Jim Harbaugh, Michigan exceed expectations in Year 1, set new ones for Year 2

ORLANDO, Fla. -- While players from his team stood on a platform accepting the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl trophy, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh mingled with fans on the field.

Harbaugh shook hands and posed for dozens of pictures. At one point, one of the school's most important donors, J. Ira Harris, found Harbaugh in the crowd.

"Ten!" he yelled in jubilation. "That was the promise!"

Harbaugh just smiled and hugged the man who in 2014 gave $10 million to name the Wolverines' coaching position after himself and his wife, Nicki Harris. It seems like a bargain after Harbaugh delivered the 10 wins Harris wanted most.

Michigan ended its first campaign under Harbaugh in emphatic fashion -- by hammering Florida 41-7 to cap a 10-3 season. Even the most optimistic Maize and Blue supporter would have had a hard time believing in the preseason that the program would double its win total after last season's 5-7 debacle.

"Personally, I couldn't see it," safety Jarrod Wilson said. "But the preparation that we put in each week, and with a great coach in Coach Harbaugh, it became more and more real to me each week."

A 10-win season might not seem like much for the winningest team in college football history. But consider that before Friday, the Wolverines had reached that plateau only twice since 2003.

They grabbed win No. 10 with what Harbaugh called their most complete game of the season. The offense rang up 503 total yards and 28 first downs on a Florida defense that had ranked as one of the best in the FBS all season. Michigan's defense held the Gators to 273 yards -- only 143 of which came after the first quarter. Florida head coach Jim McElwain said the one-sided game had nothing to do with his team's lack of motivation.

"They just out-physicaled us," McElwain said.

That had to sound like music to Harbaugh's ears. He took a team that had lacked toughness under Brady Hoke and molded it in his own tough-guy image. And he did that practically overnight. No wonder Harbaugh couldn't stop smiling after the game and called this his "best year in football." That's saying a lot for a guy who played in the NFL, coached in a Super Bowl and won an Orange Bowl at Stanford.

But this year was different. This year, Harbaugh revived his alma mater.

"I'm sure that all people who like Michigan are really proud of the fellas and the way they played all year," Harbaugh said. "They're on the Michigan Man list. And we're not saying this is the greatest year in the history of Michigan football. But this team acquitted themselves very well."

Of course, winning Citrus Bowls and finishing third in the Big Ten East Division are never goals in Ann Arbor. This 10-win season and the impressive closing number will raise expectations for the 2016 season, when Michigan is likely to start in or very near the top 10.

The Wolverines will have to replace some valuable players. Quarterback will be a major question mark after Jake Rudock departs. Rudock, remarkably, transformed from a guy Iowa didn't need last January to an indispensable leader for the Wolverines, and he won Citrus Bowl MVP honors with his highly efficient performance (20-for-31 for 278 yards and three touchdowns) against Florida's talented secondary.

"Jake was on the money today," Harbaugh said. "Fabulous. Darn near flawless."

But Harbaugh and his coaching staff had a lot to do with the development of guys such as Jehu Chesson and Rudock. Expect the staff to work the same magic with the returning core, which will include stars such as tight end Jake Butt, cornerback Jourdan Lewis and safety Jabrill Peppers, who missed the Florida game with a hand injury. Also, the Wolverines will reap the fruits of Harbaugh's first full recruiting class at Michigan.

"This is just the appetizer, I like to say," junior defensive lineman Chris Wormley said. "We're only going to get better next year, and it's exciting. We're ready to show the world and the rest of the NCAA that we're a team that can take it all."

Don't expect Harbaugh to endorse such lofty talk, at least not publicly. But he couldn't help but feel great about what he and his team accomplished in Year 1 and what that might mean going forward.

As he took one of his last photos on the field, with Harris and a few other fans, he kept smiling well after the iPhone shutter closed. Before he headed off into the Michigan locker room, he had a message for the group.

"Next year," he said, "we go for the big one."