(14) Michigan Wolverines (-4.5, 40.5 o/u) vs (19) Florida Gators
By almost any metric, Jim Harbaugh had a wildly successful first season with the Michigan Wolverines (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten). After finishing last year 5-7 under Brady Hoke, Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a solid third-place finish in the stacked Big Ten East, behind only Michigan State and Ohio State. And if not for this ridiculous play, the team may have just taken the division title. But lady luck wasn’t on Michigan’s side this year and they’ll have to settle for a tilt with the no. 19 Florida Gators (9-3, 7-1 SEC) in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day (1:00 PM Eastern).
This game will actually be a battle between two teams that exceeded expectations under first-year head coaches. Down in Gainesville, Jim McElwain’s Gators were supposed to be an afterthought in the SEC East. But a dominant defense led the squad to six straight wins to open the year, and they finished their regular season SEC schedule with just one loss on their resume (35-28 on the road at then-no. 6 LSU).
The year ended on a drastically different note. The offense failed to show up against in-state rival Florida State and the Gators were demolished, 27-2, back in late November. Then, in the SEC title game, the O was once again stymied as Florida fell to the powerhouse Crimson Tide, 29-15.
In reality, the Gators’ hopes were all but smashed just prior to their loss to LSU. That’s when starting QB Will Grier was handed a year-long suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. Treon Harris did his best to keep the Florida offense rolling, but the Gators never really looked the same once Grier exited. The sophomore Harris completed just 45-percent of his passes in the two late-season setbacks; Grier hadn’t been under 54.8-percent all season.
So now McElwain will pin his hopes on his vaunted D (which finished eighth in the nation in scoring at 16.5 points per game) as his squad prepares for no. 14 Michigan.
Luckily for the coach, Michigan is more of a defense-first team, as well (11th nationally at 17.2 PPG). The Wolverine offense was able to run up the score on lesser programs like Rutgers (49-16 W) and Indiana (48-41 W), but was held in check by top-notch D units like Utah (24-17 L) and Alabama (42-13 L).
Michigan QB Jake Rudock had a nice senior season, posting career-highs in yardage (2,739), completion percentage (64-percent), and TDs (17). He did throw a concerning nine picks on the year, but three of those came in the first game of the season against Utah. His ball security was much better down the stretch and he had just two INTs in his last 141 attempts.
Come New Year’s Day, Rudock will be looking to connect with his trio of talented pass catchers: WR Amara Darboh (56 catches for 703 yards), WR Jehu Chesson (45 catches for 646 yards), and TE Jake Butt (48 catches for 620 yards). But the Gators have future first-round NFL draft pick Vernon Hargreaves heading arguably the nation’s best secondary. Since Michigan’s run-game is thoroughly average, who wins that aerial battle will go a long way to determining the outcome of the game.
The Wolverines were even against the spread this year at 6-6, but one game under on the road (2-3); the Gators were 8-4 overall and 3-1 outside of Gainesville. Though McElwain’s crew struggled in its last couple, they have the horses on defense to hold Rudock and company in check. If the defense and special teams can put the offense in good spots, the Gators have a great shot at the cover. Take Florida and the handful of points (4.5).
Pick: Florida (+4.5).
(Photo credit: Tampa Gator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)
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