Tomorrow is New Year's Day. It will be the first day of 2016 and the last day of Michigan's 2015 season as the Wolverines will square off with Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Our Anthony Broome already has shared the matchups that you should watch and offered his prediction in his game preview, but we wanted to get insight from someone who knows the opponent better than us. So we reached out to Andy Hutchins, who's the managing editor of Alligator Army -- SB Nation's Florida team site -- and he answered our questions about how Florida's offense has changed with Treon Harris in for the suspended Will Grier, whether Florida's excellent defense has a weakness, and which team will win. Make sure to check out his great answers below!
Florida went 10-3 and won the SEC East division, but it seems like Florida's bubble burst when, just prior to its showdown with LSU, quarterback Will Grier was suspended for the rest of the 2015 season and beyond for taking a banned substance. How will Gators fans evaluate Jim McElwain's first year as Florida's head coach? And how will the "what if Grier wasn't suspended" hypothetical affect that evaluation?
I think Florida fans by and large believe that the team we saw with Grier at his best -- one with a rock-solid defense and a mostly competent, sometimes pleasantly aggressive offense -- is close to McElwain's ideal version of the Gators. And even after losing Grier, this team still won 10 games and only really embarrassed itself on offense against Florida State in the final minutes: Many Gators fans will tell you that winning close games is something Florida "couldn't" do under Will Muschamp, so an early run of winning them under McElwain alone is a pleasant surprise.
And I think people are also factoring in Grier's suspension, as seems fair. Grier wasn't that incredible except in fits and starts (he tore up New Mexico State, helped rally against Tennessee, and aerated Mississippi), but he was certainly better than Treon Harris has been, and his skill set -- getting the ball out quickly and accurately -- is a better fit for the Florida offense that exists, and the paper-thin line that protects Gators QB, than Harris's is. If Florida had inserted a QB who better approximated Grier in his stead, perhaps fans would be more critical of McElwain failing to get more out of his offense; as it is, the perception is that Harris is a square peg for a round hole, and McElwain's getting a pass for that.
Speaking of suspensions, there have been numerous Gators that reportedly have been suspended for the Citrus Bowl or dismissed from the team for various reasons in the lead-up to the game. Which of these will have the most significant impact on Florida?
I think edge rusher Alex McCalister's absence is the most important, but he really wasn't likely to play even if he were eligible, so it's hard to say his suspension is what matters. The most important of the three suspensions revealed this week is almost certainly [right tackle] Mason Halter's, because Halter has started in all 13 games for Florida this fall: His absence forces a greener but more talented player, whether Fred Johnson or Martez Ivey or someone else, into a larger role.
Jordan Scarlett's suspension just means more carries for Jordan Cronkrite as Kelvin Taylor's backup. Anthony Harrell's means a different player plays on special teams. If you're looking for a consequential suspension, it's Halter's.
Let's discuss Florida's offense. After Jim McElwain was hired, he brought in Doug Nussmeier as his offensive coordinator. Of course, Nussmeier was Michigan's offensive coordinator for Brady Hoke's final season as head coach in 2014. How do UF fans like Nussmeier? Have they been pleased with his performance in Gainesville?
I think Florida fans generally don't know how to differentiate what Nussmeier likes from what McElwain does, which is good and bad thing: They seem to be on the same page, yes, but it may be that there's an echo chamber effect, too. Florida's play-calling has improved since the days of Muschamp's three offensive coordinators in four years, with route combinations especially scheming players open, and the use of quick passes early on with Grier was masterful work to cover up the Gators' deficiencies on the offensive line.
But I don't think how McElwain and Nussmeier have handled a switch to Harris is all that impressive. Florida's gone away from concepts that were automatic successes with both QBs early on, and hasn't done enough creatively in the running game to buy Harris the time he needs to find and throw to open men. It works both ways -- Harris isn't accurate or quick enough with the ball to the flats to enable a robust screen game -- but McElwain and Nussmeier bear the responsibility for offensive design, and that design has stagnated since late October.
Florida experienced a dropoff in quarterback play when it was forced to make the switch from Will Grier (65.8 cmp%, 7.5 YPA, 10:3 TD:INT ratio, 145.4 rating) to Treon Harris (51.9 cmp%, 7.1 YPA, 9:5 TD:INT ratio, 121.1 rating). What are the differences between Grier and Harris as quarterbacks? And what kind of threat does Harris pose to a Michigan pass defense that first in yards allowed per attempt and passer rating?
Grier's got a better, stronger arm, and is quicker in his decision-making, though not always better: He can be impetuous and force throws. Harris is more deliberate, and compensates for inferior arm strength with better touch on shortish passes and a better history of throwing on the run. Grier's also taller than Harris, which enables him to see more of the field, something that I think has contributed to Harris taking scads of sacks in the second half of Florida's season.
Frankly, I don't think Harris poses much of a threat to Michigan's pass defense. The Gators have one consistent playmaker in Antonio Callaway, and though he'll move around, Michigan can simply shadow him with Jourdan Lewis and hope that the rest of Florida's more anonymous receiver corps can't compensate.
Michigan's run defense, which had been excellent most of the season, showed some cracks after it suffered a few key injuries and faced great running backs (Indiana's Jordan Howard and Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott) in uptempo, spread-to-run offenses. What kind of running back is UF's Kelvin Taylor (248 car., 985 yards, 3.97 YPC, 13 TD)?
Taylor is a back who has found his best offense and best form this season. His most outstanding trait is his incredible vision, which allows him to pick through smallish holes and find bigger ones as a one-cut runner who doesn't have elite speed or quickness. And Taylor runs hard when he finds those holes, pushing piles more often than he looks capable of doing.
I know Michigan's stoutness against the run has taken hits of late, and I'm sure Taylor's going to come into this game ready to make his final collegiate game a memorable one. Still, I wouldn't imagine Taylor running wild to the tune of more than 150 yards: He doesn't have the speed to break multiple home runs, and so he'll have to grind out his yardage with triples, doubles, and singles.
On the other side of the ball, Florida's defense has been excellent. According to S&P+, the unit is ranked fifth overall, fifth against the run, and seventh against the pass. On paper, it doesn't seem to have a weakness. But, as someone who has watched the Gators all season, do you think there is an area that Michigan might be able to expose?
Michigan tight end Jake Butt scares me, because I don't think Florida's done a good job of covering tight ends all year. The Gators lack a great linebacker for pass coverage (Antonio Morrison was never good at that before tearing his ACL, and is slower now; Jarrad Davis is mostly a run-stopper; Alex Anzalone has missed almost all of this season) and don't bring up safeties to run with tight ends, either. He could have a big day.
And the other thing that worries me is an offense that can force Brian Poole or Marcus Maye to turn and run with receivers. Both players are fine when the plays are in front of them, but both Poole and Maye were burned for touchdowns when made to trail against Alabama, with Maye playing deep balls so poorly that it made Vernon Hargreaves III, who playing nearly perfect coverage to compensate for Maye blowing a pair of coverages, look bad by association.
With a defense as great as Florida's, there is no doubt a handful of dangerous playmakers on that side of the ball. Whom must Michigan fans know the most?
Jonathan Bullard, Jarrad Davis, and Jalen Tabor are the three names I'd listen for if I were you.
Bullard is a monster up front, and combines quickness surpassing most tackles with power that outstrips most defensive ends. He's a tweener, but a tweener who creates havoc and sometimes commands double teams, doing so even when he's not at 100 percent -- which he should be for this game after picking up a knee injury against Florida Atlantic that limited him against Florida State and Alabama.
Davis is, quite frankly, my favorite player on this roster, a heat-seeking missile of a human whose closing speed can be breathtaking. He plays with channelled ferocity, and will blow up blockers and chase down backs in the run game and harass QBs on blitzes.
And while Hargreaves is defense's All-American, sure, but he's gotten that based partly on rep and four interceptions with longish returns: "No one throws to his side of the field" is more true in theory than practice for VH3, but he's certainly gotten less work than Tabor in 2015 ... and Tabor has more passes defended, two pick-sixes, and a godly fumble recovery from the Florida Atlantic game in which he quite literally ripped the ball out of a receiver's clutches. The quiet belief by some of the smarter Florida fans is that while Hargreaves is unquestionably celestially talented, Tabor had the better year, and is as or better-equipped, athletically.
Given that this isn't a New Year's Six bowl, how excited are UF fans for this game?
I think Florida playing in a big bowl game in Florida, especially in Central Florida, is a big thing. The Gators' last three bowl games were in Birmingham, New Orleans, and Jacksonville, and it's been five years since Florida played in the I-4 corridor that probably hosts more Gators fans by number than any other region of the state or country. Tickets sold out fast, and there's been enthusiasm for playing a big-name foe in Michigan, too.
But: The offensive malaise that has beset the Gators in recent weeks has many of the fans who aren't tailgaters happy to shell out top dollar for bowl tickets and make a party or trip out of the game less enthused about it. Personally, I'm exhausted from this season -- I almost always am by November, because the Florida beat is a withering one -- and I just want to watch a game. There are fans who are similarly exhausted, but also tired of seeing offensive futility, though, and I think many of them checked out when Alabama went up two or three scores.
Prediction time. Which team wins? What will be the score?
I think Michigan wins a close one, maybe 20-14. Taking Florida to win requires thinking that Harris can have a mini-revival in what is almost certainly his final game as the Gators' starting quarterback, and do so against a strong defense. I lack faith in that outcome.
Thanks to Andy for answering our questions! Make sure to follow him on Twitter.