ATLANTA — For the 76 participants who fell short of the playoff, bowl season is inherently a strange thing. Despite being among the most prestigious postseason destinations, the Peach Bowl is not where any school dreams of ending its season—especially when those schools are Michigan and Florida.
But when Michigan took to the practice field for the first time after its loss to Ohio State last month, its focus lay entirely on the Gators, not on 2019. Because even if players would justifiably rather protect their draft stock and fans would rather turn their eyes toward next season, winning this game matters.
Last season’s loss to South Carolina put a bitter cast over the Wolverines’ entire offseason. A year earlier, their loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl gave credence to arguments that Michigan didn’t deserve to make the playoff. Its dominating win in the previous season’s Citrus Bowl cemented coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season in Ann Arbor as a success.
And this year’s ramifications are no different. A loss and this Wolverines’ team will be considered fraudulent. They will have one top-20 win in four tries and have fallen short of 11 wins for the 19th time in 21 seasons. The team that we saw at Ohio Stadium in November will be the lasting image of 2018 Michigan.
A win and, well, that loss to Ohio State will still probably be the staining memory of this season. But behind that cover, the season would be an undeniable success— arguably the Wolverines’ best since 1997. They would have lost to a pair of top-10 teams on the road and disposed of everybody else, all topped off with one of their most impressive bowl wins in two decades.
To get there, all Michigan has to do is beat a Florida team that appears overmatched on paper. Of course, paper is just that but the statistical and resume gap between the Wolverines and Gators is difficult to ignore — as well as Michigan’s two wins by a combined 50 points over the past three years.
Florida’s best win — 27-19 against then-no. 5 Lousiana State — bests anything Michigan has done. But the Gators also were no contest for Georgia and got blown out at home against Missouri a week later. It’s not last year’s 4-7 disaster, but they’re outside the top 30 in total offense and total defense.
Michigan’s defense — still somehow the top statistical defense in the country — will go against an offense averaging less than 200 yards per game through the air. Perhaps there’s a reason that the Wolverines didn’t bring any defensive backs to Thursday morning’s media availability. There would be nothing to ask them.
When Florida has impressed, it too has done so with its defense. But while Michigan’s leads the nation, the Gators are allowing 100 more yards per contest and rank just 38th. Perhaps they can take advantage of running back Karan Higdon’s absence to shut down the Wolverines’ pass game and force them to win through the air — something they haven’t done this year.
But even if they can do that, it leads back to the question of whether Florida can score. And based on 12 games of evidence, the answer appears to be no.
If that prognosis comes to fruition, it will cement Michigan’s best season of the Jim Harbaugh era. We won’t know if that carries over to next season until September, but it’s a worthy goal to play for regardless. Even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Michigan vs. Florida predictions
Brandon Justice: 24-20, Michigan
Eric Coughlin: 30-20, Michigan
Jay Sarkar: 24-17, Michigan
Nate Wiggins: 27-14, Michigan
Theo Mackie: 26-13, Michigan