Michigan finished No. 7 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, and its reward from the Selection Committee was its second New Year's Six bowl bid in Jim Harbaugh's four seasons. This time against a familiar foe, albeit in an unfamiliar bowl.
The Wolverines are headed to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl for the first time in school history. While the surroundings are new, the opponent is not. Michigan will face Florida in a bowl game for the third time in 16 years, as well as the third time in Harbaugh's four seasons.
The Wolverines have won all of those previous matchups. Two of them came when assistant coach Jim McElwain was guiding the Gators. But he's off to be the next head coach at Central Michigan, avoiding an uncomfortable reunion.
Both the Gators and Wolverines exceeded their preseason ranking and Vegas win totals to rebound from underachieving 2017 campaigns. Florida was unranked in the preseason AP Poll with a win total of 7.5, and finished 10th in the final regular season rankings with a 9-3 record. The Wolverines were 14th with a preseason win total of 9, and finished 10-2.
The two traditional powerhouses uncharacteristically combined for 12 losses a season ago, leading to wholesale changes on both of the coaching staffs.
For Florida, its new head coach was former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen from Mississippi State, where he built the Bulldogs into a perennial top 25 team. He faced Michigan once while at Mississippi State, and the result was the worst postseason loss in the Wolverines' history. A 52-14 shellacking in the 2011 Gator Bowl.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh overhauled much of offensive coaching staff, and convinced Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson to transfer to Ann Arbor to bolster the biggest weakness on last season's team. The results speak for themselves: the Wolverines improved their scoring average by a full touchdown, carved their sacks allowed in half, and improved from minus-4 in turnovers to plus-7.
Sagarin has Michigan No. 5 versus what he ranks as the 30th toughest schedule in college football. He has the Gators ranked 19th and their schedule 34th. ESPN's FPI ranks the Wolverines 4th and Florida 13th. S&P analytics rank Michigan 5th and the Gators 14th. Vegas power rates Michigan 6th and the Gators 19th, meaning the Wolverines should be around a 7.5-point favorite when the line is released.
Defense wins Peach Bowls
Both teams are led by their defense. Michigan's is No. 1 in all of college football even after a historic torching at the hands of Ohio State in its last outing, which only goes to show how far out in front of the pack the Wolverines were. Both teams are strong against the pass. The Wolverines are 7th in pass efficiency defense while Florida is 20th.
Florida is only 75th in the nation in rush defense, despite facing two FCS foes and only two opponents who run the ball better than the Wolverines.
The other factor that could decide this game is how many guys decide to sit out for the NFL draft. It's already official that Rashan Gary will not play for Michigan, while Devin Bush says that he will. Michigan could conceivably be without several other top defensive players. Florida's two best defensive players, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Jachai Polite, are also candidates to sit out. Gardner-Johnson has already declared for the draft, and Polite is expected to join him.
Florida plays a style of football the Wolverines are built to beat. So if Michigan shows up to play, like it didn't in the Orange Bowl two years ago, it should win and perhaps do so comfortably. But this time of year that's tough to gauge with players focused more on their futures than what they perceive to be a glorified exhibition.