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Top 10 games of the Jim Harbaugh era, No. 9: Michigan tops Florida in 2016 Citrus Bowl

It was a bowl game to remember.

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl - Michigan v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The 2015 Michigan Wolverines team was Jim Harbaugh’s first as head coach. After a tough loss to Utah on the road to open the year, expectations for the season were drained. Many wanted the turnaround with Harbaugh to be immediate. As we would find out, it would take a considerable amount of time.

The perfect example of this is the other two losses in Michigan’s 10-3 season, who just so happen to be their biggest rivals. The Wolverines played tough against Michigan State, and should have won that game, but we all know how that one ended (and that WOULD be on the worst games list). Then, they were obliterated by Ohio State. Frustration was mounting, but hopes were still high a turnaround could be in order after an impressive year full of gutsy wins.

Without a doubt, the most impressive win for this team came in the Citrus Bowl. Michigan typically does not fare well against SEC opponents (and no one really does), and was about to face a top 20 team that hung tough with eventual champion Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, the Florida Gators. What happened was a shock to many and put a real jolt into the future of the Michigan program.

Season Significance: 9, Pre-Game Hype: 7

A New Year’s Day game between two blue bloods from the best two conferences in college football? Sign me up!

Michigan didn’t have the same caliber season as the Gators did, but this was a highly anticipated game that was going to show if Michigan was for real.

The Wolverines were favored by 4.5 points after a rough ending to the Gators’ season. They were outscored 56-17 against Alabama and Florida State in their final two games. At the very least, that matched Michigan’s loss to Ohio State.

The Gators were mainly carried by a defense that had 16 future NFL players on the roster. Most notably were Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone, Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal.

At this point, both programs were in a similar position. Both had first-year head coaches, both started the season unranked and both had sky-high expectations of a quick rebuild. After this game, it would happen for one, while the other remained in mediocrity.

Highlight Play Score: 6, Individual Performance: 6

Florida put together a nice possession to open up this game, and McElwain wanted to test the waters early to try and put some points on the board. On 4th and 7, the Gators faked a field goal and went with a pitch. Michigan’s special teams unit was all over it and Channing Stribling came up with a momentum-changing interception:

It set the tone early, and Michigan took advantage. Running back De’Veon Smith broke free for a 24-yard gain and finished with 109 total:

A Drake Johnson touchdown a few plays later gave the Wolverines a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter. Florida responded quickly with an eight-play, 75-yard drive mostly coming from three passes from Treon Harris to Antonio Callaway. It would wind up being the Gators’ only score of the day.

Jehu Chesson showed up with 118 yards and a touchdown on five receptions in this game. Two of them came a few drives later on a massive third-and-long play, and a 31-yard wide-open touchdown to put Michigan up 14-7.

A red zone interception from Jarrod Wilson gave Michigan the opportunity to take a 17-7 lead into halftime after Kenny Allen put a 21-yard field goal through the uprights.

In the second half, Michigan completely embarrassed Florida. A 12-play, 69-yard drive that ate up the first six minutes of the third quarter ended with a Grant Perry touchdown, Jake Rudock’s second of the day.

After a Florida three-and-out, the Wolverines were right back at it again as Rudock hit Chesson for a 45-yard play inside the 10-yard line:

Fullback Sione Houma punched it in with a two-yard score a couple plays later, and Michigan gained a 31-7 advantage.

The Michigan defense allowed just 28 yards in the second half and three of four Florida possessions went three-and-out. There was just absolutely no running room for McElwain’s offense, and the Gators had to swap quarterbacks to try and get anything going.

Rudock was spectacular, scoring three touchdowns and completing 20-of-31 for 278 yards in the win. He finished the day with a eight-yard pass to Johnson, his final score as a Wolverine:

Michigan would go on to win 41-7 and did so loudly. From start to finish, the team dominated an SEC opponent and it looked like it was having a lot of fun doing it.

Historical Significance: 7

It was the first bowl win of the Harbaugh era and it was a changing of the tides. A very similar team went 5-7 the year prior under Brady Hoke. Blowing out an opponent like Florida felt exceptionally good for the program and its fanbase. The hype that had been boiling was overflowing, and some real change was on the horizon for the program.

But the Citrus Bowl win wound up being just the icing on the cake. A month after this win, Harbaugh earned the commitment of three top 150 players according to 247Sports. Lavert Hill and David Long became one of the best corner duos in college football shortly after coming to Ann Arbor. But most importantly, the top recruit in the country, Rashan Gary, chose Michigan over Clemson.

All three became stars for the Wolverines and the Michigan defense was a top 20 unit in college football for the next three seasons highlighted by a No. 2 overall ranking in 2016, a year where Michigan was oh-so-close to being a Big Ten Champion (JT was short, BTW).

Without a statement Citrus Bowl win, who knows what kind of late recruiting developments occur and where this program is today...

Total Score: 35/50

This game meant a lot for the Michigan season and the program. Just beating the Gators would have been a big deal, but annihilating them the way they did made it even sweeter. On the national stage, Harbaugh proved the Wolverines were back and they were no longer that pushover program. The future of their recruiting proved just that.

At the same time, the game itself was pretty meh. Michigan put up a lot of points by moving the ball methodically down the field. Many of the games ahead of this on the list have much more significance, had better single-game performances or were just a better on-the-field product for both sides.

Check out the rest of the rankings for this series released every Sunday:

No. 10: Michigan escapes Bloomington in 2OT thriller in 2015