Gators look to reverse recent fortunes against short-handed Wolverines
It was a promising opening act for the Gators (9-3) under first-year head coach Dan Mullen as they notched some impressive victories over the likes of LSU and Mississippi State on their way to finishing second in the SEC East. There were some down moments, including losses to rivals Kentucky and Georgia, but a possible 10-win season under a first-year coaching staff would be an excellent accomplishment as Florida looks towards 2019.
As for the Wolverines (10-2), it was looking like a magical year until 62-39 happened. The blowout loss to Ohio State nearly erased all the good that took place in 2018 in the minds of Michigan fans. That included blowout victories over Wisconsin and Penn State and a dominant defensive performance in the win at Michigan State. Still, the Wolverines yet again fell short in the biggest moment of the season and will now shift their focus towards 2019, starting with Saturday’s matchup against a familiar SEC foe.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Florida (9-3) vs. Michigan (10-2)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 29 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Spread: Michigan -7
Three Things to Watch
1. The replacements
The Wolverines will be without three key contributors when they hit the field on Saturday against the Gators as starting running back Karan Higdon, middle linebacker Devin Bush and defensive end Rashan Gary will sit out as they begin preparations for the NFL draft. Gary missed three games during the regular season due to injury so the Wolverines are used to having played already without their star defensive end, and are incredibly deep along the defensive line. The other two are arguably the most important pieces on each side of the football. Higdon was the workhorse of the Michigan backfield, and it will likely be a committee approach that tries to replicate his production. As for Bush, there isn’t a player on the roster that can match his speed and intensity at the linebacker position. The coaching staff will get a preview of who may be able to step up into starting roles as they look towards next season.
2. Track stars
If you watched the Ohio State game, the Wolverines had all sorts of trouble defending the track speed that the Buckeyes possess at wide receiver. Maybe not at that level, but Florida has similar types of athletes on the outside with the likes of Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney among others. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown is well known for running an aggressive man-to-man, in-your-face style game plan that works 95 percent of the time, but was exposed against the speed of the Buckeyes. Florida would be wise to get their athletes into space and see what happens, rather than getting into a grudge match in the trenches with the Wolverines.
3. Battle of the game managers
If you are looking for a bowl game with two quarterbacks who air it out, this will not be the one for you. Shea Patterson and Feleipe Franks combined to average just 194 yards per game through the air this season while also throwing a total of 10 interceptions between the two. For Patterson and the Wolverines, that is all part of the plan as this is a ball-control offense revolving around the run game. Michigan finished fourth in the country in time of possession. As for Franks, while he did throw just four interceptions in 2018, he will need to be better against higher-level opponents as all four came against ranked teams.
Even with three key starters sitting out this game, the Wolverines remain a touchdown favorite as it stands now. While Michigan is the better team in this matchup, you have to wonder if the Ohio State debacle laid out the blueprint for how opponents can exploit this Wolverines defense. If Feleipe Franks can make a few plays and avoid costly turnovers, the Gators have the playmakers on offense to do so. Michigan has struggled in bowl games of late, losing four out of the last five, and will fall just short again with the absence of some of their key contributors.
Prediction: Florida 26, Michigan 24
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.