The Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines have only played each other twice in both school’s history — a history that dates back to 1879 for Michigan. Two storied programs, yet unfamiliar opponents.
Not everyone will be strangers on Friday afternoon. Do it all Michigan safety, return specialist and offensive weapon Jabrill Peppers and Jalen Tabor have a history, and friendly rivalry, that dates back to high school.
Peppers, a New Jersey native, and Tabor, a Maryland product faced off two times in high school with Peppers’ Paramus Catholic team getting the better of Tabor’s Friendship Academy during their junior and senior seasons. Peppers was the top-rated athlete in the class of 2014 and Tabor was a top-five cornerback on his own.
“We were down at the Under Armour game together,” Tabor added. “We’re from the same region. We were both two corners, number one and number two in the class.”
Tabor wouldn’t have to worry much about Peppers expect Michigan has made a concerted effort to get one of their most explosive playmakers the ball on offense, and not in a smoke and mirrors fashion, Peppers has eight catches for 79 yards and 18 carries for 72 yards (including a season-high seven against Ohio State) and two touchdowns. Peppers also returns punts and kicks for the Wolverines, so Jim Harbaugh has to be careful of Peppers’ snap count, but Tabor isn’t worried about the challenge Peppers could pose for Florida’s defense.
“They just want to get him the ball but you know we got 11 Jabrill Peppers on defense. Michigan, they only got one of him, we got 11 of him,” said Tabor. “Regardless of where he’s at we’ve seen him before. We faced Dalvin Cook, you know, [Derrick] Henry, we got good guys just like him in our league if not better. He’s a really good player though, really good player who goes both ways, we haven’t seen that yet. As far as what he does on offense we’ve seen that before.”
More than one player, Florida and Tabor are focusing on Michigan’s offense as a whole. The Maize and Blue average 387 yards a game, deploying a pro-style attack that Harbaugh brought with him from Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers.
“Just watching film he knows what he’s doing,” Tabor said of Harbaugh. “The way they run their stuff he knows what he’s doing. He’s going to be very efficient. We have a pro-style defense as well. I’d say that’s the matchup to watch, our defense vs. their offense.”
Defense has been the Gators strength and they’ll need to put together one of their best games of the season if Florida is to upset the favorite in Michigan. Working in Florida’s favor is the desire to play for the guys who are leaving. Vernon Hargreaves, Jon Bullard, Antonio Morrison and several other defensive players will lace it up for the last time this week. They’ve been emotional an vocal leaders the past two seasons and the desire to live up to the expectations and reputation that Florida’s defense has s driving the players as they prepare for the bowl game.
“We feel like as long as we do our job on the defensive side of the ball we can win the game because if you can’t score you can’t win,” Tabor said. “We feel like we have the players and coaching staff to dominate opposing offenses.”