Feng: Can Michigan win toss-up game with Florida?

Ed Feng
Special to The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh and Jake Rudock

Will Michigan beat Florida in the Citrus Bowl to put a cherry on top of Jim Harbaugh's first season?

By most measures, Harbaugh has had a successful first campaign at Michigan with a 9-3 record. He might have won another game if not for a bobbled snap against Michigan State. He also could have lost another game if not for the heroics of back up QB Wilton Speight and a late goal-line stand against Minnesota.

Against rival Ohio State, Michigan ended the season on a bitter note, like tasting coffee grounds at the bottom of an otherwise pleasing cappucino. Can Michigan bounce back in its bowl game against Florida from the SEC?

My numbers give Florida a slight edge while the markets favor Michigan by 4. This difference most likely comes from personnel adjustments for Florida, which we'll discuss below.

However, another player adjustment could doom Michigan. Let's break down the matchups and situations that might tip a close game for one team or the other.

Michigan's offensive evolution from run to pass

For the first nine games of the season, Michigan was a run-first offense. UM ran the ball on 56.7 percent of plays, giving the offense a physical, "man ball" identity.

Then Michigan went away from the run game over the last three games of the season. Harbaugh asked QB Jake Rudock to throw on 63.6 percent of plays. It was most likely equal parts confidence in his seasoned QB and disgust with the progress of the offensive line and running backs.

The decision to throw more made sense against the porous secondary of Indiana. Rudock had 440 yards and six touchdown passes in a come-from-behind victory for Michigan. Throwing more made less sense against a stellar Penn State pass defense, but the line did an excellent job protecting Rudock in a critical road conference win.

Just like the Penn State game, throwing the ball doesn't make sense against Florida. The Gators have allowed 4.6 yards per pass attempt this season (numbers include sacks), second best in the nation.

Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III might be the one of the best in the nation, and the Gators' pass rush has sacked the QB on 10.5 percent of pass attempts.

Florida is weaker against the run than the pass. It has allowed 4.6 yards per carry, 39th in the nation, although schedule adjustments improve Florida's run defense rank. Michigan should not entirely abandon the ground game.

Overall, Florida has an elite defense that led this team to an impressive 10-3 season. It will make Michigan's offense look sluggish and hung over on New Year's Day.

The regression of Michigan's defense

Michigan's defense looked like the 1985 Chicago Bears during the beginning of the season. The Wolverines allowed 14 points total over a five-game stretch in which Michigan establish itself as a Big Ten contender.

The defense regressed in the second half of the season, as they weren't elite against either Michigan State or Minnesota. Then nose tackle Ryan Glasgow got hurt, and Indiana and Ohio State gashed the defense by running the ball.

Can the defense bounce back against Florida? It helps that the Gators can't run the ball, as they have gained 4.6 yards per carry, 91st in the nation (numbers do not include sacks like traditional college football statistics).

Florida will hand the ball off to Kelvin Taylor, who enraged coach Jim McElwain with a throat-slashing gesture earlier this season.

Florida's weakness in the run game suggests that the injury to Glasgow will not hurt Michigan like it did against Indiana and Ohio State.

When the Gators throw the ball, they will rely on QB Treon Harris, who took over after Will Grier got suspended for performance-enhancing drugs midway through the season. The numbers suggest this has hurt Florida's offense.

To adjust Florida's pass offense for the absence of Grier, we must account for strength of schedule. Grier played in the early part of the schedule with New Mexico State and East Carolina, while Harris mostly faced SEC teams. At The Power Rank, I take yards per attempt and adjust for schedule with a proprietary algorithm to rank pass offense.

For the season, Florida ranks 42nd in pass offense. With only Harris for the last seven games, Florida's pass offense rank drops to 60th.

With their inability to run the ball and Harris at QB, the Gators will struggle to score points against Michigan's defense. The markets predicts a total of 38.5 points in the game. Only 11 games this season have closed with a lower total.

Treon Harris

The health of Jabrill Peppers

My best predictions, which combine predictions from both points and yards-based metrics, predict a 1.2 point victory for Florida. However, the adjustment for Harris at QB for Florida tips the game in favor of Michigan. The markets currently have the Wolverines as a 4-point favorite.

However, none of this accounts for the possible absence of Jabrill Peppers. Peppers makes an enormous contribution in all three phases of the game for Michigan.

As a safety on defense, he makes big plays with raw athleticism. In addition, his coverage has improved over the course of the season.

Peppers also returns punts and kickoffs, and he's a big reason Michigan ranks 11th in ESPN's special teams numbers.

Harbaugh has also uses Peppers in the offense, as he's always a threat to break a big play.

With Peppers at full strength, Michigan has better than even odds to win this game. Without Peppers, the odds should favor Florida.

Ed Feng has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs the sports analytics site The Power Rank. Email Ed Feng here.