FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Bowl Week festivities are all but finished, and game day is approaching.
The Michigan football team will look to cap 2016 the same way it began — with a bowl game rout over a Florida school. In last season’s Citrus Bowl, the Wolverines unloaded on Florida for a 41-7 win. But with a dangerous Florida State team awaiting in the Orange Bowl this season, such success should be harder to come by.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wolverines and Seminoles take the field Friday night.
A fond farewell?
With at least 17 starters playing their final game in a Michigan uniform, there will be plenty of emotion on the field. The 2012 and 2013 classes of fifth-year seniors and seniors, respectively, were crucial to the Wolverines’ striking resurgence in Harbaugh’s first two seasons. The Michigan coach has routinely praised them for the job they did helping turn the program around, and now, they all have one final opportunity to play together.
Surely it would be special for them to go out with a win. After all the group has been through, finishing this season 10-3 (the same record as last year), would be something of a disappointing finish — especially after the team started 9-0.
Also looming in the finale is the matter of the team record book. Senior tight end Jake Butt needs four touchdowns to tie for the program’s all-time lead in touchdowns by a tight end. Fifth-year senior receiver Amara Darboh needs seven catches to move into the school’s top 10 all-time in receptions. Senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis needs only one pass breakup to move into sole possession of first place for all-time career pass breakups in team history.
Those individual pursuits could be diminished if the seniors don’t go out on a win, but they’ll at least make for fun tallies to keep track of as the Orange Bowl progresses.
An eye on the future
As much as the seniors will carry the emotional tone of the game, one of the more interesting storylines will be what Michigan is left with once they leave. Friday night’s game could serve as a window into the Wolverines’ future, depending on how many snaps the younger players receive.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown made it clear Wednesday that, while he is using the bowl practices to groom young talent, winning the Orange Bowl is his priority. With that said, it will be curious to see whether he elects to give any reps to his second-string defensive backs, all of whom will be battling for starting jobs next year when the entire first string has graduated. The same goes for the defensive line, though that group rotates more regularly and naturally.
At receiver, the Wolverines will soon lose Darboh and Jehu Chesson to graduation, and sophomore Grant Perry’s status is in doubt after he was suspended indefinitely last week pending legal proceedings stemming from an Oct. 15 incident. That means the performances of any young receivers will be magnified against the Seminoles. The position should be wide open going into spring camp.
More disruptive D-line?
The game will also feature two of the nation’s most disruptive defensive lines, with Florida State tied for the nation’s lead in sacks and the Wolverines ranked second nationally in tackles for loss.
There will be stars on both sides, but headlining the game will be the Seminoles’ DeMarcus Walker, who racked up 15 sacks on the season, nearly twice as many as any Wolverine. Senior defensive end Taco Charlton leads the team with 8.5 sacks.
Michigan has extensive depth to counter, boasting two full units for defensive line coach Greg Mattison to rotate. And while the Seminoles have the reputation as the most sack-happy team in the country, it would not be a surprise if the Wolverines won the sack battle on Friday — Florida State is one of the worst teams at preventing sacks in the nation, too, with 34 allowed this year.
Michigan’s offensive game plan
Last season against Florida, Michigan came out with an impressive offensive attack that led to a romp in the Citrus Bowl. Whether that was the product of extra prep time or a disinterested opponent is up for debate, but the fact that Michigan’s offense looked sharp is not.
Jake Rudock threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns, and Chesson and De’Veon Smith both topped 100 yards in the most impressive game the Wolverines played last season.
Harbaugh has made sure the Wolverines approach bowl practices with intent focus, and last season, it showed. But there is a different aura about the Orange Bowl, and the Seminoles’ dangerous running back Dalvin Cook will make it tough to hold Florida State to only one touchdown. That puts the onus on the offense to come out ready to fire for one last time this season.