Just based on numbers, Michigan routed a completely different Florida team last fall.
The Wolverines dispatched the Gators 33-17 in Dallas, sending the SEC East representatives on their way to a 4-7 record in 2017. Per Bill Connelly, Florida ranked No. 86 overall in S&P+, and fielded the nation’s No. 108 efficiency offense.
Exit Jim McElwain, and enter Dan Mullen after a successful tenure at Mississippi State. Now Florida boasts the nation’s No. 14 S&P+ outfit and a top-30 offense and defense.
Most importantly, Mullen transformed a seven-loss squad into a 9-3 one with most of the same players.
When turning to the film, how have the Gators improved to the point where they have a chance at vengeance against Michigan this Saturday in the Peach Bowl?
LAST YEAR: UF Offense
On the first drive, McElwain attacked the edge to good success. A jet sweep to speedster Tyrie Cleveland went for five yards, and a personal foul by Devin Bush tacked on 15 more.
A major theme of last year’s contest is Bush’s aggressiveness and sideline-to-sideline prowess. This is a luxury Brown won’t have in Atlanta. On this play, Josh Metellus beat his receiver’s stock block, delaying Cleveland long enough for Bush to track him down.
Lavert Hill then gets beat on a fade from Feleipe Franks to Josh Hammond. Chalk this up to early game jitters, as Hill has rarely allowed these in the last two seasons.
Franks then stunts the momentum with a fumbled handoff after tripping on his center. His ensuing handoff gets stuffed by Maurice Hurst for a loss. While Hurst is gone, now-senior end Chase Winovich holds up well on the edge, meaning the linebackers stuff the cutback.
The drive stalls and leads to a field goal.
The next drive (1:54) starts to show the confusion of the Gator offensive line. First, Khaleke Hudson pressures Franks untouched from the right side as the line shifts left. Two plays later, Bush curls around the left guard and nabs the sack.
Here is a clip of Devin Bush vs Florida. He has great interior penetration to get the sack here. (Video credit to SkyDesigns) pic.twitter.com/S9juDcPDbx— Bradley (@brad_ashby) May 9, 2018
Winovich is the only rusher on the left side, as the tackle, guard and center stand stationary. The line needs to pass defenders down the line and impede Bush’s stunt in some way. The running back whiffing doesn’t help matters.
Skipping ahead to 3:56, Franks is able to buy a first down with his legs as Rashan Gary gets out of position. While Franks isn’t a great runner, he’s able to pick up chunks of yards in Dan Mullen’s spread system. Without Gary, younger rushers need to stay in their lanes.
On the next play, Carlo Kemp strings out a Lamical Perine stretch and tackles for no gain. A year later, the junior end has done well manning his gaps, and will need to replace Gary’s strong rush defense.
Later at 5:35, Florida almost catches the defense out of position on third-and-2. While the line barely gets set in time, the interior is able to occupy blocks. Bush beats a stumbling guard on a pull to the rush lane, corralling Perine for a loss.
Again, no Devin Bush in Atlanta is a huge question mark.
As dominant as Michigan’s final numbers ended up being, the Gators probably should have led 24-13 at halftime. First, Bush saves a touchdown with a shoe-string tackle.
Devin Bush probably saves a TD and a 24-13 Florida lead here. pic.twitter.com/1SbTEOxycE— Due# (@JDue51) September 4, 2017
On the next play, the line over pursues and loses track of the running back for a 47-yard score...which is called back on a suspect holding call.
The rest of the game is Don Brown and company demoralizing the Gators with big play after big play. The catalyst is Franks’ fumble, as Lawrence Marshall blasts a receiver en route to the football (8:36).
Later, after Malik Zaire steps in for Franks, Winovich strip-sacks him in the end zone and Furbush recovers the fumble.
Touchdown, Michigan!— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) September 2, 2017
Chase Winovich with the sack and forced fumble. Noah Furbush picks it up for the score. Michigan leads Florida, 33-17. pic.twitter.com/0zD1f9s7rE
Winovich rips past all-SEC left tackle Martez Ivey with an inside move. The two will face off plenty this Saturday.
Mullen’s offensive scheme is different, but the players are mostly the same. Expect a more organized effort from the Gators, especially with the Wolverines missing some key pieces.
LAST YEAR: UF Defense
Let’s move past this one quickly. The Michigan offense from Sep. 2, 2017 is far different, as most of the starters that day have departed or been benched.
With that said, Jim Harbaugh and his brain trust were able to find some holes in the Florida defense.
First off, Ty Isaac was able to break off some big chunk runs on quick hitters. At 3:43 in the above video, he takes a draw for 36 yards as the Gators don’t have anyone on the second level.
Next at 14:41, the offense rushes up to the line on fourth down to pop Isaac free for 18. It’s a simple wedge play that this year’s team has run to great effect with Ben Mason.
Florida was also one of the very few teams last year that Michigan burned on a deep pass. Here’s Tarik Black’s first career touchdown.
Touchdown, Michigan!— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) September 2, 2017
Wilton Speight finds Tarik Black in the end zone for a 46-yard score. Michigan leads Florida, 10-3. pic.twitter.com/2PI03Vr0Tg
Tight end Nick Eubanks would torch the secondary for 48 yards later in the second half. The point is that even last year’s pedestrian offense had enough speed and athleticism to outman this SEC defense.
We’ll discuss how this year’s Florida defense can be attacked later.
What to watch out for this year on defense
LSU is a good comparable for Don Brown’s defense. The Tigers fielded a top-15 S&P+ defense this fall, compared to Michigan’s fifth-best unit. Both stress press-man coverage and fly to the football.
The Gators upset the No. 5 Tigers 27-19 in Gainesville in early October, gaining 215 of their 391 total yards on the ground. The line, in particular, was light years ahead of where it was in Dallas.
At 2:04 of the above video, guard Brett Heggie lays a crushing block off a pull to spring Perine for a first down. Additionally, Ivey pancakes his man to form the other side of a gaping hole.
It’s a similar concept to what Michigan does on the Down G play — down blocks combined with pulling guards.
Perine later punched in his first of two touchdowns untouched at the goal line.
Later at 4:13, Franks beautifully executes an option pitch to Perine to enter LSU territory. He picked up 42 yards on the afternoon, making the defense respect his legs. That opened up option lanes for the backs.
On the next play, he lofts a perfect strike to Hammond on a crossing vertical route, almost getting the score. He further showed off his deep ball with this fade to Hammond.
10/6/18—Florida's Feleipe Franks 49-yard pass complete to Joshua Hammond vs. LSU pic.twitter.com/wKuqCuINwJ— College Football Clips (@CFB_Clips) October 24, 2018
He completed 12-of-27 passes for 161 yards, a touchdown and a pick. While he’s built off his considerable arm strength, he still needs to improve his accuracy.
In addition to Hammond, he has receivers that can make big catches in traffic. Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson snags a ball between multiple defenders at 8:55 to set up the lead-changing touchdown.
While nobody has more yards than Jefferson with 439, he is joined by Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes and Freddie Swain. In total, five receivers have more than 260 receiving yards.
What to watch out for this year on offense
The Gamecocks compare well to the Wolverine offense, as the former ranks just five spots below the latter’s No. 24 S&P+ unit. Both are also pro-style attacks with healthy doses of shotgun.
The first drive looked like the ideal version of a Harbaugh offense. First, Florida coordinator Todd Grantham had his guys play off the ball, leading to a comeback route for a first down (0:00). Receivers like Donovan Peoples-Jones can similarly break tackles and speed into the secondary.
On the next play, the Gators are fooled by a motion to the outside, leaving an H-back wide open over the middle. It’s easy to see Sean McKeon executing this same play. Same with the play-action touchdown, which looks eerily similar to McKeon’s score against Ohio State last year.
While Jake Bentley was able to find holes in the back four, he and his backs ran into an active Gator front seven. On two consecutive plays starting at 8:43, ends CeCe Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga slice into the backfield for tackles for loss.
The Gators average 6.6 tackles for loss a game, just behind Michigan’s 7.2 per game this season. With middle linebacker David Reese manning the middle, Grantham has a disciplined and aggressive interior to his 2018 defense.
The Gamecocks also utilized different pistol looks to break A.J. Turner for long runs. At 2:06, he takes a read option and shakes tackles for a first down. At 2:25, he follows a pulling guard to stride into the red zone.
He gained 81 yards on just 12 carries and looked an awful lot like Karan Higdon. Without the senior back, however, Michigan will likely lean on former walk-on Tru Wilson, scat back Chris Evans or a younger option.
This is an admittedly cursory look at this year’s Florida team, but it’s mostly an exercise in showing how they’ve developed under Mullen.
Last year, the line couldn’t block a stiff breeze, but this year, the Gators were pummeling conference foes for chunks of yards on the ground. The line should cope well without Gary, as Kwity Paye, Josh Uche and Kemp have replaced him in aggregate all year long.
Devin Bush’s absence looms large. He papered over issues last year, and after he left the field in Columbus, the defense completely collapsed.
In addition, Franks has found things he can do very well, including hitting receivers downfield. The likely returns of Hill and Long, plus the vast improvement of Metellus should limit the damage in this regard.
Defensively, they are more or less the same team. The secondary is prone to breakdowns — just ask Deebo Samuel.
Without Higdon, Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton will likely look to air it out more to Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Black more. This bodes well, especially since the line has stopped potent pass rushes like the top-ranked Penn State sack unit.
If Michigan trots out its OSU game plan, this is a Florida win. If this is closer to the Penn State or Wisconsin approaches, the offense should be able to clear 30 points again.
That still doesn’t ease the concerns over Dan Mullen picking on Josh Ross and Devin Gil.