Outback Bowl score: Michigan stains Big Ten's bowl record in loss to South Carolina
Plus, the Jim Harbaugh takes this offseason are going to be fire
Michigan's 26-19 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl is big for Michigan and the Big Ten on both micro and macro levels. From the outside in, it spoils the Big Ten's perfect bowl record this year. The conference was 7-0 heading into New Year's Day, and a 19-3 lead for the Wolverines with about 20 minutes to play when the Gamecocks had mustered absolutely zero offense looked air-tight. Instead, South Carolina reeled off 23 unanswered points to put a damper on the end of the Big Ten's perfect postseason.
You don't want to overstate the importance of bowl records. They're fun for bragging rights -- or in the Pac-12's case, downright embarrassments at 1-8 in bowl games -- but it's best to be cautious at making sweeping generalizations from them. There are a lot of factors that go into bowls, such as injuries, players sitting out to declare for the draft, coaching changes, motivation and the like. That doesn't mean the Big Ten shouldn't be happy with its bowl record or that it's not impressive, but take it for what it is.
Certainly, the Big Ten would have enjoyed going unscathed -- and it had a real chance, too, before Michigan fell apart in the second half.
That's going to come back on coach Jim Harbaugh, and boy, the upcoming offseason is going to be interesting for him. Harbaugh is 28-10 in three seasons, which is fine on its own. But he's never finished higher than third in the Big Ten East and is 1-5 vs. Ohio State* and Michigan State. Put another way, Harbaugh has won a lot of games -- just over nine per season -- but not enough of the "right games." That in and of itself is going to ignite at least some grumbling.
*There's a separate conversation about Michigan having an Ohio State problem, but that's for another day.
However, context is important. The Wolverines may have hovered in and around the top 10 in the AP Top 25 and Coaches' Poll in the preseason, but (warning: college football insider secret ahead!) those are nothing more than guesses. And in this case, it was kind of an ill-advised guess -- not that that's ever happened before.
Normally, Year 3 at a major program is considered the "jump" year, but the opposite was actually true for Harbaugh's Wolverines. This was a team that ranked 127th on Phil Steele's experience chart. Coupling many new full-time starters was a rotating door at quarterback with Wilton Speight, John O'Korn and Brandon Peters, none of which proved to be great long-term options.
Harbaugh has blemishes as a coach in big rivalry games and in offensive player development and has earned criticism for them. It's certainly worthwhile for Michigan fans to be frustrated at the offensive output when Georgia, a playoff team, has shown smashmouth, old-school football can still be wildly successful and efficient. Or that Wisconsin can win 13 games in the Big Ten while doing it. Or that Stanford, Harbaugh's old stomping grounds of all places, can make a quarterback change mid-season and complement its ground attack better because of it.
But to make the next eight months a narrative about Harbaugh's underachievement when 9-4 was probably the ceiling for this team anyway seems a bit harsh. Harbaugh went 8-5 and lost a Jan. 1 bowl game to a similar South Carolina team. Oh well.
With all of that being said, 2018 will certainly be interesting for the Wolverines. All of that inexperience that got meaningful snaps this year will presumably be older, wiser and better. Harbaugh recruits at a top-10 level, which is certainly good enough to compete for national championships.
Whether Michigan was going to win the Outback Bowl or not, it should in theory be better next season.
However, the Big Ten, which just went 7-1 in bowl games, the best of any conference this year, is projected to be better, too.
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