The optics in play for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh this season were plain to see. The Wolverines’ struggles to win a big games against their rivals or play for a conference title have haunted him during his four seasons in Ann Arbor, even though three of those campaigns resulted in 10 wins.
Another offseason of questions about the direction of the Michigan program and Harbaugh’s ability to give it that final push back to college football’s top tier are sure to come after the Wolverines’ 41–15 loss to Florida in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Michigan played without four key starters, including defensive end Rashan Gary and linebacker Devin Bush, who both declared for the NFL draft and are expected to go in the first round. Leading rusher Karan Higdon also skipped the bowl game to prepare for his pro career.
Despite a blowout 62–39 loss to Ohio State in the regular season finale, the Wolverines still entered the game ranked No. 1 in yards allowed and second in pass defense, giving up 17.6 points a game. But that stout defense was exposed time and time again with the crafty playcalling of Gators coach Dan Mullen, who set up his receivers to make easy catches, unleashed quarterback Feleipe Franks’ running ability and, instead of trying to run into the middle of Michigan’s defense, dialed up jet sweeps and option plays at the perfect times.
Michigan, who lost to Florida for the first time in five meetings between the two schools, got the game’s first touchdown on a Donovan Peoples-Jones nine-yard catch from Shea Patterson. The Wolverines’ junior quarterback was largely ineffective after that, finishing 22-of-36 for 236 yards with one touchdown. He was picked off twice by Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who took his second interception to the house to cap the scoring, and was sacked five times.
Michigan’s special teams did its part, providing a spark in the second quarter when J’Marick Woods got his hands on a Florida punt, but the Wolverines had to settle for a 48-yard Jake Moody field goal after gaining no yards on the ensuing possession. The Wolverines blocked a second punt that went through the back of the end zone for a safety, but their ensuing possession ended with Gardner-Johnson’s exclamation point pick-six, setting off a celebration on the Florida sideline.
The Gators waited patiently for their chances and finally took the lead for good before halftime thanks to the legs of Franks. On a 75-yard march to a three-point halftime lead, Franks had runs of 30 and 15 yards before hitting paydirt on a 20-yard scamper. Franks threw for 174 yards and added 74 on the ground with two total touchdowns, ending his roller-coaster year on a high note.
After being benched in a home loss against Missouri during which he was booed loudly as Gators fans cheered for his backup Kyle Trask, Franks redeemed himself the next week, but only after Florida again found itself down, trailing South Carolina by 17 points in the third quarter. Franks led a furious comeback and had the last word in the victory, with three total touchdowns and a hush for the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium crowd after his game-winning score in the 35–31 win.
That game began a rare offensive hot streak, in which the Gators gained 500-plus yards in each of their final three regular season games after reaching that threshold only once before November. Florida gained 427 yards on Saturday, converting eight of their 16 third-down chances and scoring on each of their five red-zone possessions at the expense of coordinator Don Brown’s vaunted defense.
Michigan’s meltdown was complete when Lamical Perine raced untouched for 53 yards on a third-and-20 draw to put Florida put by three touchdowns. The Wolverines gave up a season-high 257 yards on the ground to Gators.
As Michigan and its fan base fume over this latest addition to Harbaugh’s 1–3 bowl record, the Wolverines will be losing some key contributors. Still, 2019 figures to set up well for another run at conference and national hardward, with the news that Patterson is returning to school for his senior season.
Florida will look to continue to build itself into a challenger to SEC East champion Georgia, with the hope of being back in Atlanta for the SEC title game and beyond. For now, the Gators have an embarrassment of one of the nation’s most respected defenses as a springboard into the offseason.