’t think I’d be wrong to say I want to be at the beach, but at the end of the day, winning the bowl game is what we’re here to do.”

New challenge

They need to win to prove they really have one of the top defenses in the nation, and legitimately are that close to winning a championship. To add an 11-2 mark to last year’s 10-3 record would make it a very good season, before a new challenge arises.

This might be the last time the Wolverines enter a bowl with such an enormous edge in experience, 43 seniors in all. They start 10 seniors on defense, while the Seminoles start five total, on both sides of the ball.

Deondre Francois is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, but he’s a redshirt freshman. And while Florida State’s defense can be overpowering, its secondary is suspect, exposed in the three losses – 63-20 to Louisville, 37-35 to North Carolina, 37-34 to Clemson.

Michigan’s defense wasn’t truly dinged until the fourth quarter and overtimes in Columbus, and that still stings.

“A lot of people know how good our defense is, but some people still have doubts,” safety Dymonte Thomas said. “They say we don’t play anyone. So we have a great opportunity here, a chance to stop this explosive Florida State team, to show why we’re the best defense in the nation.”

Some teams turn their bowls into end-of-season celebrations, a chance to exhale. In his short time as Michigan’s coach, we’ve learned Harbaugh doesn’t exhale. In two bowls at Stanford, he was 1-1 – losing in the Sun Bowl to Oklahoma 31-27, and crushing Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl 40-12.

Florida didn’t come close to matching Michigan’s preparation or intensity last year. And while the Wolverines took long looks at young players early in the bowl practices, this is no audition for the future. There are stakes and possible statements, especially in recruiting-rich Florida. Fisher acknowledges that, and doesn’t seem surprised the Seminoles are underdogs.

“We’ve got a tremendous opponent in front of us — Michigan is one of the brand names in college football,” Fisher said. “They had a tremendous season. They could very easily have been in the playoff. Great coach, defensively they’re outstanding. We’re going to have our hands full.”

So will the Wolverines, which is part of the fun. All those seniors get one more chance to show how good they are and how close they were, and why they wanted to stay.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski