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Game preview: Peach Bowl vs. Florida

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Michigan has historically dominated the Gators, winning the first four in the series. Without some top contributors, can the Wolverines get to 11 wins?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a bit of schizophrenia in the Michigan fan base surrounding Saturday’s Peach Bowl.

Instead of a first-ever matchup against LSU, the Wolverines are getting their third in four years against the Florida Gators. Cue the rolling eyeballs.

The initial bowl announcement came with a resounding thud. Keywords in that post include “tired,” “bored” and “again.”

Fans cared so little that they...pissed and moaned about key starters deciding to focus on their professional futures, rather than play against the Gators again in a tired and boring bowl.

Why the shift in interest? It’s likely Wolverine fans know stakes, in fact, do exist.

  • With a victory, Michigan can achieve just its sixth 11-win season since Bo Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor in 1969.
  • Fans remember how the 2017 team blew it against South Carolina in last year’s Outback Bowl. With the loss, the Wolverines sabotaged the Big Ten’s first winning record against the SEC in bowl games since 2007.

These aren't the lofty conference championship, playoff or rivalry goals imposed on this historically renowned program. However, the faithful are thirsting for another data point to show Jim Harbaugh has the program on the right path.

MOTO (Master of the Obvious)

No. 7 Michigan (10-2, 8-1) vs. No. 10 Florida (9-3, 5-3), noon ET

TV: ESPN

Radio: Michigan IMG Radio Network (TuneIn)

Line: Michigan -6 (Bovada)

Series history: The Wolverines are 4-0 all-time against the Gators, including 3-0 in bowl games. Last year, they routed their SEC East foes 33-17 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.

As a side note, Florida head coach Dan Mullen has split his four previous appearances against Michigan. He was a grad assistant at Syracuse in 1998 (remember Donovan McNabb) and then at Notre Dame in 1998.

As the offensive coordinator in Gainesville, Mullen failed to generate enough points to top Lloyd Carr’s final team the 2008 Capital One Bowl. He also led Mississippi State to a 52-14 rout over Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl.

MICHIGAN METEOROLOGY

It’s in dome stadium with a retractable roof. Accuweather shows sunny skies, but with rain causing flash flood concerns this past week in Atlanta, expect the roof to stay in place.

MICHIGAN OFFENSE VS. FLORIDA DEFENSE

THE PASSING GAME

Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton don’t have bell cow back Karan Higdon anymore. That means they may have to air it out with Shea Patterson.

Believe it or not, he leads an efficient passing attack ranked No. 10 nationally per S&P+. He’s totaled 2,364 yards (just 290 attempts) with 21 touchdowns and just five picks.

He thrown 30 passes or more in just two contests — both were losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State. While the Wolverine offensive line has allowed just 1.5 sacks a game (No. 27 nationally), that’s passed on less attempts as much as improved technique.

Right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty is out. Redshirt freshman Andrew Stueber or true freshman Jalen Mayfield figure to take his place against Florida’s top-30 pass rush.

That’s a precarious position considering how much worse Patterson is under pressure. Notre Dame, Wisconsin and OSU reached three sacks this year, and he averaged just 180 yards, one score and an interception in those three games.

The onus will be on all-Big Ten first-teamer Jon Runyan Jr. to stall star end Jachai Polite. The junior Gator has 11 sacks on the year, and wins with speed at 6-foot-2, 246 pounds.

Stueber or Mayfield will likely need help to slow Jabari Zuniga (6.5 sacks). Safety Chauncey Gardner is a good blitzer, garnering four takedowns. Fortunately, less Higdon means more Tru Wilson to help chip rushers.

The Florida pass defense ranks No. 28 per S&P+ and has snagged 12 picks. Gardner, Donovan Stiner, Brad Stewart and C.J. Henderson have two apiece.

Similar attacks in South Carolina, Missouri and Georgia have exploited aggressiveness, but all of those game relied on the ground game setting up play-action.

Michigan may need to throw, but do they have the pieces to succeed?

Advantage: Florida

THE GROUND GAME

Who’s going to carry the load without Higdon?

The favorite is junior Chris Evans, with Wilson entering for passing downs. Both average over five yards a pop, with Evans notching 403 yards and Wilson gaining 355.

They both have served as complements all season long. Evans catches passes out of the backfield and on screens while Wilson gains tough yards by making the right cuts.

The other emerging candidate is freshman Christian Turner. He’s seen just 13 carries for 63 yards in garbage time, but he displays excellent lateral mobility.

Overall, the rushing attack ranks No. 33 per S&P+, and faces the Gators’ No. 47 defense. Michigan’s hefty interior line will have a size advantage over the Florida front, as nose tackle Kyree Campbell is the only 300-pounder. No one else weighs over 280 (3-tech Adam Shuler tips the scales at 275).

Linebackers Vosean Joseph (87 tackles) and former Michigan commit David Reese (78) are the heart and soul of coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense. They’ve combined for just 11.5 TFLs, but don’t let much get behind them to the secondary.

As mentioned before, Michigan needs to set up the run to help Patterson. Florida has allowed over four yards a carry against several offenses, from Vanderbilt and South Carolina to Kentucky and Georgia.

The Wildcats, in particular, gashed the Gators in the second week for 303 yards. This doesn’t mean Michigan will dominate on the ground, but it’s enough to keep the defense honest.

Advantage: Michigan (with lower volume)

MICHIGAN DEFENSE VS. FLORIDA OFFENSE

THE PASSING GAME

The last time Gator quarterback Feleipe Franks met Don Brown’s defense?

It was trial by fire for the true freshman last September, but he’s found his footing in 2018. As mentioned in Film Focus, he’s limited turnovers and developed a consistent deep ball this fall.

He’s tossed for 2,284 yards at over eight yards an attempt, 23 scores and just six picks through 12 games. Much like Patterson, he leans on a powerful run game and exploits defenses on play-action. This equates to the No. 30 S&P pass attack.

He’s also able to spread the ball around to several wideouts. Six targets have over 200 yards receiving, led by Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson with 439 and six touchdowns.

Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes has chipped in 366, while Josh Hammond has added 308. All three can stretch the defense and snare tough catches in traffic.

Kadarious Toney plays the Percy Harvin role, motioning into various sweeps, screens and short routes. He’s totaled 464 yards from scrimmage on 11 yards a touch.

Don Brown will have two questions to answer against this assault. The first: who will replace Devin Bush and track down speedsters like Toney?

The early candidates are Josh Ross and Devin Gil, who were last seen utterly failing in sideline-to-sideline pursuit.

The other question: who’s getting pressure? Josh Uche (seven sacks) and Kwity Paye (two) have ably replaced the departed Rashan Gary, so that side figures to be solid. The other end is Chase Winovich, who is fighting through an undisclosed injury.

Gone are Bush’s four sacks, as well. Brown utilized exotic blitzes to fantastic effect last year, and will likely need to again.

Dan Mullen’s line keeps his quarterbacks mostly clean, ceding just 1.25 takedowns a game. Like Michigan, this is part volume in attempts and better communication up front.

Little will get by Lavert Hill and David Long, but with enough time, Franks may be able to hit something deep over the safeties. That’s all Mullen likely wants.

Advantage: Slightly Michigan

THE GROUND GAME

This is strength on strength.

Mullen deployed his signature power spread attack in Gainesville, leading to 209 yards a game. The highlight came against LSU, where the Gators gashed the fifth-ranked Tigers for 215 yards in an upset.

Don’t expect the Gators to be intimidated, despite running into the teeth of the nation’s No. 10 S&P+ rush defense.

Brown was brought to Ann Arbor to slow these types of spread running attacks. The closest facsimile to Florida is J.T. Barrett’s Ohio State offenses, which Michigan contained in 2016 and 2017.

Making things easier, Mullen doesn’t have a mobile threat at quarterback yet. Franks is capable, gaining 276 yards and six touchdowns, but he’s more of a change of pace.

The main runners are Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett. The pair have combined for 1,467 yards and 10 touchdowns. Dameon Pierce is a bigger back for short yardage, and Toney, again, will be put in open space on jet sweeps.

Without Aubrey Solomon, expect to see more of redshirt freshman defensive tackle Donovan Jeter inside. He and fellow 300-pounder Bryan Mone will help at the point of attack and string out runs. If Ross and Gil aren’t up to the task on the edge, things could get ugly.

Advantage: Florida

ISN’T THAT SPECIAL

Evan McPherson is an excellent kicker, booting 15-of-17 field goals. Michigan could send out Jake Moody or Quinn Nordin. Moody is a perfect 8-for-8, but Nordin has undeniable range.

Both teams possess Ray Guy semifinalists at punter. Florida has Tommy Townsend (44.9 per punt) and Michigan has Will Hart (47.6 an attempt).

FINAL THOUGHTS

The last time Michigan came off a crushing loss in Columbus, they played another team from the Sunshine State in a New Year’s Six bowl.

That Florida State team jumped all over the Wolverines, eventually squeaking out a 33-32 victory in the 2016 Orange Bowl.

This game feels similar in a few other ways. A few important starters had to sit, as Jabrill Peppers exited in warmups and Jake Butt left early with an ACL tear. Four current starters are opting out of the game.

Also, Florida is going all in to reach double-digit wins in Mullen’s first season. Despite a handful of pro prospects, every healthy starter expects to play.

One team is approaching this as consolation. The other wants this one, both to reach its goals this season and to extinguish past embarrassments against the Wolverines.

A Michigan win would be an impressive coaching job, as Harbaugh and company would’ve successfully reversed the negative inertia from the Ohio State debacle.

It’d just be surprising considering the circumstances.

Florida 27, Michigan 21