MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — When No. 6 Michigan meets No. 11 Florida State in the Orange Bowl, it’s a matchup of two of college football’s blue-blood teams.
Both have one goal: to win the final game of the season. To Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, this isn’t just a game. It’s a championship game, which fits into Michigan’s season-long mantra that “every game is a championship game and every week is a championship week.”
“Winning the Orange Bowl championship is our goal now,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “That’s a lot, in our minds. We want to win the most awards. We want to get the best grades. We want to excel at sports, and we have that opportunity to win a trophy.”
Michigan (10-2) faces Florida State (9-3) at 8 p.m. Friday (ESPN) in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, the first meeting between the two teams since 1991.
Florida State plays in the Orange Bowl in its home state after it opened the season 3-2, which derailed its College Football Playoff hopes.
“The past means nothing,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “You only play in the future, and if you do, you do. The key is not about winning and losing, it’s about playing your best and being the best you can be. That’s what we’ve got to do, and then we’ll worry about the results when they come.
“The program is in great shape, and when you play in big games, you win some, you lose some, but that’s what you’ve got to stand up for the competition for.”
Michigan has a consistent and athletic — but not overwhelming and flashy — quarterback in Wilton Speight. Despite missing a game because of an injury to his left (non-throwing) shoulder, the redshirt sophomore averaged 215.9 yards a game and had seven games in which he threw for more than 200 yards. Speight has also passed for 17 touchdowns.
Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois was 226 for 373 passing for 3,128 yards and 18 touchdowns, and was intercepted six times. He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s overall and offensive rookie of the year, and had five games in which he threw for at least 300 yards.
Edge: Florida State
Is one running back greater than four? Florida State boasts one of the nation’s top running backs in Dalvin Cook, who enters the Orange Bowl with 1,620 yards on 268 carries and led the Seminoles with 18 touchdowns.
Michigan, meanwhile, has rotated its carries among four backs: De’Veon Smith, Chris Evans, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac. While the four have combined for 2,214 yards and 24 touchdowns, each has a different style of play and has shined in different situations against different teams.
Edge: Florida State
Wide receivers/tight ends
Speight has three primary options to throw to: Amara Darboh (52 catches for 826 yards and seven touchdowns), Jake Butt (43 catches for 518 yards and four touchdowns) and Jehu Chesson (31 catches for 469 yards and two touchdowns).
Florida State has similar numbers. Travis Rudolph leads the Seminoles with 807 yards and seven touchdowns on 53 catches — numbers comparable to Darboh — but there’s a little more of a drop-off after Rudolph. Kermit Whitfield has 33 catches for 372 yards and one touchdown, and Cook is Florida State’s third-leading receiver with 30 catches for 426 yards and a touchdown.
Michigan’s offensive line is in much better shape than it was, say, two or three seasons ago, when it allowed its opponents to sack quarterbacks 51 times. Michigan has three fifth-year seniors on its line — Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden and Erik Magnuson — and has efficiently opened holes for its running backs while allowing its quarterbacks to be sacked just 18 times.
Florida State’s offensive line has also done a solid job protecting its quarterback, allowing 34 sacks, and it has created plenty of openings for Cook, who is an NFL prospect.
Edge: Florida State
Michigan’s practice of rotating players on the defensive line has allowed the Wolverines to remain healthy through the course of the season. Only one player on the defensive line has sustained a major injury (Bryan Mone, who missed Michigan’s first three games with a knee injury) and its pass rush has gotten stronger. Defensive end Taco Charlton’s draft stock has risen because of his ability to pressure the quarterback.
Florida State’s defensive line is designed to stop the run. The Seminoles have allowed 131.2 yards per game and have the nation’s sacks leader in DeMarcus Walker (15 sacks/1.25 a game). Defensive end Brian Burns has 9.5 sacks for the Seminoles to lead all freshmen nationally.
Edge: Florida State
Michigan’s linebackers began this season as a question mark after losing three top players to graduation. With the addition of Jabrill Peppers, the linebackers quickly emerged as one of Michigan’s top units in the first month of the season. Michigan enters the bowl game with four players who have at least 63 tackles, including linebacker Ben Gedeon, who has a team-leading 108. However, fatigue started to show as the fall wore on. Michigan’s front seven, particularly its linebackers, got thrashed in the final three games, giving up 434 rushing yards (144.7 yards per game).
Florida State’s linebackers aren’t huge, but they have speed and can chase down opposing backs. Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas is second on the team with 62 tackles and is tied for the team lead with four quarterback hurries.
Like Michigan’s defensive line, this might be one of the Wolverines’ healthiest areas. While most of the attention has gone toward All-America cornerback Jourdan Lewis, the strongest performer in the secondary has been cornerback Channing Stribling, who has a team-leading four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. Michigan also has the nation’s top pass defense (135.9 yards).
Florida State’s pass defense has allowed 225.9 yards a game and has intercepted opposing quarterbacks 14 times in 12 games.
Special teams defense is Florida State’s forte, as the Seminoles have eight blocked punts and 10 blocked kicks this season. Ricky Aguayo is 17 of 24 on field-goal kicking, including 6 of 12 from 40 to 49 yards.
Michigan’s Kenny Allen handles all three kicking facets: punting, kickoffs and field goals, and the Wolverines also boast Peppers, who has averaged 26 yards on 10 kickoff returns and 14.8 yards on 21 punt returns.
The Orange Bowl will be a showcase on many levels: one of the top running backs in the nation in Cook, a pair of productive quarterbacks in Speight and Francois, and two stout defensive lines that are focused on limiting productivity.
The matchup will also pit two of the nation’s high-profile coaches in Harbaugh and Fisher, one of whom will get a feather in his cap with a New Year’s Six bowl win.
Rachel Lenzi’s prediction: Florida State 27, Michigan 24
Brandon Justice’s prediction: Michigan 27, Florida State 17