FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- On the eve of Michigan's thirteenth and final game of the 2016 season the mood around this team's fan base is one of anxiety more than celebration. The Wolverines entered the season as a favorite to not only win the Big Ten, but the national championship as well. After finishing the season losing two of their last three games, the excitement around this year's team has dissipated. An appearance in a New Year's six bowl game is normally celebrated at a school that has failed to reach a BCS/NY6 bowl game since 2011, but given the hype that was built up throught the summer and followed this team into November, Michigan must now try to avoid losing three of their last four games. The 2016 version of Michigan football can still finish the year improving upon the 10-win output produced a season ago, however a loss in the Orange Bowl to Florida State, will leave a sour taste in the mouths of the Maize and Blue faithful.
An improvement from one season to the next is easy to accept when you jump from ten wins to eleven, however two straight ten win seasons while your archrival competes in the playoff for the second time in three years will only widen the gap between Michigan and Ohio State. Michigan's fanbase is desperate for progress and there is only so much Wolverine fans can glean from improving the margin of defeat to Ohio State. When Jim Harbaugh was hired two years ago, the expectation was Michigan would return to national relevance and competitiveness. The Wolverines continue to dominate the headlines, but have yet to finish in the top two of the Big Ten's East Division and the cupboard is supposedly bare heading into next season. It's hard to imagine Michigan will be in a position to reach the College Football Playoff in late November of 2017. That's what increased the sense of deflation when Michigan fell to Ohio State. Again. This was the year.
If Michigan can take care of business against the Seminoles, this season will still end on a high note. However a loss will force the returning players to do a lot of soul searching this offseason. This was supposed to be Ohio State's down year after losing a plethora of superstars to the National Football League. They're back in the playoff despite their lack of experience in key positions. Alabama is a revolving door to the NFL and stays competitive regardless of experience at any position. Clemson has reached the Playoff in back to back years. The powerhouse programs in college football aren't going anywhere. Michigan has to catch up rather than hope other teams fall back to them. The current gap between Michigan and the Nation's elite is extremely slim right now, but a loss to Florida State will make that gap feel much wider. Florida State is a blue blood program. This is their sixth straight BCS/NY6 bowl game. Only Alabama has matched that production.
Friday night's Orange Bowl won't salvage Michigan's chances of fulfilling lofty preseason expectations. However, it can provide the momentum needed to sustain the current upward trajectory of the program. Jim Harbaugh is trying to build something very special at his alma mater. Tomorrow night's result will provide a good indication of just how far Michigan has come in two years under Harbaugh. A win and Michigan will head into next season with confidence and a belief that they belong among the college football elite once again. A loss and Michigan fans will fear that next year's looming regression, in terms of wins and losses, will set the Wolverines back even further in the college football pecking order. Friday night's Orange Bowl is a true benchmark game.
It's time for Michigan to make a statement that the Wolverines aren't going anywhere and belong in the conversation with Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Florida State among the nation's best. Three losses in their last four games and I'm not sure how optimistic Michigan fans should feel about the direction of the program. This current team is as talented as you could ask for. Harbaugh will keep the roster overflowing with talent. Sometimes the breaks go a team's way. That was not the case for Michigan this year. There is no gurantee Michigan will ever benefit from poor officiating or a fortunate bounce of the pigskin. The beauty of Michigan's Citrus Bowl performance last year was that it left no doubt this program was headed in the right direction. A similar performance against a very good Florida State team will put the curent top teams on notice. A loss and the doubt around Harbaugh's rebuilding efforts will amplify. There will always be doubters, but Michigan will aim to silence them heading into 2017.