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In 2016, the Florida Gators faced the Michigan Wolverines in the Citrus Bowl after being beaten mercilessly by Alabama in the SEC championship game. The end result was a 41-7 thrashing that all of Gator Nation desperately wanted to avenge and forget.

Many thought they might get the opportunity to do just that when the Gators opened the 2017 season against Michigan on a neutral site in Arlington, Texas. But in the week leading up to the game, news broke that the Gators would have nine players serving a suspension for their involvement in a credit card scam. Unfortunately for the Gators and their fans, things would only get worse from there.

The Gators would start a shellshocked redshirt freshman quarterback named Feleipe Franks and the Wolverines defense would deliver one of the many crushing blows to his confidence that he would endure throughout year. Taking advantage of a poorly prepared and undermanned Gators team, Michigan once again bullied the boys of ol’ Florida, winning 33-17.

All told, the Gators are 0-4 all-time versus the maize and blue as they prepare to meet for the third time in three calendar years (four seasons). So what’s different this time around? Will it be another loss in a disappointing series?

Michigan opened as a 7.5 point favorite over the Gators and on paper, they appear to be the more talented team. However, there are other factors at play here. Let’s examine this a little closer.

The Wolverines rank No. 1 in total defense, coming in at No. 2 against the pass and 16th versus the run. Additionally, Michigan ranks 12th in scoring defense, allowing just 17.6 points per game.

While these numbers are quite impressive, this is a defense that was blasted by Ohio State in the final game of the regular season, to the tune of 62 points. They will also be forced to play without linebacker Devin Bush and defensive end Rashan Gary, who have decided to forego the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft.

This seems to be a popular decision within the confines of the Wolverines locker room as right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty and running back Karan Higdon have also opted to sit this one out. Higdon’s absence may prove to be the most impactful.

The Wolverines have relied heavily on a stout defense and a steady rushing attack all season. Higdon accounted for the majority of their production on the ground with 1,178 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

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It isn’t just the players who are electing to not participate in the bowl this year. Of the allotted 13,000 tickets for Michigan fans, only 8,200 have been sold, barely 63%. Things get even more bleak when looking at the secondary market.

26% of all tickets sold on the secondary market have been purchased in Florida zip codes. Just 6% have gone to zip codes that belong to Michigan. Combined with a destination that is much closer to home for the Gators, this could be a strong indication that Michigan will be entering into a hostile environment.

All of this factored together with the emotional state of each team can add up to a decidedly advantageous situation for the Gators.

Florida enters the game as an underdog so it is unlikely that they will be overly confident and looking past the team from up north. They are also riding the momentum of a very strong finish that saw them crush in-state rival Florida State, 41-14.

On the other end of that spectrum is Michigan, who is coming off of that miserable beating by Ohio State that I mentioned earlier. There could be a bit of a hangover from this loss and missing out on the CFP. On top of that, they have been praised and applauded for much of the season and post season and deservedly so.

When two teams mirror each other as well as Florida and Michigan do, you have to read between the lines to find that advantage. Both teams have leaned on solid defense, reliably efficient running, and a serviceable passing game.

Both teams have game managers at the quarterback position. For Michigan, that manager is Shea Patterson who has probably underwhelmed compared to what he did at Ole Miss.

For Florida? That would be the same shellshocked quarterback that was defeated physically and mentally in his first career start versus Michigan.

Patterson is the more celebrated of the two signal callers and although I said he underwhelmed this season, by no means was it a bad year. He just didn’t light it up the way that he was expected to in Jim Harbaugh‘s offense.

For the season, Patterson completed 64.8% of his passes totalling 2,364 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. All of which, earned him a QB rating of 153.8.

Franks, on the other hand showed incredible statistical improvement from his freshman campaign under the guidance of Dan Mullen. For the season, Franks completed 58.5% of his passes and acquired 2,284 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, and just 6 interceptions for a QB rating of 144.1.

This is another one of those situations where Michigan wins, on paper. Both quarterbacks are capable and they both will face top 10 passing defenses. Patterson will be facing a defense that is playing with all of it’s cards, however.

Furthermore, something clicked with Franks in the final three games of the season. During that stretch, the Gators went undefeated, winning a pair of blowouts and a game that required two multiple score comebacks to win.

For the final three games, Franks went 50/74 (that’s 67.6%) for 689 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 0 picks. He also added 103 yards on the ground and 3 rushing touchdowns. His QB rating during this run? A very cool 177.1. Pretty neat, huh?

All of this is to say that Florida is playing with confidence. They’re having fun again. Under Mullen’s leadership, this team has bought in and is playing with a chip on their shoulder.

They will face a very good –even with four key starters sitting out– Michigan team at 12 p.m. EST on Saturday, December 29th. They will do so in front of a large contingent of Gators fans who are equally eager to get their first win against Michigan.

With Michigan missing several of its key contributors on both sides of the ball and essentially playing an away game –in which they have not fared well this season– I give the Gators the edge here. Florida will come out hungry and prepared, knowing what a win will mean for the program.

My prediction: Florida wins 31-20.

You can watch the game Saturday at 12:00 PM EST on ESPN and as always, be sure to follow along with the action on the Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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