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Orange Bowl Preview and Prediction: Florida State vs. Michigan

Deondre Francois

Deondre Francois

The New Year’s Six portion of the bowl slate kicks off on Friday night with Florida State and Michigan squaring off in the Orange Bowl. The Wolverines fell just short of reaching the College Football Playoff after a strong second season under coach Jim Harbaugh. After a 3-2 start, the Seminoles rebounded to a 9-3 final mark and earned their third consecutive trip to a New Year’s Six Bowl.

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High expectations surrounded Florida State in the preseason, as coach Jimbo Fisher’s team was expected to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Seminoles opened the year 2-0 but suffered a 63-20 blowout loss at the hands of Louisville on Sept. 17. The defeat at Louisville was a huge setback, and Florida State’s playoff hopes ended two weeks later on Oct. 1, as North Carolina stunned the Seminoles on a last-second field goal in a 37-35 victory. Despite the disappointment and two losses prior to the midpoint of the season, Florida State rebounded with a strong finish and suffered only one loss (Clemson 37-34) over the final seven games.

Related: College Football 2016 All-America Team

Similar to Florida State, Michigan had high expectations surrounding this team in the preseason. While the Wolverines weren’t quite as trendy of a pick to reach the College Football Playoff, Harbaugh’s team was still a popular selection for a New Year’s Six Bowl and projected by most to be a top-10 squad. Michigan jumped out to a 9-0 start, which included home wins over Penn State (49-10) and Wisconsin (14-7). However, the Wolverines stumbled on the road at Iowa (14-13) and lost in double overtime to Ohio State in the regular season finale. The defense led the way for Michigan, limiting opponents to just 12.5 points per game. The offense is a work in progress, but quarterback Wilton Speight showed promise throughout 2016 and should take another step forward in 2017. There’s no question Harbaugh has this program trending in the right direction and it’s only a matter of time before Michigan makes an appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Friday night’s meeting is just the third all-time matchup between Florida State and Michigan. The Seminoles and Wolverines have split the two previous games. Michigan won 20-18 in 1986, while Florida State claimed a 51-31 victory in 1991. The Seminoles are 4-2 in bowls under Fisher. However, Florida State has a two-game losing streak in postseason matchups. Michigan is 3-3 in its last six bowl trips and is 1-0 under Harbaugh. This is also the Wolverines’ first trip to the Orange Bowl since 1999.

Michigan vs. Florida State (Orange Bowl)

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Michigan -7

Three Things to Watch

1. Michigan’s Defensive Line Against Dalvin Cook

This is the must-see matchup on Friday night. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook is one of the nation’s best players and earned a spot on Athlon’s 2016 All-America team as a first-team selection. However, Cook and the offensive line will have their hands full against a Michigan defensive line that’s one of the best in the nation.

In 12 games this season, Cook averaged 135 yards per game and finished with 1,620 yards and 18 scores. The junior has eclipsed 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons in Tallahassee and posted at least 115 yards in eight out of the final nine games in 2016. In addition to his ability to churn out yardage between the tackles, Cook is a home-run threat (6.04 ypc) and a nice safety valve (30 catches) for quarterback Deondre Francois. Cook’s elusiveness and ability to make defenders miss is essential against a defense that has lived in opposing backfields this fall. Michigan’s defense is tied for fourth nationally in sacks (44) and ranks second nationally in tackles for a loss (114). The Wolverines have been just as stingy against the run, limiting opponents to just 116.8 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Additionally, Michigan has allowed only seven rushing scores all season.

The strength of the defense for coordinator Don Brown rests up front with a deep and talented front. Taco Charlton (11.5 TFL) and Chris Wormley (8.5) anchor the edges, with Ryan Glasgow (9.5 TFL) working as a quiet force on the interior to stop the run. When Cook breaks into the second level, hybrid safety/linebacker Jabrill Peppers and senior Ben Gedeon need to be sure tacklers for Michigan’s defense.

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Which side comes out on top in this battle? Will Michigan’s defensive line dominate up front and prevent Cook from getting on track? Or will Cook and the Florida State offensive line generate just enough push to allow the junior to break a few big plays and eclipse 100 yards once again?

Related: ACC Season Awards and 2016 All-Conference Team

2. The Quarterbacks

As first-year starters, Michigan’s Wilton Speight and Florida State’s Deondre Francois have experienced their share of ups and downs in 2016. It’s always tough to read too much into bowl performances, but the extra practice time is valuable and both quarterbacks have an opportunity to build momentum for the spring session and 2017 season.

Speight missed one game (Indiana) due to injury but finished 2016 with 2,375 yards and 17 touchdowns. The sophomore improved throughout the season and completed 62.5 percent of his passes. Additionally, Speight completed eight throws of 40 yards or more, which ranked fourth among Big Ten quarterbacks. Helping to ease Speight’s transition into the starting role was a standout group of receivers. Tight end Jake Butt caught 43 passes and is one of the best in the nation at his position. Receivers Amara Darboh (52 catches) and Jehu Chesson (31 receptions) are two of the best in the Big Ten. How will the Michigan passing attack fare against an improving Florida State secondary? Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden picked off eight passes this year, and the Seminoles limited each of their last three opponents to less than 200 passing yards.

Not only will Michigan’s pass rush present its share of problems for Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, the redshirt freshman is also facing a secondary that has limited opponents to just nine touchdowns all season. Francois needs to be decisive and make quick reads, which is something all young quarterbacks have trouble with early in their career. Pass protection (34 sacks allowed) has been a problem for Florida State’s offensive line. Francois has passed for 3,128 yards and 18 scores, while adding 187 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Considering the pass protection concerns and the strength of Michigan’s defense in the trenches, Francois’ mobility could be an even bigger part of the gameplan.

Both Speight and Francois have a chance to finish the year on a high note in a tough matchup. With Michigan likely to scheme to stop Cook, Francois may need to throw often in the first half to open up the run. And when the Wolverines have the ball, how will Speight handle the Florida State pass rush and a quick (and very athletic) secondary?

3. Florida State’s Defensive Line

Michigan’s defense (and rightfully so) is going to garner a lot of pregame attention. However, don’t overlook Florida State’s defense – especially the players in the trenches.

The Seminoles got off to a rocky start on defense this year, as Ole Miss posted 34 in the opener, Louisville scored 63 on Sept. 17 and North Carolina recorded 37 points in a 37-35 upset. However, Florida State’s defense has rebounded over the course of the season. The Seminoles played arguably the nation’s toughest slate of opposing quarterbacks through October and limited their last four opponents to 20 points or less. Coordinator Charles Kelly was also dealt a tough blow to start 2016, as safety Derwin James suffered a season-ending knee injury against Charleston Southern.

The biggest reason for the second-half improvement? The play of the defensive line. The Seminoles lead the nation with 47 sacks generated, with end DeMarcus Walker (15 sacks) leading the way. Tackle Derrick Nnadi is also an underrated player up front. In addition to the ability to get to the quarterback, Florida State’s defense limited opponents to 131.3 rushing yards per game. The 131.3 mark is good enough for 27th nationally and it’s also important to note a good chunk of the yardage allowed came in two games – USF (290) and Louisville (314).

Michigan’s offensive line led the way for rushers to average 4.98 yards per carry this season and ranked second in the Big Ten by generating 223.3 yards per game. However, this group was inconsistent at times, as the Wolverines managed only 91 rushing yards against Ohio State and 98 against Iowa – the only losses of the season. Harbaugh uses a couple of running backs, with De’Veon Smith (810 yards) and Chris Evans (565) the top options. Peppers could also see a couple of snaps as a change-of-pace option under center.

Can Florida State stuff the run and force Michigan’s offensive into third-and-long situations? Or can the veteran Wolverines’ front five handle the pass rush from Walker and open up lanes for Smith and Evans?

Final Analysis

The Orange Bowl is one of the most intriguing matchups of the bowl season. In theory, motivation for both teams shouldn’t be a problem. Michigan should be hungry to finish out the year on a high note and show this team deserved a spot in the College Football Playoff. Florida State didn’t quite live up to preseason expectations but a victory over the Wolverines would give Fisher his fifth consecutive season of double-digit victories. The battle in the trenches is going to play a huge role in the outcome of Friday night’s game. Can Florida State’s offensive line block Michigan’s standout front? And when the Wolverines have the ball, can this offense protect quarterback Wilton Speight and generate a consistent ground game? Even if Michigan’s defense keeps Cook in check, the odds are high the junior still breaks a couple of big runs. The difference in this game will be the Wolverines’ defense, as Harbaugh’s team closes out 2016 with a tight, three-point win over Florida State.

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Prediction: Michigan 27, Florida State 24