Florida vs. Michigan: 10 bold predictions for Peach Bowl showdown
Florida will cap a successful first season under Dan Mullen Saturday when it takes on No. 7 Michigan in the Peach Bowl.
Most of the intangibles favor Florida.
The Gators figure to have an advantage in the stands, as Atlanta is home to the largest out-of-state alumni base for the University of Florida.
While Michigan is still reeling as a program following yet another crushing defeat to rival Ohio State, a loss that kept the Wolverines from advancing to the Big Ten title game and potentially making the College Football Playoff, Florida is reveling in a season-ending three-game winning streak that saw it reclaim the state of Florida and vanquish nearly a decade of demons in a 41-14 decimation of in-state rival FSU.
Meanwhile, with no Playoff berth, three of Michigan’s high-profile stars (defensive end Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush and running back Karan Higdon) have opted to sit the Peach Bowl out to protect their draft stock, while all of Florida’s potential early entrees, including Jachai Polite and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, have opted to play. As a result, the Gators have moved from decided underdogs when the game was announced to trendy upset pick.
That said, it won’t be easy for Florida.
Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines have dominated Florida twice in the past four seasons, walloping Florida 41-7 in the 2016 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and manhandling the Gators again 33-17 to open the 2017 regular season. Michigan has better personnel in many positions and should have something to prove after the Ohio State debacle.
As for the Gators, a win over Michigan would be the surest sign yet that Florida has turned the corner in one short season under Mullen and is once again becoming a program to reckon with on the national stage.
Here are 10 bold predictions for the 51st edition of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
1. Michigan rushes for more than 150 yards
Michigan’s ability to run the ball against elite defenses and keep an offense that doesn’t have immense big-play capabilities (only four plays of 20 yards or more in their last three games) on schedule and controlling the clock is key to their success.
Statistically, the Gators will be the third-best defense the Wolverines have faced this season (Notre Dame, Michigan State), ranking 27th in total defense.
Against those defenses, results have been mixed.
The Wolverines couldn’t muster anything on the ground against the Fighting Irish (33 attempts, 58 yards) but did manage to run on Michigan State (183 yards) even if they averaged only 3.5 yards per carry in that contest.
The absence of Higdon will hurt, but Michigan trusts junior Chris Evans, and Harbaugh said this week that freshman tailback Christian Turner, who grew up in Atlanta, has had a splendid month of practice and will provide a spark.
Florida has struggled to stop the run at times this season, especially against big, physical fronts that run right at sleeker pass-rushing prototypes like Polite and Jabari Zuniga. Michigan gutted the Gators for 215 yards in Texas to open the 2017 season, and while I don’t think they’ll get more than 200 Saturday, they’ll have some success against a Florida run defense that ranks a pedestrian 73rd nationally.
2. Trey Dean snags an interception
Shea Patterson has done a marvelous job of protecting the football this season, tossing only 5 interceptions in nearly 300 attempts.
That said, Florida will be the best pass defense Patterson has faced since the Notre Dame game, which was the one game this season Patterson registered a QB rating under 50.
Michigan will likely try to stay away from All-SEC corner CJ Henderson as much as possible, and Harbaugh is, of course, familiar with Henderson’s ability, having watched him return a Wilton Speight pass for six points a season ago.
That means Michigan will likely work on freshman Trey Dean. The only problem there is that Dean was by some accounts the best player on Florida’s defense in bowl practices. The thinking here is that he flashes that talent Saturday with a critical interception.
3. Jabari Zuniga collects 2 sacks
Michigan did a nice job protecting Patterson this season, finishing 27th nationally in sacks allowed.
The Wolverines did surrender 3 sacks to Ohio State’s young front, and while the Buckeyes have elite talent on the defensive line, so do the Gators, who finished second in the country in sack rate.
Expect Michigan to key on Polite, which will leave either Cece Jefferson or Zuniga operating on the right tackle replacing injured Michigan starter and senior Juwann Bushell-Beatty.
The absence of Bushell-Beatty hasn’t received as much attention as the high-profile absences of Bush, Gary and Higdon, but it may impact the game just as much, as Zuniga is a handful to deal with even for an experienced tackle.
4. Florida scores a first-quarter touchdown
The Gators have been notoriously slow starters this season, having last scored a first-quarter touchdown against a Power 5 opponent in September, when they jumped on Tennessee early in Knoxville.
How bad has it been?
Since Florida’s win at Mississippi State, the Gators have been outscored 48-6 by Power 5 opponents in the first quarter.
Expect that to change, as a fired-up Florida team playing confident football jumps on the Wolverines with a quick touchdown drive early.
5. Donovan Peoples-Jones scores a touchdown
The 5-star receiver chose home state Michigan over the Gators in his recruitment, denying Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier what would have been an immense recruiting victory two seasons ago.
Peoples-Jones has shown flashes of the big-play receiver he projected to be this year, especially against Michigan State, when his 79-yard touchdown reception changed the game. He also led the Wolverines in receptions against Ohio State with 7, which was a season best.
He’s physical and fast, and the battles he’ll have with Henderson, Gardner-Johnson and Dean will be tremendous television. The thinking here is he’ll win his fair share of those battles, including one in the end zone.
6. Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett rush for 150 yards
Michigan finished the season ranked No. 1 in total defense and No. 5 in S&P+ defense, and the Wolverines were incredibly difficult to run on most of the season, ranking 16th nationally in opposing yards per rushing attempt.
That number would have been higher, but the Wolverines showed chinks in the armor late in the year when facing spread concept rushing offenses.
Indiana gashed the Wolverines for 190 yards and more than 4.5 a carry, and Ohio State, who struggled to run the ball much of the season, added 180 yards.
Indiana’s Stevie Scott had a sensational freshman season, gaining more than 1,000 yards, but with all due respect to him, Michigan simply hasn’t faced as good a one-two punch at running back this season as Florida has in Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett.
The Gators will also benefit from facing a Wolverines defense that lacks its best edge-setting defensive end, Gary, and its vacuum cleaner of a middle linebacker, Bush.
Expect the Wolverines to hold up well early, but Florida’s big, physical front will open holes for Perine and Scarlett come the second half, and the talented duo will take full advantage.
7. Trevon Grimes scores a touchdown
What better foil for Michigan than Grimes, the former Ohio State Buckeye?
Grimes, who has NFL prototype size and elite speed, finished the regular season strong with a 100-yard receiving performance in Florida’s win over FSU.
He’s a matchup problem, and Florida will look to get him isolated on Michigan corner Brandon Watson, who struggled mightily against fast and physical receivers in the Ohio State game.
Expect that matchup to pay dividends for Florida at some point in Saturday’s game.
8. Michigan registers 2 or more sacks
With Gary and Bush sitting the game out, Michigan loses around one-third of its sack production. The Wolverines are talented and deep up front anyway, however, and Don Brown does a nice job of putting linebacker Josh Uche in positions to succeed.
Florida has been excellent at protecting the quarterback this season, ranking 20th in America in sacks allowed.
Something has to give here, and the thinking is that Michigan’s defense comes up with some big plays as the Gators will look to stretch the defense some early.
9. Michigan settles for 2 or more field goals on long drives
Michigan doesn’t finish drives well, ranking 60th nationally in points per scoring opportunity. Florida’s defense is terrific at forcing field goals, 18th nationally in limiting scoring opportunities.
A key to Ohio State’s win over Michigan was forcing field goals on early Michigan drives. Florida will be able to do the same thing, especially against a Michigan offense playing without Higdon.
10. Feleipe Franks’ play decides the football game
Okay, okay. This isn’t a bold prediction.
But the story of Florida’s season is one of succeeding when Franks succeeds and failing when he doesn’t.
The Gators’ loss to Georgia was about Henderson being injured early, to be sure, but mostly it was about Franks’ inability to consistently produce against an elite defense.
Florida’s loss to Missouri saw Franks benched in favor of Kyle Trask. And the Gators’ Jekyll and Hyde come-from-behind win over South Carolina occurred only because Franks came to life in the second half.
Franks was marvelous against Florida State, playing his finest game as a Gator, and by all accounts he has had a tremendous month of bowl practice.
But Michigan will be the most complete and talented defense he has faced since the Georgia game, and usually, that has been a recipe for failure for Franks.
Whether that changes Saturday decides the Peach Bowl.