Despite underwhelming showings to end the season, if you would have told the fan bases of both Michigan (9-3) and Florida (10-3) at the start of the year they would be playing another Power 5 opponent in a New Year’s Day bowl game with a first-year head coach, each would have been satisfied with that result.
The Gators took a step back after a 6-0 start following the suspension of quarterback Will Grier, closing the year with a 4-3 second half record, but still managed to make an SEC Championship Game appearance in new head coach Jim McElwain's first season.
Michigan made major strides in 2015 in the first year of the Jim Harbaugh era, but losses to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State tempered what had the looks of a special season in Ann Arbor.
The two schools last met in the Capital One Bowl back in 2008.
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida (Orlando, Fla.)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Friday)
Spread: Michigan -4
Three Things to Watch
1. No Fly Zone
The strength of defenses in this matchup reside in the secondary as both teams sport top-end talent at the cornerback position. For the Gators, All-American Vernon Hargreaves will likely put a cap on his Florida career against the Wolverines in what may be his final collegiate game as he is projected to be a top-10 draft pick this year. Hargreaves found a suitable counterpart on the other side of the field in 2015 as standout sophomore Jalen Tabor developed into a shutdown corner. Both finished the year with four interceptions each. The Wolverines also bring in two future high NFL Draft picks at cornerback with Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers (more on him later). Lewis finished the year as one of the top-rated corners by Pro Football Focus, while Peppers appeared on many All-American ballots as a redshirt freshman. Quarterbacks Treon Harris and Jake Rudock will have a difficult time challenging these sets of extremely talented defensive backs.
2. Eyes on NFL
Two major pieces will not be around next year for the Gators' offense as leading rusher Kelvin Taylor and top wide receiver Demarcus Robinson both announced they will be entering the 2016 NFL Draft. The two will try to impress the pro scouts in their final collegiate games to close out what would be best described as inconsistent careers for the Gators. Taylor struggled in his first two seasons (what offensive player didn’t during the Will Muschamp era?), but eventually became the bell cow back most envisioned him becoming in 2015 by rushing for 985 yards and 13 touchdowns. Robinson had a breakout season in 2014, becoming the team’s big-play threat on the outside, but drops and decision-making plagued his on-field performance this season. Both will be drafted, but could help their stock with a big day against a good Wolverines defense.
3. Fresh a’ Peppers Not So Fresh
The biggest storyline for the Wolverines' defense headed into Friday will be the availability of Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jabrill Peppers, who is dealing with a hand injury. As of Monday, we still don’t know for sure if Peppers has not practiced with the team or not since arriving in Florida, but he did leave the practice field in a hand splint. Peppers’ teammates in the secondary are confident, though, that others will fill in nicely if he is not available. “It’d be next guy up,” said senior safety Jarrod Wilson to Mlive.com. “(Maybe) by committee, not just one particular person. We've got a few guys who can play that inside slot position, a few guys who can play corner or safety. I think we'll be just fine." As confident as Wilson appears to be, it still would be a major loss to the defense if Peppers was unavailable for the game.
The current Vegas over/under is set right around 40 and even that seems a bit high for what is sure to be one of the lower-scoring matchups of the bowl season. Both teams finished the regular season in the top 10 in total defense, giving up close to 17 points per game, though the two closed the year giving up a combined 71 points in their final games.
As with most games, turnovers will likely tell the story here. Florida finished the season minus-15 in turnovers while the Wolverines were plus-10 with their margin. The Gators just do not have the offensive firepower to withstand turnovers against one of the top defenses in the country. Michigan will flex its defensive muscles in the second half en route to a comfortable victory, paving the way to an even bigger 2016 season.
Prediction: Michigan 20, Florida 10
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and current writer for CollegeFootballGeek.com. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.