Niyo: Tenth win would be Harbaugh's touchstone moment

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Orlando, Fla. — Jim Harbaugh doesn't like making comparisons. He says he finds it demeaning, an answer he learned — like so many other things — from his father.

But on Thursday, on the eve of his team's Citrus Bowl matchup against Florida, and the first day of his second year on the job as Michigan's coach, Harbaugh paused to reflect on the last 12 months and what it all meant.

"It's been a heck of a good year," Harbaugh said. "Personally, I would look at this as the best year I've had in football, if we win this game."

Asked to expand on that, he actually did, for a change.

But first he reiterated that caveat.

"If we win the game — I've got to preface it by that," he continued. "I would look at it as my favorite year in football, personally."

For a lot of reasons, from the players — "a bunch of great guys that have worked extremely hard," he said — to his new staff, including his best friend "since third grade" in associate athletic director Jim Minick and his son, Jay, to all those touchstone moments being back in Ann Arbor. Six months ago, Harbaugh's wife, Sarah, described him as "giddy" as he reconnected with all the "landmarks of his childhood," and that really hasn't changed a whole lot.

"It's been a great year that way," Harbaugh said.

Bowl blues

But to make it the best? Well, there's still one thing left, and while Friday's Big Ten-Southeastern Conference clash won't match the one in Dallas on Thursday night — in scale or significance — it does matter a great deal to Michigan's program.

In fact, you could argue today's game is similar to the one Michigan State played — and won — four years ago just down the road in Tampa, Fla., where it won the 2012 Outback Bowl (beating Georgia in triple overtime) to end a 10-year postseason drought.

Michigan hasn't won a division title or played for a Big Ten championship the way those Michigan State teams did with Kirk Cousins at quarterback. But it has won two bowls in the last dozen years, and it won 10 games or more once since 2006, the last time it went to a Rose Bowl.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh on verge of having 'favorite year' in football

"That's all we're focusing on right now — getting that 10th win," said quarterback Jake Rudock, who'll be playing his final game today in the stadium where he ended his high school career with a Florida Class 5A state championship win. "Understanding how difficult that is in college football and understanding how good that would be for this program and this university. That's all we're focused on right now."

No surprise there, really.

"Coach Harbaugh talks about that all the time," said linebacker Desmond Morgan, the only player on the current roster that has played in a bowl victory at Michigan. "In his mind, getting the 10th win, it sets you apart."

Stamp of approval

It helps set a standard, certainly.

A year ago, the Wolverines went 5-7 and missed a bowl for the third time in seven years. And there's little doubt Harbaugh has things headed in the right direction — the re-energized fan base, the recruiting success, and the player development are but a few examples. But a win over an name-brand SEC opponent — even one that ranked 100th nationally in total offense this season — would add a signature win, or at least something resembling it, to help validate those feelings.

That's something that the first-year coach on the other sideline, Florida's Jim McElwain, certainly would agree with, just as he did when asked Thursday about the importance of his 10-3 Gators — the SEC East champs — squaring off against a Big Ten opponent.

"Shoot, guys, this is the University of Michigan, for Christ's sake," McElwain said. "You know what I mean? They've got, like, history, right? I mean, like, real history. Like, people emulate their helmets, right?"

Right. But at the moment, they're still trying to emulate some of the teams that made those helmets famous. Today's another chance to do that. A good one, really. Maybe even a great one, if you ask the guy wearing khakis.