Florida vs. Michigan: All NFL Draft-eligible Gators will play in 2018 Peach Bowl

By Adam Silverstein
December 24, 2018
Florida vs. Michigan: All NFL Draft-eligible Gators will play in 2018 Peach Bowl

Image Credit: Abell Images

Arriving in Atlanta on Sunday, the No. 10 Florida Gators are looking to do something they have never accomplished in program history: beating the No. 7 Michigan Wolverines. While it will not be easy, momentum entering the 2018 Peach Bowl is at least trending in Florida’s direction, particularly when it comes to the rosters of the respective teams.

The Wolverines will be without three of their star players as defensive end Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush Jr. and running back Karan Higdon have all declared for the 2019 NFL Draft and announced that they will not play in the bowl game. The Gators have players that will be declaring early as well, but head coach Dan Mullen confirmed Monday that all of them will be on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It’s a very personal decision for guys,” Mullen said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “… When you look at that thing, what I tell the guys is to just be all in one way or the other. If you don’t want to play, that’s great. Be all in on it. Don’t have any regrets. And if you decide to play, don’t have any regrets that you did. I think, when that happens, you’re going to be really confident in your performance. I sat down with our guys and said, ‘Hey, we’d love you to play and I think the benefit of playing is huge.’

“We’re talking about guys who want to go to the next level. Well, they get the opportunity to go put a game on film against Michigan. That’s a top-10 team. [Scouts] will pick three or four games to watch these guys perform; [this] will be one of those three or four games. You have an opportunity to put that on film. That’s a huge plus. But it’s a really personal decision for the individual.”

Only one Florida junior, defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, has officially declared at this time; Gardner-Johnson confirmed upon his declaration that he will play in the game. However, he is not the lone player leaving the team after the season. Defensive lineman Jachai Polite, wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland and running back Jordan Scarlett — along with other seniors and draft-eligible juniors — are also considering their futures and had to weigh the benefits off playing in the Peach Bowl.

The fact that the Gators are in a New Year’s Six bowl in Year 1 under Mullen is impressive in its own right, but the fact that the team is universally choosing to suit up for the game with no players sitting out is a testament the culture change the program has already undergone.

Florida is 0-4 all-time against Michigan with three bowl game losses and a defeat in the 2017 season opener in Arlington, Texas. This will be the third time in the last four seasons that the Gators and Wolverines will square off; UM won the prior two meetings by a combined score of 74-24.

Mullen thinks a victory on Saturday could mean a tremendous amount of momentum heading into the 2019 campaign.

“I don’t know if this game has a direct correlation on what next year’s season is going to be like. But I do know that this game has a direct correlation on how we’re going to feel between now and the start of next year,” Mullen said. “If we win this game, we’re going to finish in the top 10 and have high expectations going into next season, but you’re also going to have an awful lot of confidence going into that offseason — the energy and the boost that it can give you.

“You know you play on Dec. 29, and we don’t play again until Labor Day next year. That’s a long time to not be smiling that whole time. You want to be smiling after the win. I love that feeling. You win that last game and you leave on a high note.”

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