A month ago, Michigan looked like it was on a crash course to the College Football Playoff.
The Wolverines had already exacted revenge with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State to set up a matchup with archrival Ohio State in a game that would decide the Big Ten East. Michigan, the road team, was even favored in that one. It was supposed to be the game to push Jim Harbaugh’s team to a Big Ten title and a CFP berth.
But it all came crashing down.
That day in Columbus, the Wolverines were trounced 62-39 by the Buckeyes. The loss pushed UM from the playoff picture and into the Peach Bowl against Florida on Saturday.
Against the Gators, Harbaugh’s crew laid an egg in a 41-15 loss.
The game was evenly matched early with Michigan, who played without several NFL-bound starters, leading for much of the first half. But the Gators took a 13-10 lead on a Feleipe Franks touchdown run minutes before halftime and Michigan missed a game-tying field goal attempt right before the break.
From there, the second half was completely dominated by Florida.
On Michigan’s first second-half possession, quarterback Shea Patterson lofted a deep ball that was intercepted by Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Gardner-Johnson, who has already declared for the NFL draft, baited the heralded transfer perfectly, and returned the interception from the goal line all the way into Michigan territory.
Six plays later, with a nifty fourth-down play call by Dan Mullen sprinkled in, Franks hit Lamical Perine on a screen pass for a five-yard touchdown to open up a 10-point advantage, 20-10. It would be the first of three straight scoring drives for the Gators while the UM offense totally sputtered.
Jordan Scarlett would score from a yard out to cap off UF’s next drive to make it 27-13. Michigan responded with a field goal on its next drive and was in position to get the ball back with just under 10 minutes to go. Instead, Perine broke off a backbreaking 53-yard touchdown run on third-and-20 to completely put the game out of reach for the Wolverines.
Now THAT'S how you convert a 3rd-and-20 pic.twitter.com/4ZpY0ZEWX3
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 29, 2018
What does this mean for Michigan?
To put it simply, Harbaugh has work to do. He was supposed to be the coach to bring the Wolverines back to the glory days. With his third 10-3 record in four seasons, Harbaugh is 38-14, but UM has come up small on the biggest stages. It’s not good enough, and everybody knows it.
As part of one of the toughest divisions in college football, the competition, mainly with Ohio State and Penn State, won’t get any easier. But some think Michigan might have a bigger opening now that Urban Meyer has stepped aside at Ohio State.
But there’s reason to wonder if Harbaugh needs to adjust his offensive philosophies in order to make the leap to the top of the Big Ten. The Wolverines were able to bully teams with a pro-style offense that featured a power running game all year — until it met a team with more speed and athleticism, Ohio State.
That approach did not work against Florida, either, especially with leading rusher Karan Higdon sitting out. Patterson threw the ball 36 times, the most attempts of the year, and completed 22 throws for 236 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Patterson will be back next year, and his top receivers, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins, will be, too.
Will Harbaugh consider following the rest of the college football pack and install more of a spread system? If he doesn’t, it could prove to be his ultimate downfall.
What does this mean for Florida?
Out from the ashes of the Jim McElwain disaster has been an excellent first season under Dan Mullen. Mullen, the offensive coordinator during UF’s two national titles under Meyer, outcoached Harbaugh on Saturday, often pulling out clever playcalls in critical situations when his team needed it.
When UF faced a fourth-and-1 after Gardner-Johnson’s interception, he dialed up a jet sweep for a big gain. And after two goal-line rushes were stuffed, he pulled out the option on third down for a touchdown.
Florida had been so uninspiring on offense under McElwain and Will Muschamp that Mullen’s approach has to be a breath of fresh air for UF fans. He has quarterback Feleipe Franks looking like a much-improved player. Franks’ development is just one reason for optimism in Gainesville moving forward.
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