Michigan‘s football team arrived in Atlanta this week to cap off a season that has shaken out to be the equivalent of that off-brand replica of the gift you actually wanted for Christmas. It’s nice and all, but …
The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN) gives the Wolverines a chance to beat the SEC’s Florida Gators for the third time in four seasons. That would provide a positive end to a December that included the program’s fifth consensus All-America pick in the past three years (linebacker Devin Bush), coach Jim Harbaugh’s emphatic statement that he has no plans to return to the NFL and a top-five national recruiting class. Again, that’s nice and all, but the biggest news for Michigan football in December — regardless of how Saturday’s game shakes out — occurred weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio.
Urban Meyer’s retirement, announced Dec. 4, offered Michigan a sliver of hope in the wake of its most hopeless hour. A little more than a week earlier, Meyer’s allegedly most vulnerable team in recent memory embarrassed the favored Wolverines to win his seventh straight game in the series.
The question for Harbaugh and his team in the aftermath of allowing an unprecedented 62 points in the rivalry loss was obvious: If not now, when? The best answer anyone could muster at the time was pretty clear, too: maybe when Meyer moves on.
Meyer didn’t make them wait long. Nor did it take long for anyone north of Toledo, Ohio, to ask about what this might mean for Michigan’s chances to finally beat Ohio State. Better get used to it. For the next 11 months, every game, roster move, recruiting trip and interview in Ann Arbor will be viewed through the same lens: What does this mean for their chances of beating the Urban-less Buckeyes?
The bowl game against Florida will provide a first peek at some of the pieces that Michigan (10-2) will have at its disposal in 2019. Major contributors Rashan Gary and Karan Higdon have opted out of the contest. Bush said last week that the hip injury he suffered against Ohio State will keep him off the field as well. Their understudies will now be watched to see how they stack up against the new wave of players stepping into bigger roles at Ohio State.
There was a time when Michigan might use a bowl game against Florida (9-3) to glean answers to all sorts of questions. How does the roster stack up against the athleticism of an SEC school? Are the Wolverines tough enough to play hard after ending the regular season on a low note? Is Harbaugh’s staff developing the depth the program needs to consistently compete against good teams?
Michigan has a strong program. The Wolverines have won 38 games in the past four seasons. They’ve played dominant defense in all but a few of those games. They’ve shown the capacity to evolve on offense. They’ve answered all those questions better than any Michigan team in the past quarter-century, but with an 0-4 mark against Ohio State in the same time frame, those answers become irrelevant.
The early signing period already provided an example of the one omnipresent question that is loud enough to drown out any other concerns or analysis. Michigan’s recruiting class was a victory because it was ranked higher than Ohio State’s new batch of recruits. The coaching staff doesn’t appear to be falling behind on the recruiting trail. Check that box.
The staff roped in a handful of speedy receivers who might help the Wolverines develop an offense better suited to run with the Buckeyes. The class’s crown jewel was five-star safety Daxton Hill, a player who should be able to help slow down the Ohio State passing attack that torched Michigan in November.
Meyer isn’t taking that offensive firepower with him when he leaves. New head coach Ryan Day played a major role in establishing the Buckeyes’ upgraded offense. Day officially takes the reins from Meyer following the Rose Bowl on the first day of 2019.
A new coach doesn’t necessarily mean Michigan’s odds of beating its oppressive rival will get any better in the year that follows, but it does offer that sliver of hope. So Meyer’s final game, the quarterback decisions that follow and anything else that happens at either program this offseason will be diagnosed by the Wolverines with one question in mind. Until Michigan can come up with an affirmative response, nothing else really matters.