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Going For Two: Michigan-FSU A Matchup Of Experience vs. Athleticism?

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NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Hello! Garrett and I sat down, proverbially speaking, to discuss every possible angle of the upcoming Florida State-Michigan matchup. This is Part One, where we talk about expectations for the game, the awesomeness of Dalvin Cook and some key matchups on each side. Part Two will be coming up tomorrow. Enjoy.

Nick: Well, Garrett, it’s been a little while. Life’s good?

Garrett: I don’t like winter.

Nick: Me neither, bud. So, I’m curious to get your take on this Florida State team. Some have dubbed it a matchup of experience versus Florida State’s superior talent, while Adam Rittenberg thinks this will be an easy win for Michigan because of Don Brown’s blitzing defense. What do you think?

Garrett: Let me start by saying that the talent/experience breakdown is reaching out to a glimmering mirage of hope. I think Michigan will win easily, by a wide margin.

Nick: Yeah, a lot of people feel the same way. It’s funny that this is a matchup between two teams in the S&P+ top ten (Michigan second, Florida State ninth), and yet S&P+ is predicting a very convincing win for Michigan: 75% chance of a Wolverines victory, and a predicted margin of almost two touchdowns.

Garrett: There is good reason for that 75% chance, and many reasons for Michigan fans to be excited and hopeful for back-to-back easy bowl wins in the state of Florida. Even though, yes, Michigan and Florida State are in the top ten S&P+ rankings, FSU’s weaknesses play into Michigan’s strengths.

First, I think Florida State’s disadvantage at the line of scrimmage will be their kryptonite. While both Michigan and Florida State are great at putting the opposing QB on the ground -- FSU is #1 with 3.92 sacks per game; Michigan is #2 with 3.67 -- the Wolverines only give up 1.5 sacks per game. Florida State gives up almost twice that with 2.83 per game, or 108th best in the country. Despite the inevitable big plays Florida State will get -- they have great skill position talent -- Michigan won’t ever let them establish and sort of rhythm that would otherwise keep them in contention.

Second, Michigan has the top ranked run defense, and the Seminoles struggle when Dalvin Cook can’t be productive. Against NC State, which fields the nation’s 11th best rush defense (Michigan is currently 3rd in S&P+), Cook only squeaked out 65 yards on 18 carries. Conversely, against the abysmal rushing defense of Clemson, he alone kept FSU in contention with 169 yards on only 19 carries and four touchdowns. The big important takeaway here is that Michigan and Clemson are close in pass defense (Clemson is #4) and NC State is the best rush defense Florida State has yet faced.

I don’t know what Florida State thinks they are going to be able to do against the best pass defense and third best rush defense. They haven’t seen a defense anywhere near as good and complete as Michigan’s. It’s important to remember that Michigan played some of the best teams in the country -- Colorado, Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State -- and three out of four were in the Big Ten. That kind of bubble allows people to forget Michigan’s defense would be even more dominant in every other conference. I think this game turns out a lot like last year’s Citrus bowl where the first quarter was competitive, then Michigan blew it wide open.

Nick: Well, #2 in the country is already pretty good, I think.

You’ve got to admit that shutting down Dalvin Cook will be a tall task, though, right? He’s easily one of the best running backs in the nation, and also a whole lot of fun to watch. Florida State turns to him a lot in the pass game, and they rely on him to be their workhorse and third-down back as well; he’s now their all-time leading rusher after putting up 1,600 yards for the second straight season.

Garrett: It’s not a perfect comparison, obviously, but Michigan held Saquon Barkley to 59 yards on 15 carries.

Nick: They did, although Saquon notably went off in the passing game, which is a real strength for Dalvin Cook. If Cook can get going in any way, we’ll be in for a long night.

So, let me push back just a little bit here, because I think you’re a bit more optimistic about Michigan’s chances than I am. Now, I do think Michigan should be favored, but I have to give credit to a talented team at the same. So just for the sake of argument - where are some areas you think Michigan might struggle?

Garrett: You make a fair point. I’ve been guilty of swimming in confirmation bias while I researched the matchup. I feel like if you give Harbaugh and Jimbo Fisher each four weeks to prepare for an opponent, Harbaugh has a clear edge. That being said, Michigan will probably keep our hearts in our throats for longer than they should. McCray is a real vulnerability, though he’s played better recently, and I think if FSU attacks him through air by trying to force the mismatch with McCray covering Cook, we’ll be in trouble.

My other concern is special teams. If Michigan makes some mistakes in that facet of the game, Florida State has proven this year that they will capitalize on their opponents mistakes, which could put Michigan in a hole.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Nick: Yeah, those are two areas where Florida State might be able to showcase some of their speedy guys - here’s looking at you, Kermit Whitfield and Nyqwan Murray. It should be noted that Bobo Wilson, who was maybe their first option on some of this stuff, has been out with a foot injury.

I don’t want to pile on the linebackers, McCray in particular, because I also think they’ve done better lately and in some ways we’re lucky to have the level of play that we do. But I’d be lying if I said McCray playing well wasn’t pivotal for our success.

Garrett: He can’t miss tackles on the edge in this game like he has too many times this season. Granted, there is hope, because he largely played very well against Ohio State, and he was tested play after play after play.

Nick: There will be at least a few times during the game that Dalvin Cook will be one-on-one with Mike McCray in space, and he’ll have to hold down the assignment at least until help arrives. The D-line will do their job, but McCray, Gedeon, Jabrill ... they all need to gang tackle and try to rip the ball out, which Florida State’s athletes are susceptible to.

So, I wanted to get your thoughts on Michigan’s offense going up against Florida State’s D. Wilton Speight has had a month off to shake off the cobwebs that were bothering him at the tail end of the season. And then there’s our offensive line, which will be going up against some athletic dudes in defensive ends DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat, and defensive tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas. That’s the matchup I’m really interested in.

Garrett: Florida State leads the country in sacks, and DeMarcus Walker leads that group with 15 sacks on his own this season. Michigan’s biggest challenge is going to come from how they cover the rest of that front defensive unit, since I would not be surprised to see Walker double-teamed more often than not. Michigan’s short game has been effective this season, but they’ve also been shy to lean heavily on the screen pass. I would like to see McDoom and Darboh and Chesson get a chance to get the ball quickly and make plays with their feet in space.

Nick: Yeah, the more I think about this matchup, the more excited I am. First off, DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat, the defensive ends, are both great. Nnadi and Christmas are athletic big guys, but - and this is a point I’ll circle back to later - they seem to underperform based on their talent.

Not all athletic bigs are created equal; Florida State’s guys like to pass rush all game long, and they’re not disciplined in the run game. I think there’ll be room to run on the inside, and we could use DeMarcus Walker’s aggressiveness against him by running a lot to that B-gap.

Florida v Florida State
DeMarcus Walker got a jump start on the Mannequin Challenge.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There could definitely be some validation for Michigan’s O-line in this one. Mason Cole is great at handling faster bigs, so this is a perfect matchup for him, and I think Florida State fans will be unpleasantly surprised at how mobile Ben Braden is against their weakside end, Josh Sweat. Kyle Kalis has played really well this year, too, and him and Mason Cole will be leading the way in the run game. I also like our tight ends - especially Wheatley and Asiasi - against their linebackers.

And I’ll throw this out there - Florida State’s S&P+ stats on defense show that they’re better in the first and third and much worse in the second and fourth. Methinks a physical game will help to grind those guys down for some late-in-the-half magic.

Garrett: Harbaugh has always been great at scoring at the end of the first half. In a close game, that can be a tipping point. Don’t be surprised if we see a game plan that leans heavily on delayed handoffs. I do think that Michigan will fair better than others have against FSU’s D-line. Practicing against guys like 2016 Taco Charlton and Rashan Gary and Jabrill Peppers has to pay off. That’s not to say Florida State won’t dominate certain series, or won’t get any sacks, but if anyone thinks Michigan will be shocked by FSU’s athleticism, they haven’t seen the Wolverines play defense. If this game is close heading into the fourth, I think Michigan’s advantage grows.