Michigan-Florida Preview

December 22, 2015

Despite some down moments during their first seasons, Jim Harbaugh and Jim McElwain have their programs in a good place after a couple of lean years.

Playing on New Year's Day is ample proof, but only a victory can ease the pain of a few crushing losses to their biggest rivals.

Harbaugh is set to lead No. 17 Michigan into a Citrus Bowl matchup against McElwain and 19th-ranked Florida.

Coming off a 5-7 season under Brady Hoke, Michigan hired Harbaugh last December to bring college football's winningest program back to prominence. The former Wolverines quarterback fell short of fully realizing that goal, but Michigan (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) is on the cusp of winning 10 games for the first time since going 11-2 in 2011.

The standards in Ann Arbor, however, remain astronomically high, and a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State on a blocked punt in the closing seconds and the program falling to 2-13 against archrival Ohio State since 2001 have left fans and alumni starved.

"I'm very proud of the team the way they've worked and the way they've progressed," said Harbaugh, a Wolverine under Bo Schembechler from 1983-86. "We've closed a lot of ground. More ground to make up, but knowing our team, we will keep working hard."

McElwain also walked into a testy situation last December after the Gators went 10-13 under Will Muschamp from 2013-14, but he did plenty to reverse the culture in Gainesville while leading Florida to a blowout of Ole Miss on Oct. 3 en route to a 10-1 start.

The only loss in that stretch came at LSU, but a 27-2 smackdown by Florida State at The Swamp on Nov. 28 put a damper on the SEC East Division title before the Gators lost 29-15 to Alabama in the conference title game.

"We're a program on the rise," said McElwain. "These seniors and guys that are going to come out early built a great foundation for the future, and I'm proud of them."

A player McElwain was counting on for that future is no longer a part of it after Florida announced that suspended quarterback Will Grier will transfer. Grier was banned for a year by the NCAA on Oct. 12 for using performance-enhancing drugs.

"This has been very difficult on him and obviously he is looking for a fresh start," McElwain said.

The redshirt freshman had an SEC-best 65.8 completion percentage through six games with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, but things have dipped in his absence for an offense that has only one touchdown in its last two games.

"We haven't finished the season quite like we wanted to and definitely don't intend on having the seniors go out with a loss," junior defensive end Jordan Sherit said.

Treon Harris completed 51.9 percent of his passes in place of Grier with nine touchdowns and five picks, and he's had some trouble outside the pocket with just 2.2 yards per carry while being sacked 29 times - roughly one for every 10 snaps he's taken.

Kelvin Taylor - who announced that he'll enter the NFL draft after this game - had 13 rushing TDs during a season in which he fell shy of 1,000 yards (985) after Alabama held him to eight on seven carries. The Gators had 15 total that day.

Leading Florida's struggling offense is coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who spent 2014 in that role under Hoke and needs to get things going against his former team, whose offensive players may be able to impart some knowledge to their teammates on defense.

"He's a great coordinator," said Wolverines wide receiver Jehu Chesson. "He emphasizes not turning the ball over, emphasizes the big plays. But at the same time, it's the Xs and Os of football, so whoever wins the turnover margin wins the game."

Florida will be tested by a Michigan defense that ranked fourth in the FBS with 281.3 yards and 11th with 17.2 points allowed per game, but the Wolverines will have a fresh coaching look after coordinator D.J. Durkin accepted the head job at Maryland.

Defensive line coach Greg Mattison, the coordinator of the defense for the previous four years, will again take the reins against the Gators.

"I came in (as a freshman) and my first game was under him and I'm going out and my last game is going to be played with him calling the defense, too, so it's pretty exciting from my standpoint," said senior linebacker Joe Bolden.

The Gators were no slouches on defense, either, and gave up the sixth-fewest yards (295.4) and eighth-fewest points (16.5) in the FBS. Defensive tackle Jon Bullard is the player to watch and had 63 tackles, including 17 1/2 for loss, and 6 1/2 sacks.

Chesson led the Wolverines' pro-style offense with eight touchdown catches and his 646 receiving yards were second to Amara Darboh, who had 703 yards and five TD receptions. De'Veon Smith spearheaded the rushing attack with 644 yards and six TDs.

Jake Rudock, who had 2,729 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions, injured his non-throwing shoulder in a 42-13 loss to the Buckeyes on Nov. 28 but has said he'll be ready to face Florida.

The Wolverines are 23-8-1 all-time against teams from the SEC, and two of their three wins in their last 11 bowl appearances came against the Gators in the '03 Outback Bowl and '08 Capital One Bowl - both in the Sunshine State.

"We gotta go out with a bang," said Florida all-SEC cornerback Jalen Tabor, who returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns. "Going into next season on a positive note will be huge."