Jim Harbaugh and Michigan Poised for Even Better 2016

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystJanuary 1, 2016

Michigan players and HC Jim Harbaugh
Michigan players and HC Jim HarbaughJohn Raoux/Associated Press

If years in coaching tenures were like films in a series, the first installment from Jim Harbaugh at Michigan was a strong return to form for a proud franchise.

And if the opening scene of Harbaugh's second effort is any indication, the sequel has all the potential to be a blockbuster hit.

Harbaugh's Michigan program started 2016 with a mammoth 41-7 rout of Florida in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. After breaking a 7-7 tie in the second quarter, the Wolverines seized control and never looked back. 

For Michigan, the New Year's Day blowout was the perfect way to bounce back after a sour ending to 2015—a lopsided loss to bitter rival Ohio State in its home stadium.

Against a Gators defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in points allowed per game, yards allowed per play and per game, rushing touchdowns allowed and passing yards allowed per attempt and per game, the Wolverines put together one of their best offensive performances under Harbaugh.

Michigan WR Jehu Chesson
Michigan WR Jehu ChessonJohn Raoux/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

A game that was expected to be a low-scoring, defensive affair turned into a showcase for several of Michigan's offensive stars. In addition to five touchdowns, the Wolverines posted 503 total yards—second only to their two-overtime win at Indiana.

Senior quarterback Jake Rudock threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns, completing passes to eight different teammates. The graduate transfer became the second player in Michigan's long football history to throw for 3,000 yards in one season, per MaizeNBrew.com's Drew Hallett:

Rudock's wideouts, led by a 118-yard effort from Jehu Chesson, dominated their respective matchups against the likes of Florida star defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tabor.

An All-American cornerback who is expected to be a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft, Hargreaves was constantly picked on by the Wolverines, as football writer Chris B. Brown noted on Twitter:

Michigan also moved the ball efficiently on the ground against the hapless Gators. De'Veon Smith had 109 rushing yards, while Drake Johnson and Sione Houma both found the end zone.

Defensively, the Wolverines overcame some big plays by Florida's offense. The only points the Gators scored came on a well-designed trick play.

But in the second half, Florida put up only 28 yards of offense as Michigan started to run away with the game.

The rout in Orlando, Florida, should give the Wolverines plenty of momentum over the next several weeks, when Harbaugh and his staff will look to close in on a top-five 2016 recruiting class.

Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh
Michigan HC Jim HarbaughJohn Raoux/Associated Press

According to 247Sports' composite rankings, Michigan is currently No. 3 nationally with a month and some change left until signing day. The Wolverines could wrap up their already impressive class with a number of blue-chip targets, including No. 1 overall player Rashan Gary and 5-star tight end Isaac Nauta.

Those who sign on this winter will join all the talent returning to Ann Arbor in the fall.

Michigan should return three of its top four rushers, including Smith, who received high praise from Harbaugh after the game, per MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner:

Top receivers Chesson and Amara Darboh both have eligibility remaining, and they could very well join star tight end Jake Butt by staying in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines offensive line should bring back a lot of talent as well.

And the next leading man for Michigan at quarterback should have plenty of success starring in Harbaugh's sequel. Whether it's Houston transfer John O'Korn, Shane Morris or Wilton Speight, Rudock showed this season that a new starter can have success under Harbaugh.

Michigan ATH Jabrill Peppers
Michigan ATH Jabrill PeppersChristian Petersen/Getty Images

The Wolverines will have to reload defensively—especially at linebacker—under new coordinator Don Brown, but Brown can rely on do-it-all safety Jabrill Peppers to lead the secondary. The redshirt freshman has the three-way potential to be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate on a successful team.

If Harbaugh and his staff can nail down the new starters at key positions this offseason, then championships could be in the near future for this program.

In the cutthroat Big Ten East, Michigan will have to overcome Michigan Statewho beat the Wolverines in an all-time heartbreaker this season—and Ohio State in order to play for the conference title. However, both of those rivals have a lot more talent to replace than the Wolverines.

With six of Michigan's first seven games of next season at the Big House and its lone road contest in that stretch against rebuilding Rutgers, this wave of momentum has a great chance to carry into the final months of the year.

With trips to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State—three teams that played in either the College Football Playoff or New Year's Six bowls this season—the schedule down the stretch will undoubtedly be tough.

But Harbaugh is an experienced director of successful seasons, and he has his alma mater rolling ahead of schedule. His 2016 feature commanded quite a bit of attention when it premiered Friday afternoon in Orlando.

It's time to grab your popcorn, Wolverines fans.

Game statistics courtesy of GameTracker. Unless otherwise noted, other statistics courtesy of CFBstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.


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