In a post-season in which there seems to be as much talk about the declining interest in bowl games in general as there is about the games themselves, the Orange Bowl clash between Michigan and Florida State stands out as one of the few anticipated holiday match-ups. Indeed, ticket prices for the Orange Bowl are outpacing those for the Ohio State-Clemson semi-final game. It's easy to see why the Orange Bowl is a hot ticket. One of the New Year's Six bowls, as they're now called, the game features two traditional powers, both of which began the season in the top ten and come into the game with ten and nine wins respectively. By all accounts, this year's Orange Bowl should be a well-earned reward for two teams completing successful regular seasons. So why does it feel like a bit of a letdown for both teams?
Florida State not only entered the season with a top-five ranking, but was predicted by many to wind up in the college football playoff. Yet, after a second-half comeback for the ages in the season opener against Ole Miss, the Seminoles stumbled, losing three of their next seven games, derailing any championship dreams they might have had. Despite finishing the season on a four-game winning streak (and in truth, coming just seven points shy of finishing 11-1) and defeating their two main rivals, the Seminoles' season has still been somewhat of a disappointment based on the lofty expectations entering the season.
Michigan can certainly relate to such lofty expectations. Blessed with talent, depth and experience, the Wolverines entered the season with the potential to have a special year. But for Michigan, despite having similar designs on playing in this year's college football playoff, its season was always going to be defined by the Ohio State game. And despite appearing to be the better team for three quarters, the Wolverines lost a heartbreaker-for-the-ages against the Buckeyes, ending their season on the most dour of notes.
Listening to coaches and players from both teams, each side has put the regular season behind it and will have no trouble getting up for Friday's game. If that turns out to be the case, the Orange Bowl looks to be an appealing match-up between two talented teams - teams that could send as many as 20 players to the NFL next season.
Florida State will present a significant challenge for the Wolverines, as the Seminoles possess more talent than any team Michigan has faced this season not wearing scarlet and gray. When talking about Florida State, the natural place to start is with Dalvin Cook, a first team All-American who, with apologies to Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkely, may be the best running back in the country. Through 11 games, Cook has accounted for more than 2,000 yards of total offense and has done so behind a sometimes-shaky offensive line. Playing in the Orange Bowl will provide Florida State's all-time leading rusher the opportunity to finish his career playing in his hometown of Miami, too, a place he loves to play. So don't expect to see anything less than Cook's best in what's almost sure to be his college finale.
Joining Cook in the backfield is precocious freshman Deondre Francois, who, despite having somewhat of an up-and-down season, is a dynamic talent at quarterback. Francois has struggled with accuracy issues throughout the year, but he also spent much of the season dodging attacking defensive linemen. For Michigan, the key will be to keep pressure on Francois, because accuracy issues or not, he is the kind of playmaking quarterback that always seems to give Michigan fits.
Containing Cook and Francois will clearly be a priority for the Wolverines, but this game will be decided, as most games are, in the trenches.
Michigan has improved its running game from years past, but it's still not where it Jim Harbaugh wants it to be. When Michigan faced outmanned opponents this season, it ran wild, rushing for nearly 250 yards a game in its ten wins. When confronted by a strong defensive front, however, Michigan struggled to move the ball, rushing for fewer than 100 yards (on less than 2.5 yards per carry) in losses to Iowa and Ohio State. That doesn't bode well for the Wolverines, because led by DeMarcus Walker and Derrick Nnandi, the Seminoles have been tough against the run all year, surrendering just over 130 yards per game. Running back De'Veon Smith is known for his hard-running style and penchant for breaking tackles, both of which will be critical against a stout Seminole defensive front.
Michigan isn't the only team with inconsistent offensive line play, however. Florida State has an outstanding left tackle in Roderick Johnson, but its offensive line has been far from dominant (making what Cook has been able to accomplish even more impressive). This could spell trouble for the Seminoles, because if there has been one constant in Michigan's season, it's been its defense, particularly its defensive line, a group that goes two-deep with NFL talent. If Florida State doesn't come up with one if its better performances of the season up front, it could be a long day for Francois.
But while which offensive line is better able to stand up to what figures to be a superior defensive line will go a long way toward determining the winner of this year's Orange Bowl, it won't be the only factor. As much as any individual or group match-up, it may well be the team that approaches the game with the most vigor that will come out on top. When Michigan dominated Florida in last season's Citrus Bowl, it helped that Florida was one of the more offensively-challenged teams in the country. But watching the Gators play, particularly watching NFL-caliber defensive backs routinely embarrassed by Michigan receivers, it was pretty clear that one team approached the game with more intensity than the other. While both Michigan and Florida State began the season hoping to be playing for more at this juncture, this might be a bigger concern for the Wolverines, who are playing their first game since suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of their most hated rival.
There is also the question of whether Michigan's late-season offensive malaise will continue. Watching late season performances against Iowa and Ohio State, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were watching the Lloyd Carr teams of years past. Granted, no one knows how badly quarterback Wilton Speight was injured or to what extent he was limited by injury, but the lack of aggression showed by Michigan down the stretch was surprising. Michigan's offense went into a shell toward the end of both the Iowa and Ohio State games, surrendering ten-point leads in each game and being held without a first down in the fourth quarter against Ohio State. Florida State has an excellent defensive front and strong cornerbacks, but its linebackers and safeties can be had. There will be opportunities for Speight to attack the Seminoles through the air, if Harbaugh and the Wolverines are so inclined.
So, in a match-up of talented teams, the key to victory might well be which team is more successful brushing off any regular season hangover it might have and attacks the Orange Bowl with, for lack of a better term, an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
Special thanks to Tomahawk Nation's Dylan Kidd for his contributions to this article.