Michigan Wolverines vs. Florida Gators, Friday January 1, 1 p.m. ET
Both of these schools badly needed a hero after years of crushingly-disappointing performances - at least from the perspective of their fans. Both had endured a rough coaching change in an attempt to replace a legend - Michigan had got it wrong twice. They were both once-proud programs that had gone nowhere in a hurry. It's still too soon to get too excited about things - it has just been one year - but both fan bases sure think that they have found that hero. Michigan fans would name their kids after Jim Harbaugh without hesitation, and Florida and Jim McElwain are enjoying a torrid love affair. They have similarly done a lot in a short time with what was previously a mess, but they come from very different places to do it.
Harbaugh is the prodigal son - a legendary Michigan quarterback returning to where he belongs to fill the shoes of the legendary coach that all Michigan fans worship. It's a Disney movie in real life. McElwain played his college ball at Eastern Washington, and the closest thing he had to a tie to Florida before he was hired was that as offensive coordinator at Alabama he played Florida in the SEC Championship game in 2008 and 2009. Both guys have done little wrong in the eyes of their fans and the national media this year. Only one can go out on a high note, though. It makes for a very compelling matchup.
Citrus Bowl Betting Storylines
There has been a bit of drama on the coaching front for the Wolverines, and it could have been a distraction if it hadn't resolved as well as it did. The defense has really driven this team this year, and the architect of that defense - coordinator D.J. Durkin - has left the team to become the head coach at Maryland. That is a loss, but it's not as significant as it could be here for three reasons. First, Durkin had spent the previous five seasons at Florida, finishing up by acting as interim coach for the bowl game last year. That means that the bulk of the Florida roster knows Durkin well, and it could have been tougher than usual for Durkin to manage to surprise his opponent. Second, the Wolverines have a very able interim coordinator - defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who had previously been the team's defensive coordinator for four years, and has filled the same role with the Baltimore Ravens and at Florida during the 2006 national champion season. There won't be any letdown here. Finally, after looking like they weren't getting anywhere with hiring Durkin's replacement the team announced a surprising home run hire at the start of bowl practices, bringing in Don Brown, the architect of the nationally top-ranked defense at otherwise pathetic Boston College. Excitement is very high, and that will motivate the players.
We can expect a lot of things from this game, but what we shouldn't expect is an all-time quarterback battle for the ages. Michigan's Jake Rudock, a graduate transfer from Iowa, has really improved as the season has gone along, but he was sporting a shoulder sling after the Ohio State loss that ended Michigan's season and may not be at his best. Florida has really struggled since Treon Harris was forced to take over for Will Grier, who was suspended after testing positive for PEDs. Neither quarterback is in for an easy day - Michigan's defense ranks third in the country against the pass, while Florida is 10th. Whichever offense can set the tone early on in this game and find ways to operate and get comfortable is going to be in a strong position. For a number of reasons - experience of QB, depth of offensive tools, recent form - it is easier to imagine Michigan doing that than Florida.
Citrus Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with Michigan favored by four points. That has since climbed slightly to 4.5. Three-quarters of all bets have been on the Wolverines, so the line movement is as expected. If anything we might expect to see it climb again slightly before bowl time barring a major development. The total is low at just 40.
The Wolverines are 5-1 ATS in their last six games following a loss. They are just 3-8 ATS in their last 11 nonconference games and 1-3-1 ATS in their last five neutral-site games. The Gators also rebound well - they are 5-0 ATS following a loss. They are 5-0 ATS in their last five neutral site games, and 5-1 ATS in their last six bowl games.
Michigan vs. Florida Citrus Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
I admittedly struggle to be objective in this one, but I don't think I am being blinded by personal bias when I say that Michigan is the clear play here. Their offense has been much more effective lately than Florida's, and they have tools on that offense that they are able to use more effectively. Michigan's defense will be able to make it a very long day for Harris. Michigan should be able to wear down the Gators and come out with a win and a cover.
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