Cook, Florida State square off against Peppers, Michigan (Dec 30, 2016)
Dalvin Cook is likely playing in his final college game when he steps on the field at the Orange Bowl.
That certainly makes the Florida State junior different than the other two running backs projected to go in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Cook hasn't announced a decision regarding his future but he wasn't interested in the paths taken by LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, who chose to sit out their respective bowl games. Instead, Cook is aiming to lead the No. 10 Seminoles (9-3) past No. 6 Michigan (10-2) in Friday's Capital One Orange Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Miami Gardens, Fla.
Cook is ranked as the 12th-best overall NFL draft prospect and second-best running back (behind Fournette) by NFLDraftScout.com after a standout season in which he rushed for 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also added 426 receiving yards and one touchdown and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back.
But sitting out the bowl game was never on the table for the Miami native, who ranks third in Atlantic Coast Conference history with 4,319 career rushing yards.
"I think it's a blessing that his family can be in his hometown to watch him play in a major bowl game and possibly his last game at Florida State," Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters. "You don't know, he hasn't made a decision, and when we get the information back, he'll make that. But you're talking about one of the all-time greats in Florida State history -- I think in college football history. He's a dynamic player."
Cook will be facing a stout defensive unit in the Wolverines, who rank second nationally in scoring defense (12.5 points per game) and total defense (252.7 yards).
Michigan ranks 13th in rushing defense (116.8) and has limited opponents to a 3.1 average per carry and allowed just seven rushing touchdowns. But the defenders understand they have a big challenge on their hands.
"You never really know where he's going to take the ball," senior defensive tackle Matthew Godin said. "He likes to bounce it outside a lot. A lot of backs don't have the speed to bounce it outside and take off. That's where I think he's a little different."
The Wolverines have shaken off the disappointment at being passed over for the four-team College Football Playoff.
Michigan instead has its sights on becoming the 10th team in school history to win 11 or more games in a season.
"That's big," Wolverines sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight said. "Obviously, every team wants to win every game, and the next benchmark is a 10-win season. That's solid. It's cool we got to 10, but 11 would be special and put us in the history books here."
Speight's health is better after he was affected late in the season by an injury to his left collarbone.
Speight passed for 2,375 yards and 17 touchdowns, regularly teaming up with senior tight end Jake Butt, who caught 43 passes for 518 yards and holds the school marks for most career receptions (135) and yardage (1,618) by a tight end.
Florida State's defense has been up and down -- the Seminoles allowed an average of 45.7 points in their three defeats -- but features two big-time players in senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker (15 sacks in 2016) and sophomore cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, who tied for the national lead with eight interceptions and won the Jack Tatum Award as the nation's top defensive back.
Walker ranks third in Florida State history with 27 1/2 sacks -- behind Reinard Wilson (35 1/2 from 1993-96) and Peter Boulware (34 from 1994-96) -- and isn't shy when discussing his place against the school's all-time pass rushers.
"As one of the greatest ever, being third all-time on the sack list and finishing the way I did," Walker recently said. "When people say pass rush and Peter Boulware and Reinard Wilson, now they can say Peter Boulware, Reinard Wilson and DeMarcus Walker."
Michigan certainly has a bona fide star defender as well in star outside linebacker Jabrill Peppers, who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Peppers recorded 16 tackles for loss, including four sacks, and he also excels in pass coverage as a former safety. Setting him apart is the versatility that saw him average 26.0 yards on kickoff returns and 14.8 (with one touchdown) on punt returns as well as his evolving role as an offensive player (167 yards, three scores).
The third-year sophomore is eligible for the NFL draft -- he is rated the third-best overall prospect by NFLDraftScout -- and will make a decision on his future after the Orange Bowl.
Florida State averages 35.2 points on offense and redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francis threw for 3,128 yards and 18 touchdowns against six interceptions.