This is not where Michigan wanted to be.
After running off ten consecutive victories, after working its way up the polls all season, Michigan’s much ballyhooed “Revenge Tour” took the Wolverines to the brink of playing for the Big Ten Championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. With the Wolverines headed to Columbus as a road favorite against a Buckeye team that appeared to be in disarray, hopes were high in Ann Arbor. But we all know what happened, Michigan didn’t just lose to Ohio State, the Wolverines were embarrassed. Michigan’s defense, in particular, was exposed in a 62-39 loss that brought the Wolverines’ season to sudden and violent end.
Throughout the season, Michigan’s players pointed out that all of the Wolverines’ goals were still ahead of them. The pursuit of these goals drove the Wolverines after a disappointing, season-opening loss to Notre Dame. After losing to Ohio State, however, that’s no longer the case. So, after such a disheartening loss, after losing everything they had been playing for and after losing (again) to their hated rival, what can be expected from the Wolverines when they lace ‘em up in their seemingly annual match up against Florida? Or in simpler terms, can Michigan bounce back?
This would be a tall order in and of itself, but Michigan has more to deal with than just an emotional hangover from the Ohio State loss. The Wolverines also come into the Peach Bowl undermanned, with at least four key contributors sitting out the game. Michigan may be a touchdown favorite, but the Gators present a difficult match up.
One player who will be playing is quarterback Shea Peterson (who will also be returning for his senior season). And that’s significant, because you can make the argument that Patterson is Michigan’s most important player. He’s certainly the most indispensable. But after Patterson, four starters and three of Michigan’s most impactful players – Rashan Gary, Devin Bush and Karan Higdon – will all miss the game.
Higdon will surely be missed. The offense not only ran through Higdon all season, but the senior captain has been as close to the heart and soul of this team as any player has. Juwann Bushell-Beatty’s absence will also be felt. Michigan’s offensive line, while much improved under first-year offensive line coach Ed Warriner, is still far from a strength, and losing a season-long starter will be difficult to overcome, particularly since the strength of the Gators’ defense may be its edge rushers, Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga, who combined for 17.5 sacks and 27 tackles-for-loss this season.
But it’s the loss of Gary and Bush that will be most critical. You need not to have watched many games this season to understand the impact that Gary has on a game, but defensive line is one position at which the Wolverines have depth. Josh Uche, Kwity Paye and Aiden Hutchinson all performed admirably in the additional time they received while filling in for Gary when he was injured this season, and that trio should help fill the void up front. Bush won’t be replaced so easily, though. There just isn’t anyone else on Michigan’s roster – or many rosters for that matter – with the speed and playmaking ability of Bush, and his absence will likely be exploited by Dan Mullen and the Gators.
But for Michigan, even more than personnel, the key to this game will be the degree to which the Wolverines are motivated.
In Florida’s first season under Dan Mullin, the Gators are trending upward, and seem to be treating this game as a reward, not as a consolation prize. For Michigan to compete with the Gators, and for the Wolverines to reverse their recent trend of disappointing finishes, they’ll have to approach the game with equal vigor. Does Michigan really want to be here? Have the Wolverines moved on from the Ohio State game? The answer to those questions will go a long way toward determining how Michigan fares today in Atlanta.