Citrus Bowl 2016: Bold Predictions, Biggest X-Factors for Michigan vs. Florida

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystDecember 30, 2015

Michigan QB Jake Rudock and TE Jake Butt
Michigan QB Jake Rudock and TE Jake ButtLeon Halip/Getty Images

One of the best non-College Football Playoff matchups in this year's bowl season has to be the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida—a matchup between the top-notch first-year head coaches and elite defenses of Florida and Michigan.

Both Florida's Jim McElwain and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh had great success in their respective debuts in 2015, and a lot of it had to do with stifling D. The Gators rank eighth nationally in yards allowed per play, while the Wolverines will counter with the sixth-ranked unit.

That's not to say the offenses don't have their respective playmakers, as Michigan senior quarterback Jake Rudock will look to stay ahead of a Florida offense that stars freshman standout Antonio Callaway at wide receiver.

If you're looking for high-scoring, light-'em-up action, try elsewhere. This one has all the makings of an old-school style classic on New Year's Day.

As the Wolverines and the Gators prepare for action to open 2016, here are three bold predictions and three X-factors to watch down in the Citrus Bowl. 

Bold predictions

Florida's offense gets creative on early downs

Florida QB Treon Harris
Florida QB Treon HarrisJohn Raoux/Associated Press

When the now-transferring Will Grier received his year-long suspension in the middle of the season, Florida's offense started to nosedive. Five of the Gators' final seven opponents held them to fewer than 330 total yards, with four of them keeping Florida under the 275-yard mark.

For Florida to have any sort of success against a tough Michigan defense, the Treon Harris-led attack needs to move the ball more effectively on first and second downs.

The Wolverines allowed four yards per carry on 3rd-and-short situations, but those numbers plummeted into the negatives when it was longer than three yards to gain. Against the pass, Michigan allowed just 21 conversions on 93 passing attempts on third down.

On the other side, Florida found a good bit of explosiveness this season when throwing the ball on first and second downs. Those overall numbers were affected by Grier's good play, sure, but Harris had by far his best passing numbers on first downs this season.

Look for Florida to open things up early after bowl practices with Harris and let him go after the Michigan defense more than expected. Sticking to a conservative game plan just won't work in the long term against these Wolverines.

Jabrill Peppers scores an offensive touchdown 

Michigan ATH Jabrill Peppers
Michigan ATH Jabrill PeppersGregory Shamus/Getty Images

After putting up season highs in offensive yardage in the lopsided loss to Ohio State, Michigan three-way playmaker Jabrill Peppers is a candidate to do big things on that side of the ball against Florida.

That is, if he plays against the Gators. Harbaugh said Peppers was "out there" at bowl practices before Christmas, according to Angelique S. Chengelis of the Detroit News.

Let's assume the best for Peppers and say he suits up for Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. If Michigan is committed to playing the starting safety on offense in the future, bowl practices are a perfect time to get him some more reps on that side of the ball.

The postseason can also be a time to pull out some surprise plays or two in order to gain some quick momentum. Against a strong Florida defense, Michigan could benefit by trying some new plays or packages with Peppers on offense.

I predict Michigan tries to get Peppers into the end zone on the offensive side of the ball and kick-start what could be an award-winning 2016 campaign for the talented star. 

Michigan takes a strong lead into halftime 

Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh
Michigan HC Jim HarbaughTim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Fellow Bleacher Report college football writer David Kenyon pulled out an interesting stat on Michigan's performance in second quarters during his own bold predictions piece for the Wolverines' bowl matchup:

Michigan tends to start slowly, and emotion should dominate the first quarter of the Citrus Bowl on both sides.

The second frame, though, will belong to the Wolverines like it has all season. Only Utah and Minnesota managed to outscore Michigan during the quarter, where Jim Harbaugh's team compiled a 140-64 advantage in points.

Conversely, the level of success in the second quarter has helped shape Florida's outcomes. In three losses, opponents outscored the Gators 48-14. During 10 wins, Florida held a 67-30 edge.

I'm going to add on to Kenyon's prediction here and project a big halftime lead for Michigan in this matchup. If the Wolverines can make their normal second-quarter swing and limit mistakes that will give Florida's struggling offense extra opportunities, they should string together an advantage of a couple of touchdowns—or even more—on the Gators.

Biggest X-factors

Michigan TE Jake Butt
Michigan TE Jake ButtPatrick Semansky/Associated Press

Michigan TE Jake Butt

Florida has one of the most talented secondaries in the entire country with the likes of Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor and Marcus Maye patrolling the field.

The Gators will be able to line up well against top Michigan wideouts Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. In that case, look to Michigan's No. 3 target, tight end Jake Butt, to get more opportunities in the passing game from Rudock.

Butt, who announced he would return to campus for his senior season, had a strong end to the 2015 regular season. He caught at least four passes in each of the final five games of the year and set career highs in receptions and yardage in back-to-back weeks.

"I can fine-tune my game, and the NFL's a complicated thing," Butt said, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. "I can come back a year and work on my blocking, get a little faster and a little stronger so that I can solidify myself in those top rounds."

Look for Butt to set the tone for his 2016 campaign at Michigan with a great performance against the Gators in the Citrus Bowl. He'll be a consistent weapon for Rudock and the entire Wolverines offense.

Florida's special teams 

Florida WR Antonio Callaway
Florida WR Antonio CallawaySam Greenwood/Getty Images

The kicking game for Florida has been feast or famine this season, and it could have a huge impact on whether the Gators hang in there with the Wolverines or have a long day in Orlando.

The positives have come from punting situations. Punter Johnny Townsend ranks 12th nationally in average yards per boot, and punt returner Antonio Callaway has taken two kicks back for touchdowns this season.

Michigan, in turn, is 104th in opponent yards per punt return and has only returned 17 punts in 2015.

But while the momentum can turn on punting situations for the Gators, place-kicking is a much different story. Florida has missed its last five field goals and botched a few extra points throughout the season.

This is truly a make-or-break unit for Florida in this game. The opportunities could be out there to dominate field position, but missing out on opportunities to put any points on the board would make for a long New Year's Day for the Gators. 

Turnover margin 

Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves IIIJohn Raoux/Associated Press

While it appears Michigan's offensive advantage could be the difference-maker in a matchup of two strong defenses, the Wolverines must do a better job of taking care of the ball.

In terms of turnover margin, these two sides are polar opposites. Florida is plus-10 in that category this season—the Gators can turn opponents over and hold on to the pigskin—while Michigan was minus-six.

"Only two Big Ten teams were worse [in turnover margin]," Tom Dienhart of BTN.com wrote. "And both had losing records (Nebraska and Maryland). In what figures to be a close game, the Wolverines need to protect the ball and not give a struggling Florida offense any short fields—or easy touchdowns."

Tabor had two pick-sixes in the regular season for Florida, and Rudock threw interceptions in four of his final five games. Making smart decisions will be paramount against a Gators defense that would love nothing more than to help out its offense with some free yards.

And with the way Florida's attack looked at the end of the season, this might be a game where the Gators need a non-offensive touchdown or two in order to pull off the win. This defense and half of its special teams game look up for the challenge.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of CFBstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.


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