The Gators were rewarded for their surprisingly good 2015 season with an invitation to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando to face Michigan. The Wolverines staged their own surprising turnaround season under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, going 9-3 in the Big 10/11/12/whatever Eastern division. They opened the year at a very good Utah team and lost by 3 points, then gave away a bitter home loss late in the season to Michigan St. on a last-play fumble by their punter that was returned for a touchdown – one of the memorable plays of 2015 that directly affected the playoffs. Finally, they were blown out at home by their main rival, Ohio $t. Eerily similar the Florida’s season. These teams are also very similar in that they are led by very good defenses, while the offenses are steady but unspectacular. Of course, Florida’s offense the last month of the regular season was a miserable display of QB play that prevented possible victories in their last 2 games that could have led to an even bigger prize.
Michigan’s offense is usually a balanced attack led by QB Jake Rudock, RB De’Veon Smith, TE Jake Butt (one of the best in the country), and 2 big WRs – Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. The running game led the way the first 7-8 games, but faded in November. The passing game took over more of the load the last 4 games, but I think coach Harbaugh has seen enough of the tape of Florida’s secondary to know that this isn’t as viable an option as a consistent attack. I would expect more emphasis on the running game early, with a wait-and see approach to see if Florida’s offense can pose any consistent threat to score. The additional wild card is Jabrill Peppers, a starting CB and an explosive athlete who will occasionally be brought in for wildcat plays or the occasional pass play. However, he is questionable for the game with a hand injury, and if he is less than 100% that is a big help to Florida on both sides of the ball.
The Gator defense will be challenged by the TE, big WRs, and excellent play-calling of Harbaugh. VH3, Jalen Tabor, and Quincy Wilson all need to be on their game and expect a physical afternoon. Geoff Collins needs to determine how he will cover Butt – either with another CB or safety, in order to force Rudock into some bad throws or sacks. The D-Line should be healthy and be able to slow down the running game, and should be able to get pressure on the QB, as Michigan’s OL is solid but not great. If Jon Bullard, Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox, and co. are playing at the level they did during the regular season, they should be able to control the LOS more often than not. I hope to see LBs Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis play the same way they did all season – flying all over the field to the ball, with the occasional blitz to disrupt the run or pass.
The formula for the Gators’ opponents has been to stay conservative while the offense implodes, and to wear down the defense with the running game in the 4th quarter to pull away. This has been especially frustrating to the defensive players, and Coach McElwain has to be sick of it as well. Michigan’s defense is solid and led by many upperclassmen, and usually doesn’t beat itself. Their Defensive Coordinator, former Florida position coach DJ Durkin, has left to become head coach at Maryland, but D-Line coach (and also former Florida position coach) Greg Mattison is one of the best in football, and will have a solid game plan ready. Sadly, unless Treon Harris magically rediscovers his form against LSU or is allowed to throw care aside and be allowed to run more often, I don’t see much hope. There really isn’t much to lose at this point, and Harris will not play another snap at QB after this game, so perhaps Coach McElwain and Coach Nuss have some surprises in store. Kelvin Taylor’s last game at Florida will hopefully be a good one, as he will need to establish some sort of run threat to allow Harris any chance of throwing the ball with effectiveness. Jordan Scarlett is suspended for this game, so Jordan Cronkrite will spell Taylor. I hope the staff throws the ball to the RBs more in the flats on quick swing passes to help Harris out and loosen up the Michigan defense somewhat. There were WRs open against both F$U and Alabama, but Harris simply held the ball too long or was inaccurate.
Both teams have solid special teams play. Florida has an edge with Antonio Callaway returning punts and with punter Johnny Townsend, but has perhaps the worst FG kicker in the country right now in Austin Hardin, who has completely imploded and has zero confidence. Michigan has a good kick returner in Peppers (if he plays), and a very good PK in Kenny Allen.
The weather could play a role, as it has been unseasonably warm and humid, and if Florida can somehow win time-of-possession, the Wolverine defense could wear down in the second half. The Gator defense, I believe, will have to generate some turnovers to give the Gator offense the extra opportunities it needs to scrape together enough points to win. Florida also has the advantage of not having to travel far, and is acclimated to the weather. The Gators should also have a distinct advantage in the number of their fans in the stands.
All that being said, I have a ton of respect for Coach Harbaugh and Coach Mattison, and would be very surprised if they didn’t have the Wolverines ready to play a smart, effective game. Again, if Florida has a functional offense with balance in the passing game, I feel they can win, but there is no evidence to this point that shows Harris can be effective enough as a passer to give the offense that opportunity. At the end of the day, I see another painful rerun of the same script – a close, hard-fought defensive struggle most of the game, with the Gator opponent being able to pull away late to get the win.
Prediction: Michigan 20 Florida 17