Florida State outlasts Michigan to prevail in Orange Bowl for the ages

Saturday December 31st, 2016

Good luck topping this one, College Football Playoff. One night before the highly anticipated national semifinals, Florida State and Michigan played an Orange Bowl for the ages, with the Seminoles prevailing 33–32 on Deondre Francois’s 12-yard completion to Nyqwan Murray with 36 seconds left.

It was a wild game full of dramatic swings of momentum and it will almost certainly top the lists of the best games of bowl season. Here are three thoughts on the Seminoles’ win.

1. After three and a half quarters of defensive dominance, a shootout suddenly broke out

The majority of Friday’s game was defined by shutdown defense occasionally interrupted by a big strike. That format allowed Florida State to build a 20–6 lead by halftime and a 27–15 lead by early in the fourth quarter. Though far from perfect, the Seminoles made fewer mistakes and capitalized on Michigan’s errors.

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The Noles caught the Wolverines in a sluggish start with a quick six-play, 75-yard scoring drive to open the game and then capitalized on a rare coverage bust with a 92-yard touchdown pass to Murray. A 71-yard run by Dalvin Cook on third-and-22 set up Florida State’s third touchdown of the game, a three-yard run by Francois early in the fourth quarter.

In between those big plays, the Michigan defense that entered Friday’s game ranked second in the country in yards allowed per play showed its strength, stymieing any semblance of a passing attack and mostly keeping Cook contained. Still, the breakdowns that led to the explosion plays were an unusual failure for a unit that tied for the fewest plays allowed of 10 or more yards.

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Michigan’s offense lacked even those infrequent breakthroughs and settled for three field goals, including one when Murray’s muffed punt gave the Wolverines the ball at the Florida State one-yard line. The defense was the first maize-and-blue unit to reach the end zone as Mike McCray intercepted a dreadful pass from Francois and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter.

However, trailing by 12 with only half of the fourth quarter remaining, Michigan's urgency produced an offensive rhythm that put Florida State on its heals. The Seminoles’ defensive line, which had feasted on the Wolverines and helped Florida State rack up over 15 tackles for loss, suddenly was off balance. Quarterback Wilton Speight had time to throw and an anemic ground game found holes.

Michigan pulled off a remarkable comeback, scoring twice in the span of 3:25 on an eight-yard Speight pass to fullback Khalid Hill and a 30-yard run by Chris Evans. It seemed that the Wolverines had gotten clutch at just the right time.

But Florida State found its poise, too. Trailing for the first time all game, the Seminoles quickly marched into field goal range with a 66-yard kick return by Keith Gavin. Gavin hesitated in the end zone as he considered kneeling before charging and capitalizing on a Michigan kick coverage team that likely saw an opportunity to drop Gavin deep in Florida State territory and lost lane discipline. Already at the Michigan 34, Francois did the rest, with Murray leaping over cornerback Jourdan Lewis to haul in the game-winning score.

2. Deondre Francois will determine whether Florida State is very good or great next season

The Orange Bowl win gives coach Jimbo Fisher his fifth straight 10-win season in Tallahassee, and all signs point to the Seminoles vying for another double-digit-win campaign in 2017. However, whether next season goes down as merely another successful one or as a truly remarkable one hinges on the improvement Francois makes between now and the season opener against Alabama on Sept. 2.

There’s a lot to like about Francois after his redshirt freshman season. His arm strength is solid. He can extend plays with his feet and could become more of a true dual-threat if Fisher allows him to run more. As his performance in crunch time on Friday clearly indicated, he can be clutch. And there’s no doubt about his toughness. Francois showed that again Friday when he missed only one play after taking a brutal shot to the ribs from Michigan’s 6’ 6”, 272- pound defensive end Taco Charlton.

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However, as of right now, Francois is simply too inaccurate to be counted on to lead Florida State to an ACC title and a College Football Playoff berth. He was truly boom-or-bust Friday, completing on 33.3% of his passes for 222 yards. And many of those incompletions weren’t deep balls or even thrown into tight windows but just outright misfires. Francois limited his turnovers this season, throwing only seven interceptions, but five of those picks came in his final seven games.

The Seminoles have the pieces to contend for a playoff spot next season, even with the likely departure of star running back Dalvin Cook (who put on quite a show in what will surely be his final game for Florida State, rushing for 145 yards and catching three passes for 62 yards). As its performance against Michigan showed, the Seminoles’ young defense has made great strides after a rough start and should be a shutdown unit in 2017.

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For a team led by a coach with the quarterback development prowess of Fisher, having all the pieces to make a run at a national title except for some questions under center is a pretty good place to be. But without improved accuracy by Francois, it’s hard to see Florida State avoiding a few slip-ups.

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3. Michigan enters the unknown

This loss will likely sting extra painfully for the Wolverines as they say goodbye to a large chunk of key contributors on both sides of the ball. The defense will need to be almost completely replaced and must find new stars with Lewis graduating and Peppers (who missed Friday’s game with a hamstring injury) likely leaving early for the NFL draft. The offense confronts its own question marks, particularly at the skill positions where leading rusher De’Veon Smith and top receivers Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt all depart. Though with fewer early entries to the NFL draft, the losses approach the massive exodus of talent Ohio State experienced after last season.

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For Jim Harbaugh, that means relatively uncharted territory. We know he can coach; he’s done that successfully at every stop on his résumé. And we know he can recruit; Michigan’s 2016 class ranked seventh in the nation, according to Scout.com, and its 2017 class currently sits at No. 2. But can he complete the package with the in-between step of developing talent to its full potential?

The evidence for that is less clear. Harbaugh spent only three years at San Diego, and while his fourth and final year at Stanford was his best year, that was largely influenced by Andrew Luck’s stardom. The coming years at Michigan will offer the clearest proof of whether Harbaugh can develop the star high school talent he brings into the program into star college players. His ability to do so will dictate the continued success of the Wolverines, beginning next season.

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