Peach Bowl: Florida Gators can prove they’re different by finally beating Michigan

"This is our time to beat Michigan," Cece Jefferson says. If it happens, UF can show it's a different program than in the past two meetings with Jim Harbaugh.
Michigan will face the Florida Gators in Saturday's Peach Bowl. (MATT BAKER | Times)
Michigan will face the Florida Gators in Saturday's Peach Bowl. (MATT BAKER | Times)
Published December 28 2018
Updated December 28 2018

ATLANTA — Saturday's Peach Bowl gives Florida the chance to earn a statement victory over Michigan on a big stage.

With a win, the Gators' first-year coaching staff would have another tangible result to prove to their players and fan base that the program is headed in the right direction after years of instability.

Sound familiar? It should.

FThe Gators were in a nearly identical situation three years ago, when they ended Jim McElwain's inaugural 10-win season with a matchup against Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines.

"That's a great starting point, and yet we've got a long ways to go," McElwain said leading up to that Citrus Bowl. "I'm sure excited to see where we're going to end."

Spoiler: It ended terribly. The Wolverines dismantled UF 41-7 in Orlando. Nineteen games and one more Michigan blowout later, McElwain and the Gators were back at rock bottom.

So when No. 10 UF kicks off against No. 8 Michigan at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there's more at stake than a shiny trophy from a prestigious New Year's Six bowl game. It's an opportunity for the Gators to show that this time, with this coaching staff, things are going to be different.

"This is our time to beat Michigan," defensive lineman Cece Jefferson said. "It will definitely full-circle turn around, starting from last year and finishing with them this year. A huge turnaround."

In some ways, it already has been.

RELATED: Michigan rematch will show us how far Florida Gators' Feleipe Franks has come

UF has more than doubled its win total (from four to nine) and ended the regular season in the top 10 for the first time in six years. Dan Mullen has a chance of becoming the third Power Five coach ever to inherit a program that won fewer than five games and take it to double-digit victories.

It's a great starting point, but they've got a long ways to go. The Gators are 2-3 against teams in the current Top 25, including back-to-back double-digit losses to rival Georgia and Missouri (at home).

And while UF deserves credit for its first trip to a top-tier bowl since 2012, the Gators understand that this is where they're supposed to be.

"You expect to be playing not just in bowl games, you expect to be playing in New Year's Six bowls and championship bowls," Mullen said. "You expect to be playing great programs like the University of Michigan."

They should also expect to be beating programs like Michigan — something UF has never done. As embarrassing as their two most recent meetings were, they were also enlightening.

The 34-point shellacking in Orlando showed how utterly overmatched UF was along the lines of scrimmage, where SEC and national titles are decided. Their rematch in the 2017 season opener showed how little ground McElwain's program had made up against top-tier teams. The offensive guru failed to score an offensive touchdown.

In hindsight, it might have been the beginning of McElwain's end. Which also means it was the beginning of the chain of events that brought Mullen to Gainesville, restored UF as a top-10 team and gave the Gators another chance to redeem themselves against Michigan.

Not that quarterback Feleipe Franks sees it that way.

"We have a totally different coaching staff," Franks said. "New players have come in and out. It's a totally different program and team now."

It's obviously a different team with different coaches calling different plays for different personnel.

But a different program implies something else — that the Gators have fixed whatever systemic and cultural problems have been preventing them from challenging for championships.

Players have said all season long that things have changed.

A big-time bowl against a big-name nemesis is their chance to prove it.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.