Florida-Michigan Citrus Bowl will be a battle of dominant defenses
While many bowl games pit contrasting styles, the Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines are very much clones in how they’re built. Even off the field, recent trends have been similar as both storied programs have hit a recent slide before putting together encouraging seasons under respective first-year coaches. With both programs slated to play in the near future, the Citrus Bowl is a preview of things to come.
The defense leads the way for both teams, particularly up front on the defensive line, while the respective offenses have had their struggles throughout the season. When you throw in offensive lines that struggle in both pass protection and in the run game, this should be a low-scoring affair unless turnovers or special teams flip the field.
Even with the warts on the offensive side of the ball and the loss of starting quarterback, Will Grier, to a performance-enhancing drug suspension, Florida was an unlikely participant in the SEC Championship game against eventual champion, Alabama. They took advantage of a weak SEC East to sneak into the game and launched head coach Jim McElwain off the ground in the first year of his rebuilding project.
Michigan’s story is similar as they were among the Big Ten’s best before falling to the conferences to top teams in Michigan State and Ohio State. Head coach Jim Harbaugh came in with high expectations and a 9-win regular season will only accelerate the excitement in the fan base.
For both teams, it’s an interesting study as to how important first-year success is for a coach’s long-term outlook. Winning games with incumbent players is an added bonus, but McElwain and Harbaugh will really be judged when they get their own recruiting classes into the mix. For now, both fan bases can enjoy a taste of success that hasn’t been present for either side in recent years.
Players to watch
Michigan’s defensive Line
It all starts in the trenches for Michigan’s defense where they have five players with at least 332 snaps and at least a +24.7 overall grade. Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst boasts the top grade despite playing only 382 snaps; his +20.3 grade against the run and +19.8 pass rush grade both lead the team. Defensive tackle Chris Wormley is right behind him at +35.3 overall with a well-rounded +17.5 grade against the run and +17.1 pass rush grade that includes six sacks, five hits, and 31 hurries on 284 rushes. Florida will also see plenty of defensive end Taco Charlton (+24.9) and defensive tackle Willie Henry (+22.8) as Michigan’s defensive line has a distinct advantage against a Florida offensive line that has all but one starter grading negatively.
Michigan’s Jake Rudock
As poorly as Michigan’s quarterback struggled early in the season with five straight negative games and seven negatives in his first eight, Rudock deserves credit for turning it around and grading at +17.8 over the last four games. The improvement included an increase in accuracy percentage from 72.6 percent in the first eight games to 81.9 percent in his last four games, good for second in the nation over that time span. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has been so impressed with Rudock’s development that he’s touting him as an NFL prospect and postseason all-star game candidate. If Rudock continues his momentum into the Citrus Bowl, Michigan will be difficult to beat with a passing game to complement their strong defense.
Florida’s Jonathan Bullard
While Michigan’s defensive line has better depth, Florida’s line boasts the game’s best player in Bullard. He leads the nation with a +44.9 grade against the run to go with a respectable +8.9 mark as a pass rusher. Bullard moves up and down the line, excelling at reading where the blocks are coming from and defeating them more often than not. With defensive end Alex McCalister suspended for the game (second on team with 26 pressures), Bullard’s ability to get after the quarterback is even more important, and it’s the part of his game that NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on if he’s going to lock up a spot in the first round of the draft.
Florida’s run game
With Grier out, backup Treon Harris has had his struggles (-10.3), making the Gator rushing attack all the more important. Unfortunately, they’re not equipped to pound the ball with all but one offensive lineman grading positively as a run blocker (center Cameron Dillard). When McElwain took over, offensive line depth was the number one concern and that has been the case all season. The one positive has been junior running back Kelvin Taylor, who is already rumored to be eyeing the NFL draft. The raw numbers are not particularly impressive (248 carries, 985 yards, 4.0 yards/carry), but a +19.1 run grade that ranks 13th in the nation shows that Taylor made the most of the poor run blocking. While he’s not a breakaway threat, Taylor has the short-area quickness to maximize his offensive line and keeping the offense on schedule will be crucial against the Wolverines.
While both defenses should have their way, Florida’s offense has simply been overmatched against top teams, so they’ll need a near-perfect game to go with some turnover luck and big special teams plays. For Michigan, Rudock’s development will give the offense just the spark they need to earn the victory.
Michigan 19, Florida 10