There’s more at stake in this year’s Peach Bowl between the Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines than you might think. The matchup originally figured to be a revenge game of sorts between UF first-year head coach Dan Mullen and former head coach Jim McElwain, who served as UM’s wide receivers coach this season until Central Michigan hired him away.
Instead, though, this December 29 meeting in Atlanta — which will mark the third time in four years these teams have played — is a chance for Mullen and Jim Harbaugh to make statements of their own.
Mullen can prove to Gator fans the program is on a fast track to eliteness by doing what McElwain couldn’t. Harbaugh can show that he can coach a team missing a whole bunch of top players — Rashan Gary, Devin Bush and Karan Higdon — to a win over a top-10 team after yet another disappointing loss to Ohio State that ended UM’s chances of a national championship.
As the two coaches cross paths for the first time, I can’t help but wonder if Mullen’s first few years will resemble Jim Harbaugh’s at Michigan: Celebrated for their passion and love of their schools but ultimately leave fans wondering when or if those conference and national championship banners will ever hang.
The similarities between the two are there.
Both Mullen and Harbaugh had comparable coming home stories. Mullen coached alongside Urban Meyer during Florida’s national championship years in 2006 and 2008 before coming back to Gainesville as the head coach this season. Harbaugh starred at quarterback for Michigan in the 1980s and, after a head coaching stint with the San Francisco 49ers, returned to his alma mater with hopes of winning not only conference championships but national championships. Since Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor, he’s won neither of those.
In Harbaugh’s first year at Michigan in 2015, he went 10-3 — the same record Florida will be if it beats Michigan. Two of those losses were to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State — two teams he’s a combined 2-6 against in four years. That just doesn’t cut it. Beating your rivals is obviously important, but for Michigan, the Ohio State game makes or breaks its season the same way Florida’s annual dog fight against Georgia usually does.
This season was a perfect example: If the Wolverines had beat the Buckeyes, they’re almost certainly in the College Football Playoff. If the Gators take care of Georgia, they get their shot at a playoff spot by first needing to beat Alabama.
Harbaugh once famously guaranteed a win over Ohio State and a trip to the Rose Bowl during his quarterbacking days in 1986, and he delivered. So why hasn’t he delivered anything for Wolverine fans who’ve been expecting similar results?
If winning starts with recruiting and Harbaugh had top-10 recruiting classes in 2016 and 2017, shouldn’t UM’s lack of success fall on the head coach? Mullen is currently working on his first full recruiting cycle. While he likely won’t end up with a top-10 class, it should end up in the top 15. What he does with it is up to him, and he still has time to dictate his future and legacy at Florida.
Let’s not forget another part of the coaching job: Putting butts in the stands. Harbaugh absolutely reenergized Michigan’s fan base. After subpar attendance numbers during the Brady Hoke era, UM led the NCAA in attendance in Harbaugh’s first three years.
Mullen has harped on filling The Swamp this year, saying that’s his job. It is, but first on his to-do list should be winning. Fans will fill the stadium if he does that. As the saying goes, “if you build it, they will come.”
Build a winner. Beat your rivals. Beat Alabama. Take Florida to the next level.
Gator fans, don’t settle the way Michigan fans have.