Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Noon ET, Dec. 29, ESPN
No. 7 Michigan vs No. 10 Florida
Michigan and Florida are no strangers, as the two teams will be playing for the third time in the past three seasons. The Wolverines won the last matchup 33-17 in the 2017 season opener and also won the 2016 matchup 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl.
A lot has changed since those meetings.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh hired Florida coach Jim McElwain after the 2017 season as a wide receivers coach, and McElwain has since taken the head coaching position at Central Michigan. Dan Mullen took over for McElwain and has helped the Gators to a 9-3 record and the No. 10 ranking in the College Football Playoff rankings.
The two teams are in different places. Mullen and his staff are hoping to use this bowl game as a chance to continue improving their team through the extra practices. His first season as head coach had its ups and downs, but considering what he took over, Mullen has the team headed in the right direction. Harbaugh, on the other hand, is coming off of a 62-39 loss to rival Ohio State that prevented the Wolverines from playing in the Big Ten championship game and possibly securing a berth in the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines finished last season with three straight losses, including a loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, so this team is hoping not to end this season on a sour note.
Key player for Michigan: The offense is going to need to establish the run against Florida’s defense, which will make running back Karan Higdon a big focus. The Gators are ninth in passing yards allowed per game, but rank 69 overall in rush yards per game. Michigan will need Higdon, and Chris Evans and Tru Wilson for that matter, to have success on the ground to help open up the passing game. If Higdon and Michigan’s stable of backs can find space, it will make for an easier day for quarterback Shea Patterson and the rest of the offense.
Key player for Florida: For all the attention paid to Feleipe Franks and the passing game this season, the crux of the Gators’ offense really is Lamical Perine and the rest of the rushing attack. As they go, so foes Florida, which is 8-0 when it rushes for 200 or more yards, and 1-3 when it doesn’t. The shifty, powerful Perine, in particular, is capable of being a touchdown machine with six scores in his past seven games. If he can find the end zone against Michigan, it would do a lot to relieve the pressure on Franks and the receivers.
Most important matchup: Perine, Jordan Scarlett and the Florida running game will have their hands full with Michigan’s front seven. But at least they won’t have to deal with star defensive lineman Rashan Gary, who won’t play in the game as he prepares for the NFL draft. Without Gary, it will be interesting to see where the pressure from the Wolverines’ defensive front will come from and whether it will struggle to keep Florida’s backs from picking up big chunks of yardage. The good news for Harbaugh (and the bad news for Perine & Co.) is that linebacker Devin Bush, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, has said he will play in the game.
X factor: Might Mullen begin looking ahead to next season and play both Franks and Emory Jones at quarterback? Franks has been woefully inconsistent, and might not be the answer long term. In five games against ranked opponents, he has thrown four touchdowns and four interceptions, and completed just 52.5 percent of his passes. Jones might be raw, but he’s a young option worth exploring because of his dual-threat skills and the fact that he can still appear in this game without losing the ability to redshirt.