TAMPA, Fla. — The last time Michigan lost three games in a row, it stumbled to a 5-7 season that precipitated the hiring of Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh’s introduction on Dec. 30, 2014, signified an impending change in the culture of the program.
Three years later, Michigan prepares to face South Carolina in the Outback Bowl at noon ET Monday at Raymond James Stadium. The Wolverines face an unusual prospect: Finishing the season with five losses, a statistic that is hardly characteristic of a Harbaugh-led college football program.
“We want something to really hang our hats on,” defensive end Chase Winovich said Thursday. “This is an important game for the future of the program, in terms of direction. We lose this one and we’ve lost three in a row. Not a good look.”
The Wolverines also can finish the season with nine wins.
Finishing the season 9-4 isn’t the same as winning a Big Ten Conference championship, but a win against South Carolina is a step in the right direction for Michigan. As important, it’s a necessity for Harbaugh.
A must-win game
Harbaugh has changed the culture in Ann Arbor, grooming the Wolverines into a program that develops players for the immediate future and for the long-term professional future, whether it’s in the NFL or in the workforce.
“Harbaugh is a great fit, just the type of attitude he brings to Michigan,” said Ryan Glasgow, a former Michigan defensive tackle in his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals. “There’s constant competition, unrelenting physicality. That’s the type of stuff I think Michigan’s reputation was until it fell off in the mid-to-late 2000s. I think he’s restoring Michigan’s identity.
“There’s not much compromise. You’re going to do it Harbaugh’s way because that’s way we’re going to win at Michigan.”
Harbaugh is 28-10 in three seasons at Michigan, but hasn’t earned what skeptics would consider a signature win.
The Wolverines won the Citrus Bowl in Harbaugh’s first season. But Harbaugh has only one win against a top-10 opponent (Oct. 1, 2016 against No. 8 Wisconsin). He’s 1-5 against his rivals, and 1-1 in bowl games.
The latter will be a continual sticking point, but a win in the Outback Bowl would add some heft to Harbaugh’s Michigan resume.
A win Monday also would give the players a feel-good moment at the end of an otherwise roller-coaster season, and it would provide a foundation for 2018.
“It would be big momentum going into next year,” linebacker Devin Bush said. “We lost a few games this year and just to go out with a win would mean everything.”
Some predicted Michigan would finish the regular season, at best, 9-3. The loss of numerous players to the NFL and to graduation, as well as the loss of passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, depleted the program experience-wise, but not talent-wise.
This year was about refining and developing that incoming talent. At times, that was a chore. The regular season ended with losses to No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 9 Ohio State. A loss to South Carolina would give Michigan its first three-game losing streak since Sept. 20-Oct. 4, 2014.
If Michigan wants to be on the national radar, it needs to hold its own with and for the rest of the Big Ten, which is 7-0 in bowl games so far. Furthermore, beating an SEC opponent would be no small feather in Michigan’s cap.
Though Michigan’s recent struggles have maligned Harbaugh, he’s brought Michigan to a good place. For some, that might not be good enough, but a win in the Outback Bowl on Monday would put Harbaugh and Michigan in a even better place.
Land of 10’s Kevin Goheen contributed to this report.