Michigan and Florida are working their way back into the elite echelon of college football after enduring recent eras stained with mediocrity. Their meeting in the 2018 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will be another step toward that goal, though the coaches on the sidelines aren’t on the same timeline.
A pair of rejuvenated darlings, Jim Harbaugh has put Michigan back on the map, even if the end result this season isn’t what the program envisioned. Dan Mullen seems to have Florida moving in the right direction, especially offensively, where the Gators have been a mess since their glory days.
The Peach Bowl, set for Dec. 29 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is a chance to stop the bleeding on one side or cap a building year on the other.
Harbaugh’s Wolverines were a win away from a playoff berth. They were instead embarrassed by their greatest rival, Ohio State, as their No. 1 ranked defense was answerless in a 62-39 loss. Harbaugh dropped to 0-4 against the Buckeyes. A promising season ended with the usual disappointing result.
That isn’t to diminish one of the school’s best seasons in recent memory. Opponents produced a season-low in yardage eight of 12 times against the Wolverines. They were acclaimed for a ferocious defense that was the nation’s best against the pass.
“We've got a heck of a good defense, and we're really well-coached on the defensive side of the ball,” Harbaugh said. “We've got some really good players and some All-American players, some All-Big Ten players and just some really tough, aggressive guys. It's a fine defense.”
Defensive lineman Rashan Gary, maybe the best player on that defense, won’t play in the game. Gary declared for the NFL draft and is a consensus first rounder.
Their offense is guided by Shae Patterson, whom Mullen saw when he was coaching Mississippi State and Patterson was quarterbacking Ole Miss.
Mullen and Harbaugh have only met in passing, but the former offered high praise of Michigan’s versatile offense and tough defense.
“They're always an intense, physical football team,” Mullen said. “When I've gotten to see them play, they're not afraid to think outside the box. Their defense obviously comes at you from a lot of different angles. They pressure you in different ways, and then offensively obviously they're used to run power one, run, but they're very, very creative in what they do and give you a lot of different looks out there on the field.”
Mullen’s Gators surpassed modest expectations in his inaugural season, securing nine wins and the program’s first New Year’s Six bowl in the playoff era. On the same day Michigan fell, Florida ended a five-game skid against reeling Florida State, capping an encouraging turnaround.
The defense was formidable, a theme in Gainesville despite the chain of underwhelming seasons, and helped the Gators upset LSU in their biggest win of the year. Defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is ticketed for the NFL, but he’ll play in the bowl game, as will the rest of Florida’s roster.
Mullen’s best work was with quarterback Feleipe Franks, who was far from perfect yet produced perhaps the best season for a Gators signal caller since Tim Tebow.
Franks threw for 2,284 yards with 23 touchdowns against six picks. He was aided by a strong group of running backs which includes Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce.
“It's been very impressive,” Harbaugh said of Mullen coaching the Gators to a 9-3 mark after they went 4-7 a year ago. “(Mullen is) very much respected in the profession and has a tremendous reputation as a football coach. Haven't had too many brushes with him, but I have met him and look forward to competing against his team.”
They face off with numerous possibilities: Harbaugh’s group can rebound from a gut-wrenching loss or drop a peg further; Mullen’s team can reach 10 wins in Season 1 or miss the chance at a signature win.
There’s more pressure on Harbaugh, whose honeymoon period is fading each time Michigan falls short of expectations. He doesn’t expect a lack of enthusiasm nonetheless.
“Our players, they've played a great season,” he said. “Our coaches have coached a great season, and we've overcome every adversity. Nothing changes. It just means the work isn't done. … This team has overcome every adversity.”
For Florida, a 10-win season would be a resounding success in the eyes of third-party viewers. The Gators haven’t accumulated the talent to rejoin the ranks of Alabama and Georgia yet, so every win is a selling point in recruiting.
And for a little extra insight, Mullen will check with his former boss and former Gators coach at Ohio State, Urban Meyer, for “a thought or two.” A victory in the Peach Bowl would be a stepping stone for Mullen to get where Harbaugh and Meyer currently stand: competing for titles every year.
“My expectations for the program are really, really high, so obviously it would be a nice cap on what I would say was a successful season in a lot of ways, even though we did not win a championship,” Mullen said. “Our goal is to compete - not just compete for and win SEC East and then SEC championships, conference championships, and then compete for the national mhampionship. But certainly a win in this game and a top-10 finish, finishing in the top 10, you'd have to call that a pretty successful season.”