Coming off successful 2018 campaigns, the Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines will meet in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
After a devastating blowout loss to their rivals in Columbus, Michigan looks to cap their season with 11 wins and a victory over the Gators and first-year head coach Dan Mullen. As for Florida, reaching double-digit wins for the first time since 2015 would likely be considered a major success for Mullen, given last season’s disappointing 4-7 finish under Jim McElwain.
Running back Karan Higdon, defensive end Rashan Gary and Big Ten Linebacker of the Year Devin Bush (each first-team All-Big Ten selections) will sit out the Peach Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft. Defensively, this will be a massive blow for a Michigan team that relies heavily on its front four and linebackers to win games. Look for senior defensive end Chase Winovich and junior end Carlo Kemp to step up in Gary’s absence. Considering that the Gators average more than 200 rushing yards per game, Bush will be missed in run support against leading Florida rusher Lamical Perine (cousin of Washington Redskins running back Samaje Perine).
Offensively, junior Wolverines running back Chris Evans will have to step up to fill the void left by Sarasota native Higdon, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season. Spelling Evans will likely be junior running back Tru Wilson, whose speed could be used on sweeps and end arounds. Higdon’s absence will be felt, thus quarterback Shea Patterson has to be accurate down the field in obvious passing situations.
Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins will likely be Patterson’s go-to targets through the air. Considering that the Gators rank No. 10 in the nation in passing defense, allowing roughly 175 yards per game, the Wolverines will need to have success running the football on early downs.
It’s highly unlikely that Jim Harbaugh’s entire offensive identity will shift without Higdon. Evans has been successful in previous seasons, but Higdon’s bell-cow status in 2018 meant a lack of opportunities for the Indianapolis native. If Evans can regain some confidence from 2017, the Wolverines should be able to control the clock and game.
A win in the 2018 Peach Bowl would not only give first-year head coach Dan Mullen 10 wins, it would also give the Gators a tremendous amount of momentum heading into the offseason for recruiting. After the Gators’ disappointing 4-7 finish last season, Mullen and Florida should be pleased with their New Year’s Six matchup against the Wolverines.
The Gators will need to rely heavily on their defense and ground attack to beat Michigan. Given the Wolverines’ success defending the run (15th in FBS), look for Florida to involve Perine in the passing game on screens and wheel routes. Bush’s absence means Michigan will lack speed at the linebacker position; and if the Wolverines can’t get to the quarterback with their front four, something the team struggled to do against Ohio State, the Gators may be able to take advantage of Michigan’s isolated corners with slants and crossing routes.
Pressure on the passer from Winovich, Kemp and linebacker Josh Uche will be important in making Florida one dimensional offensively. If Florida’s offense can successfully run the ball and put themselves in third down and manageable, their lack of weapons in the passing game won’t be exposed, helping to keep the ball from Michigan’s offense.
Both teams will need to be successful on the ground to establish balance offensively. Gary’s absence for the Wolverines should allow the Gators to run more efficiently, but the difference in this game should be Patterson’s ability to throw on the run to Peoples-Jones, Collins and Zach Gentry. His downfield accuracy and ability to extend plays should give the Wolverines an offensive edge over the Gators.
Michigan 27, Florida 20