BY DAVID HORN
Daily Sports Editor
Published December 11, 2002
Michigan fans can complain all they want about the return trip to central Florida, and they can complain all they want about yet another matchup against an SEC opponent. But this year's trip to the Outback Bowl is not just an unnecessary nuisance. The Wolverines actually have a job to do against Florida on New Year's Day, and that is prove to the country that the Big Ten can run with the thoroughbreds of the SEC. After last year's blowout loss to Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl, in which the Volunteers exploited their considerable speed advantage to down the Wolverines 45-17, Michigan has another chance to keep pace with a swift-footed SEC squad.
Michigan passing offense vs. Florida passing defense: The Gators have been able to limit a team's productivity in the air, but have yet to show that they can dominate with their pass defense. Senior Todd Johnson and junior Keiwan Ratliff, both of whom earned second-team All-SEC honors this year, lead the unit. The Florida defense gives up, on average, just 149 passing yards per game, but that may be enough for the Michigan offense to be productive. Expect Michigan quarterback John Navarre to have a day similar to that of Louisiana State's Matt Mauck, who completed just 13 passes on 20 attempts for 153 yards, but threw for two touchdowns en route to a 36-point offensive output for the Tigers. Those numbers are Navarresque, and the Michigan passing game should expect to have a similarly productive day.
Michigan rushing offense vs. Florida rushing defense: The Florida rushing defense has been a particularly weak link for the Gators. The unit has given up 167 yards per game on the ground, and has allowed huge games from backs like Florida State's Leon Washington and Auburn's Ronnie Brown. Michigan running back Chris Perry and fullback B.J. Askew have gotten better as the season has worn on, and should be able put together five and six yard carries. That productivity would give Navarre the chance to make shorter passes on second and third down, thereby allowing the efficient but unspectacular passing attack that is required to beat the Gators.
Florida passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense: This year's Florida offense may be its worst in over a decade, but it is not for lack of trying. Florida quarterback Rex Grossman averages nearly 40 pass attempts per game, and the Gators rank 11th in the nation in passing yards with 266 yards per game. Grossman's primary target is receiver Taylor Jacobs. The first-team All-SEC honoree has caught 64 balls for 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, and will likely give Michigan's zone defense fits all day. Michigan's defense has been decimated by injury all season - particularly its defensive backs.
But when the opportunity arises, the one-on-one matchups between Jacobs and sophomore cornerback Marlin Jackson should be the highlights of the day. Senior tight end Aaron Walker has come on strong late in the season, giving Grossman a reliable short-range weapon.
Florida rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense: Michigan's front seven have also been depleted by injury, but still rank as one of the better units in the country. Although Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett single-handedly won the game for the Buckeyes three weeks ago (20 carries, 122 yards, one touchdown), 100-yard days are hard to come by against the Wolverines, and Florida running back Earnest Graham is no Maurice Clarett. Graham averages a little over four yards per carry, and is not a real receiving threat. Expect Michigan to limit Graham's productivity and force Grossman into third-and-long passing situations.
Special Teams: Although Michigan punter/kicker Adam Finley looked marvelous in the loss to Ohio State (connecting on all three of his crucial field goal attempts) the Wolverines' kicking game is always a question mark.
In a game where offense trumps defense and Grossman and Jacobs can expect big days, the field position battle will not be as critical as it usually is in Big Ten play. Florida kicker Matt Leach is 8-of-14 on field goal attempts this year, but can knock it through the uprights from 50 yards out.
Intangibles: In a sense, this central Florida bowl is business as usual for the Wolverines, and the Gators can't be too thrilled to make the two-hour drive south on I-75. But Michigan is playing to make amends for last year's debacle against Tennessee, and has an excellent opportunity to win its first-ever game against Florida. The Gators are entering their first bowl game since 1992 in which they have posted as few as eight regular season wins.
There is also the matter of Florida coach Ron Zook's job security. Steve Spurrier's successor has been on the hot seat all season, and a loss to Michigan would do nothing to make the folks in Gainesville less hostile.
Florida 35, Michigan 31