The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last year, the Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines kicked off the 2017 football season in the Peace Bowl in Arlington, Texas. It was a much-anticipated game of two top-20 teams, but both teams proved to be disappointing. Michigan dominated Florida on the way to a 33-17 win and launched the Gators into a spiral. The Gators went 4-7, fired head coach Jim McElwain, and brought in Dan Mullen to fix the program. The Wolverines got the win, but lost to all their rivals as the season progressed, raising questions about head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future there.
It’s now 2018 and things look very different. Michigan is 10-2 and spent much of the season in the hunt for the College Football Playoff. Florida, meanwhile, is 9-3 and has completely rebuilt a sputtering offense while stabilizing the quarterback position. Now, the two teams end their seasons facing off in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
Michigan is currently 5th in overall S&P+ rating and 5th in defensive S&P+ rating in the country. The Wolverines rode a strong defense to double-digit wins through the season, while their power-based offense has improved slowly. Quarterback Shea Patterson has been the difference. His legs are dangerous and he can make plays out of structure, making him difficult to defend. Despite the offensive improvement, the heartbeat of the team is still the defense. That defense was carved up completely by Ohio State in the regular season finale however, and questions about the Wolverines’ overall team speed have arisen.
While the Wolverines have played to their strengths all season, now they are down several players. Running Back Karan Higdon, Right Tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Linebacker Devin Bush, and Defensive Lineman Rashan Gary will all not play in the game. This affects the offense’s ability to run downhill, which was their strength all season, and takes some of their defensive play-makers out of the equation.
Florida has experienced a dramatic turnaround this season, improving in S&P+ from 86th to 14th in the overall ratings and from 108th to 27th in offensive rating. The offense runs through a dynamic rushing attack, led by running backs Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett and supplemented by Quarterback Feleipe Franks. The Gator defense is opportunistic and tenacious, but is prone to giving up big plays.
Michigan’s defense is the most complete unit on the field for this matchup, but there are weaknesses that Florida can exploit. The Gator wide receiver corp is full of speed and the Michigan defenders were exposed against the superior Ohio State athletes in their season finale. Florida’s best chance to move the ball is to attack the Wolverines downfield, something that Feleipe Franks has struggled to do all year. Michigan’s biggest concern will be to limit turnovers and to recommit to the running game with the absence of their starting running back.
In a game with two good defenses, every possession will count. Turnovers and short fields will be critical for the team who wins. Florida has much more momentum going into this game, coming off a rivalry win over Florida State. Michigan is coming off their lowest point of the season, and should be expected to bounce back. The matchups and talented players all point to this game being close, and it could easily be won by either team. While there is a definite path for Florida to win, Michigan has been the better team all season. Despite their losses, that will likely show on the field on Saturday.