ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Though it’s something of a point of contention amongst some Michigan football players compared to others, the majority of Wolverines admit: last year, they were just happy to be in the College Football Playoff.
Then, the loss to Georgia happened, and Blake Corum, J.J. McCarthy, Donovan Edwards, Andrel Anthony, and Mike Morris lingered behind to see the Bulldogs receive their Capital One Orange Bowl trophy, set to advance to the national championship game.
This year, there is an enhanced focus. Michigan is favored to beat TCU in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31, the College Football Playoff semifinal, to face the winner of Georgia and Ohio State. But, it still has to win the game for that to go from being an odds-on favorite to an actual reality.
So, what’s different about this team than last year’s? For one, the preparation feels different as the Wolverines ready themselves for TCU.
“I think it’s just locking into the meeting rooms,” third-year edge rusher Braiden McGregor said. “Last year was just — everyone was so excited. We’re like, ‘Wow, we’re going to the College Football Playoff. We get the sweet gear, we’re gonna go down to Florida, all that. And this year, it’s like, ‘Where are we going? We’re going to Arizona. Cool.’ We’re just trying to get there.
“And I really think that’s the big thing is just we’re focused, like this most focused. I’ve seen us around here. Not much joking around. But we’re still loose, still having a good time. We play our best ball when we’re loose, but we’re definitely paying attention to our film. And we have all this time and Coach Harbaugh like he’s preaching, ‘You have time, rest your bodies, get your mind right, eat right. Get ready to cuz these next two weeks after once we get down to Arizona are gonna be the biggest two weeks in the season.”
It’s a stark difference from some previous teams.
No Jim Harbaugh-coached team has necessarily embraced the distractions that have come with any of the bowl games they appeared in, but it was more like the coaching staff was serious and the players reluctantly took on that mindset. This year, it appears that the players are leading the charge, eager to win and advance, knowing what could be possible should they win this next one. Do that, and you’re one win away from the top prize in college football.
Thus, this game feels less like a bowl game to those preparing for it and more like a business trip, McGregor says. When it comes to any of the extras that may be thrown at them, they’re not quite as eager to partake, being of singular focus and mind.
“100%. Last year, it was like — people thought it was one and done, you know?” McGregor said. “And we got down there — and that was my first bowl game, so I didn’t really know what to expect. A lot of kids in our class, the 2020 class, we didn’t have a bowl game our freshman year. And then the freshmen coming in, they didn’t — that was their first bowl game. So that was majority of the team’s first bowl game. We didn’t really know what to expect, thinking it was gonna be a lot of fun. And I think we really had fun along the trip, but I think we were more caught up in — also bowl game, we’re excited to be here. And this year, we know what we have to do to win. We were here last year, like the guys said it last year as we were leaving the field: we’re coming, we’ll be back.
“So I think this year is definitely a more focused mindset. A more — we know exactly we got to do. It’s not about fun. We’re gonna have fun once we win the natty or win this game. It’ll be fun. So we’re definitely locked in this year, a lot more. And just the preparation and all that. So, you can really tell when you step in the building, you walk down the hall, you listen in meeting rooms.”
Michigan and TCU kick off at 4 p.m. EST in Glendale, Arizona. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN, with the winner advancing to the national championship game, which will be played at So-Fi Stadium in Inglewood, California on Jan. 9, 2023.