8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Michigan -7, Over/Under: 52
While one team looks to discard the disappointment of narrowly missing out on the College Football Playoff, another has their eyes squarely fixed on the future as the sixth-ranked Michigan Wolverines clash with the eleventh-ranked Florida State Seminoles in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Though they made a profoundly strong case to be included in the Final Four, Michigan (10-2, 7-2 in Big 10) was ultimately left out of the mix, as their epic overtime defeat to bitter rival Ohio State in the Regular Season Finale, no doubt left a damper on their otherwise sterling portfolio. Instead, Jim Harbaugh and his charges aim to become the tenth team in school history to win eleven or more contests. Defense has been the mandate this season in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines have suffocated their opponents with regularity; they have allowed just 12.5 points (2nd Overall) on a scant 252.7 Total Yards (2nd Overall), yielding just 4.1 Yards per Play. Whether it’s been against the pass or against the run, this unit has been outstanding, permitting only 135.9 yards through the air on 44.5% passing, while giving up 116.8 on the ground (13th Overall) on 3.1 Yards per Carry. In the eye of their storm is Jabrill Peppers, who has literally played everywhere for the Wolverines; perhaps best described simply as an athlete, the Junior has lined up at a litany of positions, including Cornerback, Safety, Linebacker, Tailback, Receiver, Punt Returner, Kick Returner, and even occasionally as a Wildcat Quarterback. His versatility was the prime reason he finished fifth in the Heisman Voting, the first Wolverine invited to the ceremony since Braylon Edwards back in 2004. With that said, his greatest impact has been arguably on the defensive side of the ball where he has totaled sixty-six tackles, thirteen for loss, three sacks, and an interception. Opposing Offensive Coordinators have been left with many a sleepless night in preparation of No. 5, but he’s far from the only Wolverine with claws and teeth on this Defense; Linebackers Mitch McCray (69 TKL, 13.5 TFL, 4.5 SK, 1 INT, 2 FF) and Ben Gedeon (92 TKL, 15.0 TFL, 4.5 SK) are as active as they come, while Linemen Taco Charlton (35 TKl, 11.5 TFL, 9.0 SK), Chris Wormley (35 TKL, 7.5 TFL, 5.5 SK), and Ryan Glasgow (36 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 FF) provide relentless pressure in the trenches, with Cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis (25 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 2 INT, 8 PD) and Channing Stribling (28 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 11 PD, 1 TD) have thus feasted on errant passes. Needless to say, Harbaugh and his Staff have seen to it that this group is stacked with NFL-caliber talent. Offensively, Wilton Speight has been a reliable triggerman for Michigan, exhibiting the requisite toughness that Harbaugh seeks in in the position; the Junior played through an injured collarbone against Ohio State, fighting through an ailment that would have compromised most Quarterbacks. Healthy again, the towering 6-6, 243 lbs. signal-caller completed 62.5% of his attempts for 2,375 yards (8.1 Y/A), seventeen touchdowns and six interceptions, linking frequently with Tight End Jake Butt (43 REC, 518 YDS, 4 TD) and Receiver Amara Darboh (52 REC, 826 YDS, 7 TD) for big plays. As many expected, Harbaugh has made quite an impact in Ann Arbor, posting back-to-back ten-win campaigns in his first two years on the job, and will be looking to conclude his second year on the job with yet another Bowl victory; the Wolverines hammered the Florida Gators 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl last year, so they’re no stranger to facing a Floridian powerhouse in their home state.
Meanwhile, 2016 was intended to be a bit of a rebuilding year for Florida State (9-3, 5-3 in ACC), who after sustaining some heavy losses to the NFL Draft over the past four years was left without the overwhelming reserves of talent that they’ve so commonly been associated with. Or so we thought. Even with a True Freshman Quarterback and a litany of new faces on Defense (along with a fairly average run through the ACC at 5-3), the Seminoles still find themselves on the fringes of the Top-10 and on the cusp of yet another ten-win season, which would be Jimbo Fisher’s sixth in seven years as the Head Coach in Tallahassee. Tonight’s jaunt in the Orange Bowl marks their seventh straight Bowl under Fisher’s watch, and their first appearance in this particular game since 2012 when they hammered Northern Illinois 31-10. In many ways, this team failed to meet expectations, but in others exceeded them, setting them up nicely in 2017. Starting under Center is Deondre Francois, who became the first True Freshman to start since Day One at Florida State since some dude named Jameis Winston, which come to think of it, turned out pretty well for all parties involved. While this particular campaign won’t end with a National Championship, Francois certainly impressed in his first voyage with the ‘Noles, completing 60.6% of his attempts for 3,128 yards (8.4 Y/A), eighteen touchdowns and six interceptions, while picking up another four scores with his legs. Perhaps his most impressive trait was how he deftly managed to spread the wealth to any number of targets; six different players caught at least twenty-five passes and totaled at least 300 receiving yards, including the likes of Travis Rudolph (53 REC, 807 YDS, 7 TD), Auden Tate (25 REC, 409 YDS, 6 TD), and Nygwan Murray (25 REC, 337 YDS, 3 TD). However, the most prominent weapon at his disposal is clearly Dalvin Cook, who after tonight’s game (he’s Draft Eligible) will go down as one of the most productive Tailbacks in school history, which is really saying something. The Junior rushed for 1,620 yards (6.0 Y/A) and eighteen touchdowns, while proving lethal in the passing game as well, reeling in thirty receptions for 426 yards and another score. Furthermore, his career rushing yards (4,318) and all-purpose yards (5,192) rank third all-time in ACC History, making this particular matchup against Michigan’s fearsome defensive front the one to watch in tonight’s game. Speaking of fearsome defensive fronts, the Seminoles aren’t exactly lacking in this department. Despite being ravaged by injuries, and thus having to turn to inexperienced depth, this unit has done alright for themselves, allowing 24.4 points (41st Overall) on 357.2 Total Yards, including 225.9 yards through the air and another 131.3 on the ground. Though they have developed a nasty habit of getting hammered in their losses; Florida State relinquished 17.3 points in their nine victories, but served up a staggering 45.7 points in their three losses. Fortunately, it appears that Fisher and his Staff have figured things out, for since losing to Clemson in late October, have strung together four consecutive victories, in which they yielded a scant 13.5 points per game. Pressure has been a huge component of their success, racking up a whopping forty-five sacks, led by DeMarcus Walker who with fifteen sacks in 2016, now ranks third all-time in Florida State History, which is again, saying quite a bit. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden tied for the national lead in interceptions (eight), playing the prime benefactor from all that pressure. Michigan can be rather conservative at times offensively, which could play right into the hands of this unit, creating the potential for a slugfest.