In just a few short days, the first year of the Jim McElwain era as head football coach of the Florida Gators will be over.
In a game that is both a massive surprise and subsequent letdown (depending on if you are looking at the game before the season started or when the Gators were 10-1), the Gators take on Jim Harbaugh’s University of Michigan program in a game that matches two of the most improved teams in the country with two Coach of the Year candidates in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
While both teams entered the year with major question marks at the quarterback and skill positions, while replacing major defensive pieces, both teams surprised ending with only three losses each relying mostly on their defenses and spectacular coaching.
While the Gators are likely now disappointed to be playing in the Citrus Bowl, rather than a playoff game or Sugar Bowl, it is a testament to the expectations that this team blew out of the water, where many fans were just hopeful for any Bowl game.
As Florida plans out their game plan for their game on Friday, let’s take a look at this Michigan program.
Michigan’s offense, under the coaching of Tim Drevno, finished the season all over the offensive board in their first season together. Statistically moving the ball, they struggled ranking 85th in the country in yards per rush attempt and 83rd in the country in yards per pass completion, however, they ranked 26th in the country in 3rd down conversions, 32nd in completion percentage, 55th in scoring, and 5th in red zone conversions – so if you were to compare them to a character in Aesop’s Fables you could compare them to the tortoise (which is quite literal considering they finished 115th in offensive pace).
The passing attack led by quarterback Jake Rudock, who is coached by former Florida Gator Jedd Fisch, started to really come on over the last four games. Through the first eight games of the season, Rudock was only averaging 180 yards per game with 0.75 touchdowns per game and 0.88 interceptions per game – all in all, very average. However, over the last four games, Rudock averaged 324 yards per game with 11 total passing touchdowns to only two interceptions.
The Gators will have to worry about Mackey Award winning Tight End Jake Butt who ranked fourth in the NCAA in receiving yards by a tight end. Butt averaged nearly 13 yards per reception on four catches per game. At 6-foot-6, 248 pounds, the Gators will face their toughest tight end test of the season.
Rushing the ball, Michigan has stayed pretty consistent all season – run the ball well against teams that have poor rush defenses and struggle against those with great. Against teams that rank in the top-25 rushing defenses in the country, Michigan averaged 99 yards per game on the ground on an average of 33 rushes per game. Against teams ranked below 25, they averaged 179.5 yards per game on 39 rushes per game – or a difference of 1.3 yards per carry.
Former Florida Gators Linebacker Coach then Defensive Coordinator then Head Coach D.J. Durkin turned Michigan Defensive Coordinator D.J. Durkin helped lead the Wolverines to the 3rd ranked overall defense (based on strength of schedule) – a truly dominant defense. The Wolverines rank 1st in the country in pass efficiency defense and yards per pass attempt allowed, while ranking 4th in total yards allowed, 7th in lowest percentage of plays by opposing offenses that end up in a first down or touchdown, 11th in scoring defense, 30th in sacks, and 25th in rush defense. All in all, a great defense.
But as we all know, D.J. Durkin has left Michigan to become the head coach of the University of Maryland, and now we will truly see if it was the players or the scheme.
Of players of note, safety Jabrill Peppers is the name you have likely heard the most news about. The very talented freshman has 10 pass break-ups and ranks second on the team. Lining up in front of him is junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis who leads the team with 19 PBUs and has two interceptions.
One thing that Michigan’s defense were not dominant at is, turnovers. This season, Michgian only had 10 total turnovers and only three over the last seven games (one fumble, two interceptions) – their turnover rankings were 96th in interceptions per game and 127th in opponent fumbles lost – ranking 126th in the country in forced turnovers.