Wojo: Wolverines better be ready to play like it matters

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan capped last season with a 26-19 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

Atlanta — It doesn’t mean as much as it could, or as much as it should. It’s not part of college football’s main dish, more like a hearty appetizer.

But don’t be a hypocrite here and suggest the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl matchup between No. 7 Michigan (10-2) and No. 10 Florida (9-3) Saturday means nothing. We know how the narrative has grown, that outside of the four playoff teams, the bowls are part-exhibition and part-audition. More and more players are sitting out to prepare for the NFL, including Michigan stars Devin Bush Jr., Rashan Gary and Karan Higdon.

You can’t reasonably argue the players are wrong for protecting their pro futures. Sorry, you can’t. But you also can’t declare the competition irrelevant, a trite simplification.

That supposedly was the case heading into last year’s Outback Bowl, and then Michigan melted down in a 26-19 loss to South Carolina. All of a sudden, Jim Harbaugh had 8-5 stenciled on his ledger and miffed fans ran shrieking into the streets about a “meaningless” game.

The truth is, these bowls don’t necessarily mean a ton — unless you lose.

The Wolverines know it as well as anyone, having faded to the finish the past two seasons, with bowl losses to Florida State and South Carolina. In fact, the last time Michigan felt really good headed into the offseason was after a 41-7 Citrus Bowl pounding of Florida concluded Harbaugh’s first season at 10-3.

College football programs tote and tout victory totals like no other sport. Look at Michigan State, which capped its turnaround a year ago with a 42-17 stomping of Washington State. It was Mark Dantonio’s sixth double-digit victory total in nine years. Did it carry over to this season? No, as the Spartans fell to 7-5.

Did Michigan’s loss to South Carolina carry over to this season? No, as the Wolverines took a 10-1 mark into Columbus, before getting smoked by Ohio State, 62-39. The point is, you don’t automatically start something big by winning a bowl, even an upper-tier New Year’s Six Bowl like the Peach. But you can stop something from festering.

For Michigan, it’s imperative to alter the angle that it comes up small in bigger games. That won’t change in one bowl, and a third victory in four seasons against the Gators wouldn’t substantially elevate the Wolverines.

But they certainly could use this one for perception’s sake, for improvement’s sake, for another look at the offense led by quarterback Shea Patterson, who announced he’s returning. Harbaugh has won plenty at Michigan so far, double-digit victory totals three times in four seasons, but is 1-2 in bowls and 0-4 against Ohio State. A victory would bump the Wolverines to 11-2, only the program’s fourth 11-win mark in 21 years. It at least would lighten the stain from last bowl season, when Michigan suffered the Big Ten’s only loss.

Motivated Gators

It would be a Big Ten victory over an SEC team, and while Florida has been offensively inept in recent years, it’s rebounding under first-year coach Dan Mullen, quarterback Feleipe Franks and a run-heavy spread attack.

“Make no mistake about it, this is a huge opportunity for our team,” senior Chase Winovich said. “It’s a must-win game against Florida. It really will set the tone for next year, good or bad.”

The Wolverines have to think that way. More important, they’ll need to play that way, because don’t kid yourself, Florida carries key motivational edges. While Michigan has four players — including right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty — opting to sit out, Florida has none. The Wolverines are a touchdown favorite, but this is a dangerous matchup against a speedy, athletic team with a highly respected coach.

Michigan defensive lineman Chase Winovich says the Peach Bowl is a "must-win" game for the Wolverines.

Seeds for the Gators’ demise under former coach Jim McElwain — who spent one season as a Michigan assistant before taking over at Central Michigan — were planted in the embarrassments against the Wolverines. Florida looked disinterested in the 41-7 Citrus Bowl loss, and had its offense dismantled in Michigan’s 33-17 season-opening victory last year.

Again, play the “meaningless” card all you want, and for lesser bowls with random inexplicable names, you won’t get much argument. But extreme outcomes in the larger bowls can make a difference, even if the playoff has diminished the impact.

Last year, Michigan led South Carolina 19-3 in the third quarter and then fell apart. That led to serious introspection by Harbaugh and changes on his coaching staff.

Go back to Jan. 1, 2011, when Mullen led Mississippi State to a 52-14 pasting of Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Rich Rodriguez already was teetering badly, and the rout sealed his firing.

“What's really amazing is, when you win the game, it's an unbelievable bowl experience,” Mullen said. “When you lose the game, it's not quite as good of a bowl experience. It just changes the whole narrative. … I don't know if this game has a direct correlation on what next year's season is going to be like, but I do know this game has a direct correlation on how we're going to feel between now and the start of next year.”

That’s how it worked for the Wolverines three years ago, beating the Gators and then churning to a 9-0 start in 2016 before losing three of their final four. That’s how they hope it is again — minus the three losses, of course — as they return their starting quarterback, pretty much their entire offensive line and receiving corps, and a decent chunk of their talented defense.

More: Michigan's Chase Winovich puts surgery on hold: 'I wasn't ready to leave'

More: Michigan's Don Brown on Ohio State debacle: 'You’ve got to move on'

Hunt for 11

Harbaugh has emphasized the hunger for an 11th victory, and while it wouldn’t be a program-definer, it’d probably vault the Wolverines into the top five and guarantee they’d be highly ranked next season.

This isn’t just an exhibition for Patterson, who must continue to expand his game as Harbaugh must continue to expand the offense.

“We have a lot of really good players coming back next year, a lot of good people,” Harbaugh said. “We want to start building momentum for next year.”

With new redshirt rules allowing freshmen to play in four games without losing a year of eligibility, these bowls more than ever can be a precursor to next season, not just a conclusion to this one. They’re morphing from senior farewells to newcomer auditions to top player crossroads.

Michigan cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill have said they’ll decide on their pro futures after the bowl. Same with tight end Zach Gentry. Bush was the heartbeat of Michigan’s defense, but a hip injury sealed his decision to sit, creating an opportunity for others like sophomore linebacker Josh Ross.

“We're going for something that Michigan football hasn't done in a pretty long time, and that's win 11 games,” Ross said. “That's one thing we're priding ourselves on. So this game is huge. We want to win that 11th game and want to be great.”

Michigan played with a vengeful chip much of this season, knocking off every Big Ten contender right up until the disaster at Ohio State. Florida is the one seeking a vengeful boost now. The game matters in different ways for different people, as it usually does. But don’t pretend it doesn’t matter at all.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski