SQ Citrus Bowl Preview
The Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines were on the downtrend of college football the past couple of seasons, but thanks to new coaching staffs, both of these teams have changed direction rather quickly. Jim McElwain (Florida) and Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) have done more than what was expected in their first seasons, and these two coaches will meet on New Year's Day in the Citrus Bowl. This matchup was a great surprise, and will certainly be one of the bowls to watch. Here's what you need to know:
Storylines Heading Into the Game
Florida's Offense Continues to Ride the Struggle Bus: Ever since Will Grier tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, Florida's offense hasn't been the same. Treon Harris has struggled as the team's starting QB, and just hasn't looked comfortable at all under center. The offense hit an all-time low in SEC Championship when it put up just 180 total yards. For the Gators to have any sort of chance against Michigan they've got to get Harris going early with short, quick passes.
McElwain and Harbaugh Surpassing First Year Expectations: It's not really a surprise to see both of these programs doing well with their new coaches, but both have certainly exceeded year-one expectations. McElwain took Florida all the way to the SEC Championship when the team was picked to finish near the bottom in preseason polls. Meanwhile, Harbaugh brought Michigan back to relevancy by winning nine games and making them one of the toughest teams to score on.
A Battle of Two Great Defenses: If you love a good defensive duel, then you're in luck because this game features two of the nation's best. Florida and Michigan each rank in the top-10 in total defense, with each also ranking in the top-15 in scoring defense. Needless to say, neither of these offenses are looking forward to playing against their opponent's defense. Whoever can limit mistakes on defense and win the turnover battle will come out on top of this game.
43 - The Florida Gators are tied for 126th in the nation with 43 sacks allowed this season. While young and inexperienced, the Gators' O-Line held up decently in the first five games, surrendering 10 sacks. But it was downhill from there, and the Treon Harris has felt the brunt of the hits. The O-Line must do a better job of protecting Harris if he's going to have any shot of being productive this game.
93.88% - Michigan may not have one of the best offenses in the country, but when it comes to redzone efficiency, the Wolverines are money. Michigan has scored 46 out of 49 times when in the redzone, and they're going to need to take advantage of any trips inside the 20 against this defense.
45.29 - Florida punter Johnny Townsend has averaged 45.29 yards per punt over the last three games. Field position is going to be a key in this game, and Townsend can be a game-changer for the Gators by pinning the Wolverines deep in their own territory. With Townsend's ability to pin opponents back behind their own 20, it makes Florida's job on defense a lot easier.
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida - With the way Florida's offense has underwhelmed, Kelvin Taylor really hasn't gotten the recognition he has deserved. Taylor has run for at least 100 yards in three of his last four games, and is the key for Florida to be successful in this game. Taylor is going to get plenty of carries in this game as Michigan has had trouble stopping the run as of late (746 rush yards surrendered in last three games). If Taylor can find holes early, it will go a long way in helping the passing game for Harris.
Jake Butt, TE, Michigan - Butt was named the best tight end this year after winning the Mackey Award, and he is the key to Michigan's offense in this game. The Wolverines like to go to Butt early and often, as 30 of his 48 receptions have come in the first half this season. Going up against one of the best secondaries in the country, Butt is going to be QB Jake Rudock's go-to target early on to gain some confidence.
Why Florida Will Win
Florida will win this game if it can squeeze enough points out of its offense. The offensive line is without a doubt the key component to offensive success for the Gators. A more stable O-Line will give Harris more confidence and he won't feel like he has to run out of the pocket every time he feels pressure.
Florida is going to show up on defense, that much we know. The good thing for the Gators is that Michigan doesn't have a great run game or a premiere running back. In all three of the Gators' losses, each team had a feature back that ran for at least 180 yards. Containing Rudock and Butt are what the Gators should focus on in this game.
Why Michigan Will Win
On offense, Michigan has the upper hand in this one. Rudock improved greatly over the course of the season, and has become one of the better signal callers in the Big Ten. However, the shoulder injury he suffered against Ohio State could cause concern in this game. Facing a strong secondary tandem in Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor is going to make it that much more important for Rudock to make smart decisions.
Michigan's defense could end up making New Year's Day a mess for Florida. The Wolverines have a strong enough pass rush that will cause Harris to get of the ball quicker than he wants to. The one question Michigan faces on defense is if All-American Jabrill Peppers will be able to play or not. If he's not able to go that's a big blow to the team, leaving them not only without a standout safety, but one of their better running backs.
This game is going to be an all-out defensive war. What it's going to come down to is who can hold on to the ball, and make the least amount of mistakes. Contrary to popular belief, Florida will not look as bad on offense as it has in the past few games, but that isn't saying much. But for the Gators to win, Taylor and Harris each have to have good games in a combined effort. In the end, if Florida can muster up three touchdowns, Jim McElwain should notch his first bowl victory with the team.
Final Score: Florida 21 - Michigan 17