Michigan's Jim Harbaugh looks on before a college football game between the Wolverines and Air Force on September 16.
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ANN ARBOR — His words weren’t nuanced, and he didn’t sidestep the details.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh came full tilt with his assessment of the Wolverines ahead of their New Year’s Day bowl game against South Carolina.
“We’re not good enough,” Harbaugh said on the Outback Bowl conference call. “Not good enough to win all our games. We need to be better. We need to be good enough. That starts now. It starts today. It really started last week.”
It was a blunt, accurate state of the program. The 2017 season went in reverse. One year after nearly wedging its way into the College Football Playoff, Michigan finished 8-4 with a woeful 5-4 conference record.
All the particulars have been repeated endlessly. Michigan didn’t beat a team with a winning record, Harbaugh is 1-2 against Michigan State and 0-3 against Ohio State, and the quarterback situation is touch-and-go, which wasn’t expected in Year 3 thanks to Harbaugh’s past quarterback wizardry.
“We’ve got a lot of things to fix up, and there’s a lot of time to improve,” sophomore tight end Zach Gentry said. “We’ll put our nose to the grindstone and keep working.”
Entering bowl practice with momentum hasn’t been common under Harbaugh. Michigan has lost its final regular-season game all three seasons, and Harbaugh’s record in November is 7-5, a month that’s often reserved for the sport’s mightiest teams to flourish.
Instead, Michigan will attempt to end the season on a high note by winning a second-tier bowl game. It would give UM a victory against a team with a winning record and send it into the offseason with some measure of confidence.
“We’re building and attacking at the same time,” Harbaugh said. “We came out with three good practices last week, had good meetings. Some guys needed time away from practice to heal bumps and bruises and get in the weight room. I think we had good improvement last week as a team.”
Unlike last year when the turnover on Michigan’s roster was towering, the Wolverines will return nearly every impact starter. Bowl practices under Harbaugh have been a time for young players to experience growth. This season it should accomplish even more because of the entire roster’s relative youth.
“It’s a great opportunity for a lot of young guys to get better for next season, and for us to get another win,” senior left tackle Mason Cole said. “That’s the biggest thing, just finishing this season out the right way and starting the next season out the right way. These next few weeks are just a great opportunity for us not only to get better, but to get healthy.”
In last week’s preparations, the starters stayed off the field while working on conditioning and in the weight room. It also was a time for those players to ponder a season that never quite got on the rails.
Even in September, Michigan’s placement in the top 10 felt fragile and precarious. Lofty expectations eventually gave way to anguish after aching growing pains, a series of injuries, and inopportune lapses during games.
A quick fix will require all seven months of the offseason because the prognostications don’t change in Ann Arbor. It may not always be sunny, but there’s an endless forecast of Big Ten championships and playoff berths.
“We’ll go forward building and attacking,” Harbaugh said, “using our meeting time, training time, practice time, and this next bowl game to motivate us and improve as a football team.”
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