Peach Bowl preview: Can Florida solve Michigan's stout defense?
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Peach Bowl
Who:
No. 10 Florida Gators (9-3, 5-3 SEC) vs. No. 7 Michigan Wolverines (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten)
When: Saturday, Dec. 29, 12 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga.
TV: ESPN
Odds: Michigan -6
Over/Under: 51

Tale of the tape

2018 Stats Florida Michigan
Points Per Game 34.5 (32) 36.8 (19)
Points Allowed/Game 20.4 (21) 17.6 (12)
Rush Yards/Game 209.5 (26) 214.3 (25)
Pass Yards/Game 217.2 (76) 212.9 (80)
Total Yards/Game 426.7 (47) 427.3 (44)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 169.7 (74) 116.6 (17)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 175.1 (10) 145.9 (2)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 344.8 (27) 262.5 (1)
Third-Down Offense 40.8% (54) 49.4% (7)
Third-Down Defense 37.2% (T-47) 32.1% (16)
Red-Zone Offense 82.4% (80) 87.3% (40)
Red-Zone Defense 90.0% (T-111) 92.0% (122)
Team Sacks/Game 2.67 (T-32) 2.58 (T-37)
Turnover Differential +10 (T-10) +7 (T-22)

(Division I rank in parentheses)

Season review

Florida

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2018 could not have gone much better for Dan Mullen. In his first year as the Gators' coach, he took an undercooked quarterback and a roster devoid of talent and led them to their first top-10 finish since 2012.

This isn't a top-10 team (they finished 14th in S&P+), but Mullen will certainly relish the marketing.

The Gators ripped off an impressive five-game winning streak after an early-season loss to Kentucky, including triumphs over Tennessee, Mississippi State, and LSU, and the team's come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt was evidence of how different this year's squad is to last year's.

Disappointing losses against Georgia and Missouri followed, before the team ended the season with three wins, edging past South Carolina and waxing Idaho and Florida State.

Mullen took the same personnel that finished 108th in offensive S&P+ a year ago and turned them into the 27th best offensive unit in the country, one that's been very efficient.

However, explosive plays have been an issue all season, evidence of the team's lack of star-caliber talent. Florida hits too few and concedes too many. In terms of big-play rate - how often a team concedes plays of 20 yards or more - Todd Grantham's feast-or-famine defense ranks 61st. That stat is noisy, but Grantham's unit has been guilty of making youthful mistakes that they should have grown out of by now.

Overall, it hasn't been a vintage year for Florida, but Mullen clearly has the team trending in the right direction. A win over Michigan this Saturday would cap off a great year.

Michigan

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All of Michigan's brilliant work this season was undone by the shellacking it took at the hands of Ohio State.

Jim Harbaugh finally seemed to have the horses to match Urban Meyer's, and the Buckeyes had been reeling all year. A win would all but ensure an inaugural spot for Michigan in the playoff. The Wolverines had everything set up for a changing-of-the-guard type of win.

Nope. Meyer's guys obliterated the Michigan men 62-39. Don Brown's formidable defense sunk from first in S&P to fifth. It's as bad a loss as Michigan has suffered in the modern era.

Ohio State looked much more athletic than the Wolverines, but Florida doesn't have those kinds of athletes. Harbaugh will spin this game as proof that Michigan is heading in the right direction, but it will take a long time to get the taste of the Buckeyes loss out of their mouth.

Players to watch

Florida DE Jachai Polite

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Polite has been Florida's breakout star of 2018. He is a prototypical dip-and-rip rusher who makes his hay in the team's potent sub packages.

The edge rusher wins with his get-off, a combination of burst, leverage, and dexterity. Once he is engaged with his lineman, it's game over. Polite can sink to spots opposing linemen simply cannot.

He has racked up 11 sacks, 16 tackles for a loss, and 16 run stuffs while working in a deep rotation this year. No SEC defender outside of Quinnen Williams has come close to that kind of production.

However, Polite's no-show outing against Georgia has to be concerning for Florida, as the Bulldogs were the lone team on its schedule that runs a similar offense to Michigan.

Polite didn't have a meaningful play in the Georgia game until midway through the third quarter. He was consistently stonewalled by opposing tackles who had the foot speed to slide out against him, and the agility to counter and re-anchor as he looked to dart back toward the inside shoulder:

There aren't many athletes playing tackle in college football who can keep up with Polite, but Georgia had a pair of them, and so does Michigan.

The Bulldogs also used Polite's speed against him by allowing him to get depth. The edge rusher wants to get deep in the backfield, run the arc, and sack the quarterback; he cares little for rush-lane discipline.

As long as the offensive line was able to hold the interior, quarterback Jake Fromm had plenty of room to climb up in the pocket, extend plays, and pick up crucial first downs:

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, who can take any run to the house, presents a greater running threat than Fromm. Polite needs to be conscious of how deep he is in the backfield; he cannot get caught upfield.

Florida WR Van Jefferson

Florida will expect to see a ton of man coverage from Don Brown's imperious defense. Someone is going to need to beat one-on-one coverage down the field, and Jefferson is the most likely guy.

The ex-Ole Miss Rebel easily had the most targets of any receiver for the Gators this year. He's averaging 15.2 yards per catch and has been a throw-it-and-hope favorite of quarterback Feleipe Franks.

Michigan QB Shea Patterson

Gregory Shamus / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Florida must get after Shea Patterson.

The junior is at his best off script. His improvisational skills inject a degree of fireworks into an otherwise stodgy mess. The Gators have to maintain their discipline and contain him inside the pocket, forcing him to win with his arm rather than his legs.

Patterson has been more accurate when he's throwing on the move. When he's asked to take a five- or seven-step drop on deep play-action shots, he consistently sails easy throws.

Michigan LB Joshua Uche

Starting linebacker Devin Bush's decision to skip Michigan's bowl game to concentrate on the NFL draft is a major blow to the Wolverines.

Built like a running back, he offered coverage skills and instincts you rarely, if ever, see out of the middle linebacker spot. In the era of pace-and-space, matchup football, he was the cheat code who could cover every blade of grass and every body type. He can't be replicated.

Expect to see more traditional man-coverage and blitz assignments from Uche, who's bigger and lankier than Michigan's star linebacker, rather than the free-roaming, freelancing assignments given to Bush.

Biggest mismatch

Michigan DE Chase Winovich vs. Florida OT Martez Ivey

Ivey, Florida's left tackle, has never lived up to his recruiting hype as the top tackle prospect in his class. Indeed, his lack of development has been made even more pronounced by the team's success on the opposite side. The right side of Florida's line has been much improved compared to the Jim McElwain era, but Ivey continues to struggle.

He's at his best when he can get out and run, whether it's pulling across the formation or kicking out as the point-man on outside-zone or stretch runs. When he has to wash someone down inside, though, he routinely gets beat to his set point by more sprightly athletes:

Ivey is prone to oversetting, forcing him to lunge and lose the hand fight or let more agile pass-rushers knife back inside, which is a disaster for a run game. Michigan edge menace Chase Winovich, for his part, feasts on attacking inside and undercutting blocks.

In the passing game, Ivey lacks the anchor needed to absorb the blows of power rushers:

Winovich is going to feel like a hurricane coming at the left side of Florida's line. All hair, tenacity, and technique, Winovich gobbles up opposing blockers, and beating them inside is his trademark:

He's already notched 14.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, and 21 run stuffs this year. Don Brown will scheme ways to get Winovich one-on-one vs. Ivey. Don’t be stunned if those numbers balloon further this weekend.

Northwestern did a good job of taking Winovich away – for a half – by optioning him and not exposing either tackle to one-on-one blocks in the run game. Florida should pinch some of those tactics, regardless of where Winovich lines up.

Florida's key to victory

Own the early downs: On offense, Florida can't rely on Feleipe Franks vs. Michigan's formidable pass rush on third downs. It has to get something going on the ground on early downs to give Franks and the passing game a chance.

On defense, again, Florida has to find success on first and second down. Michigan has the fourth-best third-down success rate in the country and has the second-best third-down distance average to boot. Get them in third-and-medium or further, however, and the Wolverines' offense stumbles.

Florida's only chance is to hold its own on the early downs and then allow Polite, Zuniga, and Grantham's creative blitz designs to take over on third down.

Michigan's keys to victory

Win in base coverage: Don Brown has made his reputation as the man who’s never met a blitz he doesn't love. Michigan will bring pressure whenever and wherever it wants, offensive formation be damned. But Brown still favors a heavy dose of man coverage on early downs, with all the fun and games coming on third down.

Michigan's base coverage is a Cover-1 hole look: man coverage across the board with a single-deep safety and one linebacker sitting in the "low hole" as a zone defender. The linebacker's job is to read the quarterback's eyes and jump underneath routes.

With Uche filling in for Bush, winning in base coverage becomes even more important. Brown won't be able to fall back on some of his more complex designs.

Run the ball: Georgia's offense is the closest Florida has seen to Michigan's, and the Bulldogs were able to churn out five yards per carry against the Gators. Georgia kept Florida off-balance by throwing when the Gators had their heavy package in and running when they rotated in their pass-rushers. Michigan should follow suit.

Prediction

Michigan 31, Florida 17

__________

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Peach Bowl preview: Can Florida solve Michigan's stout defense?
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