Michigan’s Second Houston Postseason Appearance Has Much Higher Stakes Than The First

42 years ago, Michigan played in the Bluebonnet Bowl to relatively less fanfare than their other bowl appearances. Now, everything is at stake in their bowl game return to the Space City

Michigan won the 1981 Bluebonnet Bowl 33-14 over UCLA
Source: AP Photo

Michigan’s last postseason appearance in Houston had a funny feel to it. It was a familiar matchup in a different place. In 1981, The 8-3 and 16th-ranked Wolverines faced the 7-3-1 and 19th-ranked UCLA Bruins in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl at the Astrodome. Many non-New Year’s Six bowl committees today would salivate at a matchup like this. With only 16 bowl games filling the schedule after the 1981 season, this was a marquee matchup.

However, the matchup was disappointing for both schools, a cheapened Rose Bowl miles east of Pasadena. Less than a decade prior, it was the Rose Bowl or nothing for both conferences. Big Ten and PAC-10 schools could not play in any bowls other than the Rose Bowl. Fans were still getting used to seeing Big Ten schools in lower-tier bowls.

Over 42 years later, in Michigan’s first national championship game since the advent of the Bowl Coalition, they return to the Space City. Houston lost the Bluebonnet Bowl after 1987 but has had a bowl since 2000. The Texas Bowl has longevity, but hardly anything sets it apart from its postseason counterparts. It has hardly had any spectacular matchups, mostly hosting 7-5 and 8-4 Power Five teams in “made-for-weeknight-TV” events.

Michigan playing in a national championship in the same city they played in one of the least prestigious bowls in their history shows how funny college football can be. Houston’s NRG Stadium has rarely been a place for marquee college football matchups. This year, the Texans’ home hosted two other football games, Sam Houston-Air Force and the Texas Bowl between Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Neither game registered more than a slight tremor on the college football seismograph.

When people look back on Bo Schembechler’s tenure, the 33-14 win in the 1981 Bluebonnet Bowl is not one of the seminal moments. The game was not a sellout despite the Wolverines making a rare appearance in Texas. Over 10,000 seats in the “Eighth Wonder of the World” lay vacant that 1981 night.

Now, Bo’s greatest quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, can reach heights his coach never saw with a national championship. Harbaugh already replicated a classic Bo Schembechler Rose Bowl win. On Monday, he can continue following in his mentor’s footsteps and earn his postseason victory in Houston. This time, the stakes are much higher than that forgettable 1981 night.