View from the other side: Michigan vs. Florida in Peach Bowl

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jachai Polite leads Florida with 16 tackles for loss and 11 sacks.

Peach Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Records: Michigan 10-2, Florida 9-3

TV/radio: ESPN/950

Line: Michigan by 6

View from the other side

Nick de la Torre covers Florida football for He breaks down the Gators for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Florida Peach Bowl game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter @NickdelaTorreGC

Question: The last time you answered questions for us, Nick, Jim McElwain was the head coach heading into the 2017 opener. How different is Florida under Dan Mullen?

de la Torre: These guys may have the same numbers and names on the back of their jerseys, but this is an entirely different football team. It started with 29-year-old strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage. Just six weeks into his program, and Florida started actually looking different. I don’t know what the last strength staffs did with the guys, but it wasn’t working. Florida is a much more physical team, which was their downfall against Michigan in 2017.

This Florida team has played more as a team than as individuals — another hindrance that led to a miserable 2017 campaign. That’s the Jimmy’s and Joe’s, as far as the X’s and O’s Mullen and his offensive staff have done a good job of hiding Florida’s weaknesses with their play calling and scheme. On defense (defensive coordinator) Todd Grantham is aggressive and Florida, despite some shallow depth in the secondary, has the guys to allow him to do that. I think this Florida team is much more up to the task of taking on Michigan.

Question: Michigan players have been focused on getting the 11th win, but Florida can reach 10 wins. How much are the Gators using that for motivation?

de la Torre: Ten wins is certainly a benchmark number that Florida would love to hit, but I think their motivation for this game is more than that. When Florida lost to Georgia, their chances at a playoff were basically shot, but they still had a chance to win the SEC East if things shook out their way. When they lost the following week to Missouri all of those goals were dashed, so they needed a new goal. That was to get to a New Year’s Six Bowl game.

Florida achieved that, and I think the fact that they had to win their last three games has helped build up to this moment, whereas Michigan was a game away from playing in the College Football Playoff. I wonder if Michigan comes into this game flat because they were so close to something better. I think Florida is fired up to play in this game and fired up to try and beat Michigan for the first time ever.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks completed 67.6 percent of his passes (50-for-74) for 689 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in Florida's last three regular-season games.

Question: Which Feleipe Franks shows up — the one in the losses to Georgia and Missouri, or the late-season Franks?

de la Torre:  I’d lean more toward the one that showed up against Georgia and Missouri. The teams that Franks played well against were just bad football teams. South Carolina barely made a bowl game, Idaho is an FCS school and FSU just had their worst season in more than 30 years. South Carolina’s pass defense isn’t terrible, 66th in the country, and Franks was just serviceable. He was very good against Florida State, but the 'Noles have the 117th-ranked passing defense. I think Don Brown is one of the best defensive minds in college football and he’ll be able to throw things at Franks that will slow him down.

Question: The Wolverines are impressed with Florida’s defense. What do the Gators do well that can be a problem for Michigan?

de la Torre: Florida’s defense is fast and aggressive. That stems from Grantham and his play-calling style. They have a lot of speed off the edges. They have 32 sacks this year ,and Jachai Polite has 11 of those, two shy of a school record. They have a true shutdown cornerback in C.J. Henderson as well. Florida’s defense is also especially adept when its back is against the wall. I think they will be able to get pressure on Shea Patterson and we’ll need to see how Patterson handles that.

Question:  I’ve been asked this a lot from the Michigan perspective, so let me ask you: How sick are Gators fans of playing Michigan?

de la Torre: Yes and no. There was an audible groan when the matchup was announced. I mean Florida has played Michigan more in the last three years than they’ve played any of the SEC West schools other than LSU. On the other hand, Florida fans really want to beat Michigan and they think this is the best opportunity. Florida is excited to be at the Peach Bowl, and the general thought among Florida fans is that Michigan may be deflated to be here when they had an opportunity to be in the playoff. Then four starters announce that they won’t be playing and you have your best shot to finally beat the Wolverines.  

Van Jefferson leads Florida in receptions (31), receiving yards (439) and touchdown receptions (six) this season.

Three players to watch

Jachai Polite, LB: The junior defensive end is considering his options after the Peach Bowl, and some NFL analysts have projected him a first-round selection. And for good reason. The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Polite is a pass-rushing nightmare. He leads the team with 16 tackles for loss and has 11 sacks. Polite also has four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and five forced fumbles, which are tied for the FBS lead. He is tied for sixth nationally in sacks. Polite and Kentucky’s Josh Allen are the only two FBS players with at least 10 sacks and five forced fumbles.

Feleipe Franks, QB: The 6-6, 240-pound redshirt sophomore quarterback has completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 2,284 yards. He has 23 touchdowns against six interceptions. Franks is tied for 30th nationally with 23 TD passes, which is the highest single-season total by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow threw for 30 in 2008. Franks also is tied for 24th nationally in touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also has six 200-yard passing games, the most since Tebow’s seven in 2009.

Van Jefferson, WR: Jefferson, like Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, transferred from Ole Miss. The 6-2, 197-pound receiver is a redshirt junior who spend some time in Metro Detroit when his father, Shawn, worked with the Detroit Lions. Jefferson played his first few years of high school football at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. This season he has been the Gators’ leading receiver with 439 yards on 31 catches. He has scored six touchdowns. That ties Solomon Patton (2013) for the third-highest season total of touchdown receptions by a Gator.

Facts and figures

►Quick turnaround: No. 10 Florida and No. 20 Syracuse are the only teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings that won less than seven games last season. Part of the reason for the Gators’ improvement this season is primarily in the offensive statistics. They were tied for 111th in touchdown-interception ratio last season and now are tied for 13th. Florida was ranked 110th in total offense in 2017 and 47th this year. The offense was ranked 124th in sacks allowed and is now tied for 19th.

►Going for a big win: A win over Michigan would give Florida three victories over ranked teams for the first time since 2012, as well as its first season with multiple top-10 wins since 2012. Florida has won five of its last seven bowl games against ranked opponents, and it has a 9-8 all-time record against top-10 teams in bowl games. Before beating No. 5 LSU this season, Florida had lost nine of its last 11 games against top-five teams, a stretch that dated back to the start of the 2010 season. Six of those nine losses were by at least 21 points.

►Snapping the streak? Michigan is 4-0 against Florida. The teams' most recent meeting was the season opener in 2017 in the AdvoCare Classic in Arlington, Texas. The Gators had a 27-game winning streak in season openers entering that game but lost, 33-17. Michigan defeated Florida, 41-7, in the 2016 Citrus Bowl; 41-35 in the 2008 Capital One Bowl, which was Lloyd Carr’s final game as Michigan head coach; and 38-30 in the 2003 Outback Bowl.

Twitter: @chengelis