Jim Harbaugh's 1st Season at Michigan Should Scare the Rest of the Big Ten

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterJanuary 5, 2016

Jan 1, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh has water dumped on him after defeating Florida Gators to 41-7 to win the 2016 Citrus Bowl at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Michigan Wolverines defeated Florida Gators 41-7. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

As his team's appearance in the Citrus Bowl approached, Jim Harbaugh made a bold proclamation about what a victory over Florida would mean for his debut season as the head coach of Michigan.

"It's been a heck of a good year," Harbaugh said, per MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner. "It has potentially the chance to be, personally, I would look at this as the best year I've had in football if we win this game."

If the first-year Wolverines head coach's outlook on the 2015 season was truly dependent on the outcome of his team's bowl game, then there may not be a close second when it comes to Harbaugh's pantheon of seasons in the sport he's spent more than 30 years in. 

Gashing the Gators by a score of 41-7, Michigan put an exclamation point on its head coach's debut season by capping its 10-3 campaign with a blowout bowl win over an opponent from the vaunted SEC. The Citrus Bowl was the 2015 Wolverines at their best, limiting Florida to fewer than 300 yards of total offense while controlling the ball with a balanced offensive attack that saw Michigan gain 278 yards through the air and 225 on the ground.

"This was the best game we've played all year," Harbaugh said afterwards in his postgame press conference. "It was a great team win. I don't think I've ever seen our offense play better. Our defense was magnificent."

In many ways Harbaugh was right. Throughout the 2015 season, the Wolverines were yet to dominate a quality opponent from start to finish the way that they did with the Gators on New Year's Day. This was the culmination of an offense hitting its stride and a defense rediscovering its identity, despite its coordinator having already taken off for a head coaching job at Maryland.

Jan 1, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back De'Veon Smith (4) eludes Florida Gators defensive lineman Joey Ivie (91) during the second quarter in the 2016 Citrus Bowl at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

And unlike Ohio State's beatdown of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, this wasn't a case of "what could have been," but rather "what's going to be."

Because while Harbaugh's first season on the Michigan sideline was an undisputed success, his turnaround job at his alma mater is just getting started.

"Onward, 2016," Harbaugh said after the Citrus Bowl. "This was the beginning of that year."

Taking a roster just one year removed from a 5-7 season, Harbaugh doubled the Wolverines' win total with a team that will return several key pieces in 2016. Barring any surprise early entrants into the NFL draft, Michigan will return a total of 14 combined starters on offense and defense next season, including key contributors in tight end Jake Butt, running back De'Veon Smith, safety Jabrill Peppers and four of its five starting offensive linemen.

Meanwhile in the rest of the Big Ten East, Ohio State is in the midst of losing underclassmen to the NFL draft left and right, Michigan State will be without three-year starting quarterback Connor Cook and star defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Penn State just lost quarterback Christian Hackenberg and is yet to assert itself as a serious contender in the division under head coach James Franklin.

Yes, the Wolverines will also have to find a new starting signal-caller after graduate transfer Jake Rudock's lone season in Ann Arbor came to an end with a 278-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Gators. But if there's one position Harbaugh has proven to be adept at developing, it's the one he used to play, as evidenced by his work with Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and now Rudock throughout his coaching career.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Whether it will be Shane Morris, Wilton Speight, Alex Malzone, John O'Korn or Brandon Peters behind center—another key position Harbaugh must replace with the departure of Graham Glasgow—for Michigan in 2016 remains to be seen. But with an experienced offensive line, Butt, as well as talented wideouts Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson all slated to return, the infrastructure is in place for the Wolverines' next starting quarterback to find success similar to Rudock's.

"It’s going to be exciting to work and see what happens this spring," Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch said, per Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press. "There will be some guys battling for that starting job, and it’s going to be a fun one."

Defensively, the Wolverines will have work to do as well, not only replacing D.J. Durkin, but all four starting linebackers from their 3-4 defense. Much like quarterback, however, it will be more a matter of pulling and plugging than anything else, with Michigan set to return its three starting defensive linemen and arguably the two most talented defensive backs in the conference in Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis.

Factor in that the Wolverines currently lay claim to the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class and any talent lost looks like much less of an issue—especially with Harbaugh still in the running for the nation's No. 1 overall prospect, 5-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary.

And while the Buckeyes' 2016 class currently ranks second in the country, Michigan's flipping of 5-star running back Kareem Walker is proof that even without a similar track record, Harbaugh is capable of going head-to-head with Urban Meyer on the recruiting trail.

Now that he has the results to match the unprecedented hype that accompanied his return to Ann Arbor, that should only continue to be the case. The Wolverines may have lost to division rivals Michigan State and Ohio State in Harbaugh's first season, but Michigan's Citrus Bowl beatdown legitimized the progress that the program seemed to make in 2015.

"This set a foundation for us," said Smith, who rushed for 109 yards against Florida.

"If you could have been in [the locker room] with us, you would have noticed that guys like being on our ball team," Harbaugh said. "We're on a ball team. Michigan, the Wolverines football team. We like being on that ball team."

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Looking ahead, the Wolverines will face a manageable 2016 slate, although games against the Spartans, Buckeyes and reigning Big Ten West champs Iowa all come on the road. Michigan will likely be a hot preseason playoff pick for prognosticators based on Harbaugh's pedigree, but the Wolverines will have to win multiple key road games to make good on those predictions.

But for the first time in a long time, the idea of Michigan doing just that doesn't seem so far-fetched. In a conference that's losing a lot, the Wolverines seem to be returning the most and find themselves on an upward trajectory entering Harbaugh's second season at his alma mater.

"We gotta carry this over into 2016," said Smith. "I believe our team will. I'm pretty sure Coach Harbaugh will push us until we do that."

After the Citrus Bowl, Harbaugh confirmed that 2015 was indeed his favorite year in football, insisting that he had thought long and hard about the notion.

But it may not take long for this past season to find some stiff competition. As the Citrus Bowl showed, this Michigan program is only improving and it shouldn't be long before it makes good on its potential as one of college football's legitimate championship contenders.

Onward 2016, indeed.


Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.