Michigan ended last season with a blowout win over Florida in the Citrus Bowl that inflated expectations for the Wolverines entering 2016. A year later, coach Jim Harbaugh’s team will try to dominate another powerhouse from the Sunshine State in the postseason. The challenge will be more difficult for Michigan this time, as Florida State enters the Orange Bowl having won four consecutive games, including a 31–13 win over the Gators on Nov. 26. In the preseason it would have been reasonable to forecast a Seminoles-Wolverines matchup in the College Football Playoff, but their meeting in a different New Year’s Six Bowl should be just as intriguing, albeit with lower stakes.
Points of interest
1. Deondre Francois's chance for a bowl bump
Underclassmen often use bowl performances as springboards for major leaps the following season (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson is the most obvious example in 2016). A strong outing from Francois in the Orange Bowl could provide a tailwind heading into the off-season as he looks to improve on a redshirt freshman campaign in which he acquitted himself well as a first-year starter. Francois was overshadowed by a cast of really good quarterbacks in the ACC, and it didn’t help that he faced unfair comparisons to 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, but Francois showed enough promise to hint at the possibility of star-level performance later in his college career. Let’s see what he can do against one of the nation’s top defenses.
2. Finales for two stars?
Neither Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers nor Florida State’s Dalvin Cook have declared for the 2017 NFL draft, but both players are projected as first-round picks, including in SI.com’s latest mock. This will likely be the final college game for both players. Peppers and Cook no doubt would have preferred to end their college careers in the playoff, but they’ll have to settle for one of the top bowl games without national championship implications. For NFL fans interested in scouting potential additions to their favorite teams or college football obsessives hoping to get one last look at two transcendent talents, the Orange Bowl should be appointment viewing.
3. Skill-player auditions for Michigan
The Wolverines will lose their leading rusher (De’Veon Smith) and their three leading receivers (wideouts Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt) this off-season. The bowl game is an opportunity for younger players to stake their claims near the top of the depth chart a couple of months before spring practice opens. One player who could have taken advantage of the opportunity, wide receiver Grant Perry, is suspended after being charged with criminal sexual conduct. But others, like wide receivers Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford or tight ends Devin Asiasi and Tyrone Wheatley Jr., can show they’re capable of taking on some of the touches those veterans are leaving behind.
Burning question: Can Cook have success against Michigan's defense?
Cook was one of the nation’s best tailbacks this season, but he’s yet to face a defensive front as formidable as the Wolverines’. Michigan has yielded a Big Ten-low 3.14 yards per rush, and it ranks third nationally in Football Outsiders’ Rushing S&P + statistic. While this will mark Cook’s first matchup with the Wolverines, it won’t be his first brush with a Don Brown defense. The current Michigan defensive coordinator was in charge of the Boston College unit that limited Cook to a regular season-low 54 yards on 15 carries yards in September 2015. In the Orange Bowl, the Florida State stud should face a similar scheme, only with better athletes trying to shut him down.
X-factor: Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight
Speight suffered an undisclosed injury (one report said it was a broken collarbone) in Michigan’s 14–13 loss at Iowa on Nov. 12 and sat out the Wolverines’ 20–10 win over Indiana the following week. Reports indicated the junior quarterback would be out for the remainder of the season, but he returned to play in the rivalry game against Ohio State on Nov. 26. The time off before the Orange Bowl provided Speight more time to recover, so he could deliver a better showing than what he managed against the Buckeyes, when he tossed two interceptions and registered his worst quarterback rating since September.
Statistically speaking: 118
That's the number of plays 10 yards or longer that Michigan has allowed this season, which is tied for lowest in the nation. For Florida State to break down the Wolverines’ defense, it will need to rip off at least a few long gains, particularly if Cook can’t get going on the ground. Michigan might have the best pass defense in the country, and Florida State ranks 84th nationally in an S&P + measure of passing-game explosiveness. There could be a lot of three-and-outs for Francois and Co. unless they hit on some big plays.
While Florida State has dominated its last three opponents by a combined score of 121–34, none of those opponents (Boston College, Syracuse and Florida) come close to matching Michigan’s talent and experience on both sides of the ball. Unlike two other teams (LSU and Stanford) in non-playoff bowls, the Seminoles will have their star tailback around to power their offense. But Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh is probably still fuming over that controversial fourth-down spot in the Ohio State game, and he’ll take out his frustration on a Florida State squad that lost to the two best teams it faced (Louisville and Clemson) and hasn’t beaten anyone of note this season.