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What To Watch For: Michigan vs. Florida

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What does Michigan need to do to reach 11 wins?

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 season finale has arrived.

The No. 7 Michigan Wolverines face the No. 10 Florida Gators in the Peach Bowl Saturday and will kick off at noon eastern time. Here are a few things you should look for in the New Year’s Six showdown:

Who Replaces NFL Bound Starters?

Michigan has a number of players skipping the game to focus on the NFL. That list includes defensive end Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush, running back Karan Higdon and offensive tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty. That means the Wolverines will have a handful of new starters at key positions, and all are fairly up for grabs.

Kwity Paye is the favorite to take Gary’s spot, but freshman Aidan Hutchinson will see action as well. Josh Ross and Jordan Anthony are fighting for Bush’s place. Chris Evans should lead the running back’s but will share time with Tru Wilson and Christian Turner. Andrew Stueber and Jalen Mayfield are competing for the right tackle position.

Which players see the majority of the newly found playing-time is something to keep an eye on. Each position will be open heading in the 2019 season, so how younger guys play in the bowl game could have a lasting impression on the coaching staff. Being without Gary, Bush and Higdon puts Michigan at a severe disadvantage, but if there is a team that has enough depth to make up for it, it’s Michigan.

Does Michigan Care About This Game?

We’ve seen over and over teams lose at the end of the regular season and get relegated to a lower bowl game and stink it up because they don’t want to be there. For much of the year, Michigan probably felt like it belonged in the College Football Playoff, or at least the Rose Bowl. Instead, U-M is in neither and is playing a team it has beaten multiple times in recent years. Long story short, there might not be as much drive and determination for this game as there could’ve been for other games. It’s a mental hurdle that Michigan will need to overcome.

There are plenty of reasons U-M should care. An 11-win season is typically the mark of an elite season and is something Michigan hasn’t done in a long time. Ending the year on a happy note instead of a sour one would be really great for both the players and the fan base leading into 2019. There are players that could stand to improve their draft stock, whether it be for this draft or next year’s. Starting positions can be won and youngsters can rise on the depth chart. Showing the this team is better than the one we saw against Ohio State. And of course, beating the SEC is always enjoyable.

We’ll see how it plays out, but if Michigan doesn’t care about the game, it won’t win.

Air It Out?

Without Higdon, Michigan will be missing its leading rusher and be a bit short on depth in the backfield. Shea Patterson will, however, have all of his receiving weapons available. Could it finally be the game Jim Harbaugh opens up the offense? Or will it continue to be a pound the rock style of play?

Michigan should open things up and let Patterson run and throw the ball around. It’d be nice to see him play a style that fits his skill-set better and it’d be a nice change of pace from the slow, ugly offense Michigan has run over the last few years. But, Harbaugh has never shown a willingness to do more than basic tinkering with the offense and I’d be shocked if that changed now. Florida’s pass defense is fantastic as well, so deciding to get pass happy might not be the correct game plan anyways.

Heading into 2019 there will be plenty of discussion about the offensive style, but tomorrow, expect to see Michigan establish the run first, like usual.

Bouncing Back

There were a number of bad performances against Ohio State. Brandon Watson got torched, Zach Gentry dropped several key passes, the defensive line got no pressure on Dwayne Haskins. This is an opportunity for the entire team, but especially the defense and Gentry, to bounce back from that bad game and show they have moved on and gotten better.

This is the best Florida team Michigan will have faced during the Harbaugh era. Putting on a show will certainly make the offseason more pleasant for the players, coaches and fans.