Jim Harbaugh’s first season as Michigan football coach ends with another first: his first bowl game at the helm of the Wolverines.
Michigan lost to Ohio State, 42-13, to end the regular season and drop out of consideration for a New Year’s Six bowl berth. But the Wolverines earned the next best thing — a trip to Orlando, Florida, for the Citrus Bowl on Friday.
They will match up with a Florida team that has had a very similar season. The Gators welcomed new coach Jim McElwain to Gainesville last December after a subpar season in 2014. They started hot at 6-0, reviving the fan base, but they ended the regular season with a blowout 27-2 loss to rival Florida State.
Florida has similar strengths, as well. Defense is the team’s forte, with a host of playmakers on that side of the ball who give the Gators an edge.
Both teams look to end their season on a high note. The Daily breaks down the matchup:
Michigan pass offense vs. Florida pass defense
Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock became one of the Wolverines’ most consistent weapons toward the end of the season, and though he left the Ohio State game with a shoulder injury, he is healthy again and will play Friday. He could move from fifth to second on Michigan’s all-time season passing yards list with 222 yards in the bowl game.
As he has all season, Rudock will have his three favorite receiving targets: redshirt junior wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh and junior tight end Jake Butt. No other wide receiver has more than 77 yards on the season, but the bowl practices may have allowed a younger player such as freshman Grant Perry or redshirt freshman Maurice Ways to develop.
The Gators’ 11th-ranked pass defense could make life difficult on Rudock. Their secondary is loaded with weapons, led by first-team All-SEC cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tabor, who each have four interceptions. Nickel back Brian Poole adds 10 pass breakups. And Florida’s pass rush, most notably defensive end Jon Bullard (6.5 sacks), is a disruption in its own right.
Michigan rush offense vs. Florida rush defense
As the Wolverines’ passing game has flourished, their running game has struggled. The unit now ranks 92nd in the nation with 152.7 yards per game. After a strong start to the regular season, junior running back De’Veon Smith finished with just 644 yards, and redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson is next with 213.
The offensive line has remained the same and protected Rudock, but Michigan has only reached 100 yards on the ground in three of the past six games. In the past two, redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers is the team’s second-leading rusher — and he’s questionable for Friday with an injury.
Florida’s front seven, ranked 17th against the run, won’t make things any easier. Four Gators have double-digit tackles for loss: Bullard, defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. and linebackers Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis. Five times this season, Florida has denied its opponent the 100-yard mark.
Earlier in the year, Smith was the feature back who displayed the ability to break tackles and move the pile for extra yards. It will be difficult to re-establish that against the Gators.
Florida pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The Gators’ season in the passing game divides into two halves: the first, when quarterback Will Grier led the offense; and the second, after Grier was suspended for the season for performance-enhancing drug use. In the first six games, with Grier, Florida passed for 246 yards per game and 12 touchdowns. In the last seven, with Treon Harris, the Gators managed just 181.1 yards per game and seven scores.
Harris has completed more than 50 percent of his passes in just two of his seven starts. His most explosive target is wide receiver Antonio Callaway with 603 yards at 20.1 yards per catch. Fifth-year senior tight end Jake McGee (6-foot-6, 249 lbs.) is Harris’ short-yardage target.
But Michigan’s defense also disrupts opposing passing games. Four times, the Wolverines have forced the opponent to change quarterbacks, and they rank third in the nation in pass defense and first in passing efficiency defense. The only wild cards could be Peppers’ injury and the loss of defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to Maryland. Still, depth at safety and interim defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s success should prevent issues.
The Gators will also play without suspended right tackle Mason Halter, a veteran starter. Halter’s absence could open the door for a big game from Michigan’s defensive ends, redshirt juniors Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Even with Halter, Florida gave up the eighth-most sacks in the country in the regular season.
Florida rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The Gators’ running game has endured even more struggles. The unit ranks 113th nationally with just 127.6 yards per game, 75.8 of which come from running back Kelvin Taylor. Harris has also made some plays with his legs. In the SEC Championship Game against Alabama, Florida ran for just 15 yards.
Meanwhile, in its last game, Michigan gave up 369 yards and five touchdowns on the ground against Ohio State. It appeared down the stretch of the season that injuries to sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone (before the season), senior defensive end Mario Ojemudia (Oct. 3 at Maryland) and redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow (Nov. 7 vs. Rutgers). The bowl practices could give the Wolverines a chance to add depth and recharge to face Florida. And, despite the late-season slide, the defense still ranks 18th nationally against the run.
Michigan’s veteran linebacker corps also has a chance to go out on a high note. Seniors James Ross III and Joe Bolden and fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan will all be playing their final college game.
Michigan’s kicking unit remains stable. Senior kicker Kenny Allen appears poised to end his career on a high note after finishing the regular season 16-for-20 on field goals.
Elsewhere, there are questions. If Peppers can’t play, his absence leaves a hole on the punt-return unit. Fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill was at practice with a knee brace on Tuesday. Allen would replace him if he is injured.
While punter Johnny Townsend earned second-team All-SEC honors, the Gators have struggled in the kicking game. They have missed their last five field goals, and kicker Austin Hardin is 5-for-14 on the season. Michigan’s strength is stopping opponents in the red zone and forcing field goals, so Florida’s kicking issues pose a problem.
Both teams are in similar positions with similar records. Michigan can pick up its 10th win in Harbaugh’s first season, doubling its 2014 total. Both teams could be missing key players.
The Wolverines have talked over the past month about how difficult their bowl camp was, noting that there’s been little time for fun in Orlando. There’s no way of telling which team will come out more motivated in a bowl game, though.
Pick: Michigan 20, Florida 9