When the then-No. 3 Michigan football team lost at Ohio State in double overtime on Nov. 26, the Wolverines tumbled out of the College Football Playoff and into the next tier of bowl games.
Thirty-four days later, they will take the field Friday night in the Orange Bowl as the favorite against No. 11 Florida State (5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference, 9-3 overall).
But the Seminoles still pose a number of threats, including two first-team All-ACC players on each side of the ball. They will be Michigan’s second straight bowl opponent from the state of Florida. After the Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 10-2 overall) routed Florida in the Citrus Bowl for their 10th win last season, they can beat that mark Friday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Here’s how they stack up with Florida State:
Michigan rush offense vs. Florida State rush defense
Senior running back De’Veon Smith earned his most carries of the season in the final two games of the regular season — 23 against Indiana, 21 at Ohio State. The results were mixed: Smith gained 6.9 yards per carry in the first of those games and 2.9 in the second. But Smith’s legs are fresh after a month off, his power makes him a threat against Florida State and his career comes to an end Friday night, so he should be a focal point. In last year’s bowl game, he carried 25 times for 109 yards, sending him with momentum into this season.
As always, Michigan has several other options. Running back Chris Evans admitted Wednesday he hit a bit of a “freshman wall” as the season wore on, but after five weeks with no games, he could have an extra bounce. Freshman wide receiver Eddie McDoom and redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers can add extra dimensions. You never know what coach Jim Harbaugh might cook up in a bowl game.
The Seminoles’ rush defense is rolling. The unit gave up fewer than 100 rush yards in each of the last three games of the regular season, including 58 on 29 carries against Florida. The front seven has come a long way since Louisville and South Florida torched it for 604 yards in two weeks in September. Florida State ranks 27th in the country with 131.3 yards per game allowed, led by three players — defensive end DeMarcus Walker, buck linebacker Josh Sweat and defensive end Brian Burns — with double-digit tackles for loss.
Edge: Florida State
Michigan pass offense vs. Florida State pass defense
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight threw for just 322 total yards in the last three games of the regular season after he struggled against Iowa, missed the Indiana game with a shoulder injury and played through the injury against Ohio State. The month off should do him some good as he tries to punctuate a breakout 2016 season.
Few performances in bowl games are certain, but the receiving trio of fifth-year senior wideouts Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and senior tight end Jake Butt will surely be motivated in their final games. They have all had successful careers, have all had a large stake in the team’s fortunes and can also impress pro scouts with their performances Friday.
One of them, likely Darboh, will have a difficult matchup against cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, who is tied for first in the nation with eight interceptions. The more imposing weapon, though, is Walker, who ranks second in the country with 15 sacks. Harbaugh called the 6-foot-4, 280-pound senior the best player on Florida State’s team, so Michigan could turn to double teams or extra pass protection from Smith to corral him. If the Wolverines can do that, expect a rebound performance from Speight heading into 2017.
Florida State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The engine that makes the Seminoles’ offense go is running back Dalvin Cook. The first-team All-American has 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, and with 72 more yards, he can break his own single-season school record. After a sluggish start to the season, he has reached the 100-yard mark in eight of the past nine games and scored four touchdowns twice. Michigan’s players have talked all month about how talented Cook looks on film. If they can slow him down, they’ll have a good chance to win. If they let him run wild, it’s going to be difficult.
Quarterback Deondre Francois is also a threat to scramble, which is always a tough challenge for Michigan’s defense. Opponents have sacked Francois 32 times this season, but excluding those losses, the quarterback has 66 carries for 453 yards and four touchdowns.
Stopping Cook will be a team effort, but the Wolverines could assign Peppers the task of shadowing him, which would be a great matchup to watch. Michigan’s front seven has been stifling all season, allowing more than 100 rushing yards just four times. One of those times was against Ohio State, when the Wolverines held up well, albeit in a losing effort. A running quarterback is always a concern, but this defense has faced several this season.
Florida State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
This is where Michigan’s defensive linemen should be licking their chops. Of the Seminoles’ 32 sacks allowed this season — 108th in the country — many have come against the best defenses. Clemson totaled six and Louisville added five, and neither of those teams has numbers like Michigan’s.
Roderick Johnson is a first-team All-ACC performer at left tackle, but the Wolverines will dial up several blitz packages to pressure Florida State from all angles. The Seminoles also had injury issues at left guard and right tackle in the last two games of the regular season, though they should be sorted out for the bowl game.
The sacks have made Francois’ first season as the starter a difficult one, but coaches and players on both sides have raved about the quarterback’s toughness. He has completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,128 yards, 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions, never more than one in a game. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown admitted Wednesday that he can sometimes anticipate rattling the opposing quarterback throughout a game. Friday, that’s going to be tall order.
But the Wolverines still have one of the best defensive backfields in the country. No one allowed fewer passing yards, and Michigan owes much of the credit for its top-ranked third down defense to the secondary. With senior cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling playing their final games, and senior safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas behind them, it’d be a surprise to see Florida State get anything going downfield in the passing game.
Kenny Allen’s struggles are well in the past. Michigan’s fifth-year senior kicker has made 12 field goals in a row heading into the bowl game, two from 45 yards or farther. He’s also excelling in the punting game, gaining 42.6 yards per kick and placing almost half inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Outside of Jesus Wilson’s 89-yard punt return against Charleston Southern in September, Florida State hasn’t stood out in the return game this season.
Michigan has a player who has, and he may be playing his final collegiate game. Peppers had just three punt returns longer than 10 yards in the last six games of the regular season as opponents began to kick away from him. But even when they did, it generated a poor result. The Seminoles, meanwhile, rank 119th in the country in net punting average.
A handful of Wolverines have admitted they felt snubbed by not making the College Football Playoff after the season they put together. But they’ve had almost a month to recover from that disappointment, and it’ll be warmer in Michigan than in Florida before a Harbaugh team is unmotivated for a football game.
On the other side, the Seminoles have to be excited to play in their fifth straight New Year’s Six or BCS game after starting the season 3-2. This is a good spot for them, much like the Citrus Bowl was for the Wolverines last year.
They’ll be playing in their home state, and while Michigan fans have traveled well, that will play a factor. Florida State has also played at Hard Rock Stadium already this season, beating Miami on a blocked extra point in October.
Edge: Florida State
Prediction: Michigan 27, Florida State 14