The two Jims, Harbaugh and McElwain, headline a pair of programs that can easily relate to one another in this year’s Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
Harbaugh and McElwain were the most talked about coaching hires leading into the 2015 season, and both delivered early in the year. Florida finished the regular season at 10-2 and earned a trip to the SEC Championship Game. Michigan finished 9-3 and on the cusp of its own spot in a conference title game. The two proud programs got a burst of hope from their new leaders and sound defense, but each could use one final push to keep that momentum flowing into the offseason.
This year’s trip to Orlando could be an interesting sneak peek at a 2017 meeting between Florida and Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Texas to open the regular season. If both continue on the trajectory they started this season, that matchup could have a lot more at stake.
Most intriguing matchup: Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock vs. Florida’s cornerbacks.
The Wolverines’ graduate transfer under center has made big strides under Harbaugh’s tutelage. In his first three quarters of football at Michigan, Rudock threw three interceptions in 31 pass attempts. In the last seven games, he’s thrown only three picks on 222 pass attempts. His increased productivity, especially when connecting with team MVP Jehu Chesson, will be tested against the Gators.
Vernon Hargreaves is widely considered the top NFL prospect at cornerback in college football this season. He has four interceptions and four break-ups in the relatively rare occasions in which opposing teams threw in his direction. Harbaugh claimed that Rudock was a bona fide NFL prospect last month. He’ll have a chance to prove it against a Florida secondary that allowed only 5.8 yards per attempt during the regular season.
Player on Michigan who could have a big game: Defensive lineman Willie Henry could spend a good portion of his time in Orlando camped in Florida’s backfield. The redshirt junior led Michigan this season with 6.5 sacks. Florida gave up 43 sacks this season, most among Power Five conference teams. The Wolverines defensive line struggled down the stretch when injuries depleted their depth, but a month of rest should help Henry and fellow sack candidate Chris Wormley get fresh legs.
Keys to victory: Michigan was at its best this season when controlling field position, forcing opponents to travel long distances for points and capitalizing on short drives on offense. All three phases may need to help keep the Citrus Bowl turf tilted in the Wolverines’ direction. Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers are capable of making a difference in the return game. A couple big bursts on offense will be needed to loosen up Florida’s very athletic defense. Turnovers have been hard to come by for Michigan’s defense (dead last in the FBS with 10 takeaways), but one or two field-flipping interceptions or fumbles could end up being the difference in what promises to be a low-scoring affair.