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Michigan vs. Florida: Citrus Bowl preview

Citrus Bowl preview: Michigan and Florida feature two of the top defenses in the country, but Wolverines quarterback Jake Rudock gives his team a slight edge.

No. 14 Michigan (9-3) vs. No. 19 Florida (10-3)

Jan. 1, 1:00 p.m. ET (ABC)

Reason to watch

You’ve got two of college football’s marquee programs, each of which has roared back in 2015 after years in the doldrums, squaring off on New Year’s Day. That pretty much sells itself. Plenty of impact players will be on display, like Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves and Jonathan Bullard and Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Jake Butt, and the coaching matchup of Jim Harbaugh vs. Jim McElwain is an excellent one. Points will likely be at a premium, but good defense is entertaining in its own right, and these teams feature two of the best Ds in the country. Both teams will be motivated to cap off their comeback seasons with a win, creating what should be one of the most competitive (if not exactly thrilling) bowl matchups.

Keep an eye on: Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock 

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After a shaky, turnover-filled start to the season, Rudock was playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten by the end of the year. The Weston, Fla., native ended up carrying the load for a Michigan offense that couldn’t ever fully get the run going. In what figures to be a defensive struggle, and with Treon Harris a less capable signal-caller, Rudock’s play is the biggest X-factor in this matchup. Will he keep his hot streak going? Or will he revert to his turnover-happy ways against an athletic Gators D and the best cornerback tandem he’s faced this year in Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor? Rudock also has to shake off a shoulder injury sustained in the season finale against Ohio State.

Did you know...? 

Michigan and Florida met in the Citrus Bowl once before, in the 2007 season, and my how much has happened to the programs in the intervening years. The Wolverines saw Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke go a combined 46–42 over the next seven seasons before Harbaugh arrived. The Gators got three more years out of Urban Meyer, then suffered through Will Muschamp’s 28–21 tenure until they hired McElwain. Both programs appear to be in solid shape now, but looking at then and now provides a perfect illustration of the instability in college football.

Final analysis

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​This will undoubtedly be a defensive struggle. Michigan and Florida are sixth and eighth, respectively, in yards allowed per play nationally. Neither team runs the ball all that well, and trying to mount drives through the air is no more promising given the strength of each team’s secondary. The duel between Hargreaves and Lewis—arguably the two best cover corners in the country—will be a fascinating subplot. Just one slip-up, and an ensuing big play, could be all it takes to swing the game. But while neither team figures to score much, Michigan clearly has the more potent offensive attack given the way the Gators stumbled to the finish with Harris behind center. Look for the Rudock-Butt connection to be the biggest source of offense for either team and drive the Wolverines to a close win.

The pick: Michigan 20, Florida 13