Orange Bowl Preview: Florida State vs Michigan

Two very talented teams will square off Friday night, and they both took very different paths to get there. Michigan was an inch or two away from being in the College Football Playoffs, but fell to it’s bitter rival Ohio State in double overtime. The Wolverines only other loss came at the hands of Iowa, by one point. Every other game, Jim Harbaugh had his team playing very well. There was a couple close calls, most notably a sloppy 20-10 week eleven victory over Indiana. But for the most part, Michigan played well and had the look of a playoff team. They remained in the thick of the playoff race right up until the loss against Ohio State. Florida State, on the other hand, had fundamental problems from the beginning. I first noticed these glaring issues in the first 30 minutes of the season, in a game where FSU trailed 28-13 at half. The ‘Noles would go on to win that game, but the first half served as a foreshadowing of what was to come. Just two weeks later, the ‘Noles got smoked by eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and friends. Fans understandably became frustrated, and that frustration only amplified when North Carolina spoiled homecoming just two weeks later on a last second field goal. Going into week six, it felt like the ‘Noles were done for. Then, “The Block at the Rock” happened and FSU started to gradually play better. Yes, Clemson would barely edge the ‘Noles out by three, but that game showed that Florida State could compete with any team in the country. After the Clemson game, FSU rallied for four straight wins and an undefeated month of November. That includes a fourth straight win against the Gators, capturing the ‘Noles fourth state title in a row. Now, Florida State faces a new kind of test.

Michigan football has become it’s own brand under Jim Harbaugh. He’s recruiting like a fiend, and coaching at a very high level. Only in his second year, Harbaugh has already made his impact in Ann Arbor. Michigan was (possibly) one bad call away from reaching the Big 10 Championship, and a win there would have sprung them into the playoffs. Harbaugh already has a Heisman candidate to boast about in Jabrill Peppers, who is arguably the best two-way player in college football. Utilizing a blend of pro-style and west coast college philosophies, Harbaugh has the intelligence to go along with his compelling personality. Offensively, he’s been able to really find his rhythm this year. Starting quarterback Wilton Speight isn’t much of a gunslinger, but Harbaugh has been incredibly patient in play calling to adhere to his QB one. The biggest threats on the Michigan offense are running back De’veon Smith, wide receiver Amara Darboh, and tight end Jake Butt. The two the Seminoles should be most worried about are Smith and Butt. Smith has great patience and vision, and is an underappreciated athlete in his own right. FSU’s linebackers have to be good at diagnosing plays and making tackles in space. Harbaugh loves to run counters, so it will be important for the ‘Noles to read and react. Harbaugh may be a little cautious to take shots downfield with Speight being unimpressive in his last two games (two touchdowns, three interceptions, two losses). Where Harbaugh might find success is hitting tight end Jake Butt in the seam. Florida State has struggled to cover the middle of the field all year, and Butt is as good as anyone at tight end.  This again will be the responsibility of the linebackers, and Matthew Thomas is going to be a key player in this game. Ermon Lane got hurt in practice and won’t play Friday, so Trey Marshall will have to step up for the ‘Noles. Up front, Michigan has an average but fundamentally sound offensive line. Talent wise, it’s about the same as Florida State’s. But they will have the daunting task of blocking the nation’s best sack defense. DeMarcus Walker has come up huge in big games this year, and with Friday being his last game for FSU I expect him to put the pressure on Speight early.

On the flip side of the ball, the Dalvin Cook vs Jabrill Peppers match up has been getting all the hype. And while both players will certainly play a key role for their respective teams, it’s what Michigan does with Peppers when FSU passes that will be more important. Peppers can play almost any position on the defensive side of the ball, and the ‘Noles have weapons at every position. Defensively, Michigan loves to blitz and will certainly try to disrupt the Seminoles’ much maligned offensive line. Deondre Francois will have to be decisive and accurate against one of the best defenses in the country. I don’t see Cook breaking any long touchdown runs against the Wolverine D, but he will certainly have a chance at gaining a lot of chunk yards like he did against Florida. Where Cook might have his biggest impact Friday night is in the passing game. As aforementioned, Michigan loves to blitz. These blitzes will likely target Cook on early downs, and Francois on third. Head coach Jimbo Fisher will have to call a great game to counter Michigan’s blitzing. I expect lots of screens, outside runs, and swing passes. Cook has been terrific in the passing game all year, but his importance as a receiver come Friday cannot be understated. Look before each play at where Jabrill Peppers lines up, because he’s that much of a difference maker. If he lines up in the box for most of the game, Kermit Whitfield should have himself a day with quick screens. Travis Rudolph seems to be Deondre Francois’ go to guy at the moment, so in tough third down situations look for Francois to target him. Other than that, Florida State’s offensive line has to be fundamentally sound. Cook can make would be tacklers miss with the best of them, but it’s tough for any back to get going when he’s met by a defender in the backfield or line of scrimmage. Giving Cook room to work will be a tough task for the offensive line against a stout Michigan front seven, but a month of preparation should help.

This game is about as evenly matched as you like. Although the two teams had very different seasons, there is no talent gap to be found. Florida State has come on late, and Michigan barely missed the playoffs late in the season. The ‘Noles will likely have a slight crowd advantage with the game being in Miami, but Michigan fans typically travel well. This game feels like the start of a mini cross-conference rivalry, with both teams on the rise. They could very well wind up facing each other down the road in the College Football Playoffs soon. This game has huge implications, not just for momentum on the field but for momentum in recruiting. Harbaugh loves to fish recruits out of Florida, and he has a great chance to showcase his program in front of the Florida kids on Friday. On another note, Dalvin Cook is 0-2 in bowl games and has fumbled in both of those games. Can he shake his bowl game blues? With how consistent he’s been this year, my vote is yes. This feels like an intense, low scoring game. Defense and field position will play a huge part, and momentum swings will be important in deciding the outcome of this game. Michigan has one of, if not the best, defense in the country. They lost a heart-breaker to Ohio State to end the season, and how the Wolverines come out for this game will be key. If they come out flat-footed and unmotivated, Cook could torch them early. If they come out hungry for vengeance, it could be a very long and physical battle. I’ll take Michigan 24-20, in a very tight and close game. Because defense wins championships Orange Bowls, and the Wolverines have the advantage there. Hope you enjoyed the season, and soon we’ll be counting down the days for the 2017 season. But in the meantime, enjoy the game Friday night.

Ben Brewton
Writer at Nole Gameday covering football and basketball. FSU alum. Follow me on twitter (@Ben_Brewton) and we can talk sports. On the 8th day, God created college football.

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