I think bowl games outside of the College Football Playoff structure — to include New Year’s Six bowls — are glorified exhibitions that exist largely to enrich the people responsible for those games being played but not the people playing them.
I think it is nigh impossible to make heads or tails of what is going to happen in glorified exhibitions. You don’t read previews for NFL preseason games, right?
Anyway: Here is a quick-and-dirty preview for Florida taking on Michigan in Saturday’s Peach Bowl.
When Florida has the ball
Michigan has one of the best defenses in college football this year. Or maybe the better word is had: After the Wolverines met Ohio State in Columbus and gave up more points in that game than in their five previous games combined, some of that got thrown into question.
The Wolverines still have a stout defense, of course, but they enter this Peach Bowl without linebacker Devin Bush and defensive lineman Rashan Gary, two key players — perhaps the two Michigan players who will go first in the 2019 NFL Draft. And they face an offense that is similar in style to that Ohio State offense that aerated it, even if asking Feleipe Franks to pull off a Dwayne Haskins impression is a bit much.
Florida is more likely to run it in this game, anyway, with Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine again sharing carries in the Gators’ running back rotation. And if the Florida offensive line can establish anything against the Michigan front, something it simply could not in the 2017 season opener between these teams, then Florida should be able to have some semblance of balance against Don Brown’s guys.
If not? It could be a long day for Franks, and a longer one for the Gators.
When Michigan has the ball
Happily for the Gators, though, Michigan is also missing a key piece on offense: Senior Karan Higdon, the Wolverines’ leading rusher, is sitting this one out just like Bush and Gary, and thus Michigan enters this contest without its only player to tally more than 403 rushing yards this season. Higdon’s backup, Chris Evans, is no slouch — he had 78 yards against Florida last September — but Higdon has been the focal point of the Michigan offense this season.
And Higdon reliably picking up five yards per tote helped to keep the pressure off Shea Patterson, the Ole Miss transfer who has been more reliable than electric for Jim Harbaugh. Patterson has had a season not far removed from the one Franks has had, with slightly better yards per attempt and much better completion percentage numbers but fewer touchdowns and fewer completions. Patterson can efficiently make plays while scrambling and looking to run or throw, which could be trouble for a Florida team that has a better time when it can pressure and take down the quarterback than it does with runners at the position.
Of course, Florida’s defense also has more speed than most of the outfits that the Wolverines have been seeing for the past few months — and C.J. Henderson made good use of his speed last September by housing a Wilton Speight pick in his first game as a Gator.
When both teams are kicking
You know Florida’s special teams are excellent, apart from the penchant for flags James Houston has shown more than once this year. But Michigan’s are just okay, ranking 40th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks partly to Quinn Nordin missing five of his 16 field goals on the year and the Wolverines’ coverage teams dealing with few touchbacks.
It has also been a while since Florida has blocked a kick — and if Dan Mullen truly got anything from pre-bowl conversations with Urban Meyer that I’m sure happened, a tip about special teams opportunities from one of the best special teams coaches in the history of football would sure have been helpful.
The enthusiasm gap
Finally, it bears mentioning that no Florida players are missing this game to preserve their health prior to the NFL Draft, while Michigan has several, including ones who are arguably their most important offensive and defensive players. The Gators are also coming into this Peach Bowl off a win and with a desire to be a top-10 team entering the offseason; Michigan enters this game after a crushing loss to a rival that knocked it from Playoff contention, and has already established itself as a premier program under Harbaugh, but stands to gain less from going hard for a win today.
Logic dictates that Florida should want this more, and though that is nigh impossible to quantify, the team that plays a glorified exhibition with slightly more desire has consistently seemed to have an edge in my experience as a watcher of these exhibitions — and you need to look no further than Michigan’s romp over Florida in the 2016 Citrus Bowl to see what happens when a motivated team meets one that is going through the motions.
I doubt we see a Florida rout today ... but I would be less surprised by that than a Michigan rout, given what I think are the dynamics of desire.