A little less than a year ago Steve Spurrier packed up his revolutionary Fun 'n' Gun offense and headed to the NFL. In his place came unheralded Ron Zook and a season that's featured more valleys than peaks when it comes to scoring.
The numbers tell the tale. The 2002 Gators, 8-4 entering their Jan. 1 showdown with the University of Michigan in the Outback Bowl, are scoring more than 18 fewer points (43.8 compared to 25.5 in '02) a game than the 2001 squad and getting 138 fewer passing yards per outing.
Statistics, however, have a way of only giving half the picture and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr has watched enough Florida game film to know the sputtering Gators need only one game to turn a not-so-good season into a season-saving finale.
“I think it's a typical Florida team,'' said Carr, who is 4-3 in bowl games since taking the Michigan helm. “They have a good offensive team that has the ability to score from anywhere on the field.”
Never mind that this is the first Florida team in 13 years on the brink of winning fewer than nine games. Forget that Florida quarterback Rex Grossman has gone from being a leading Heisman Trophy candidate in '01 to scarcely a blip on the national radar this season.
This may technically be the first time the two schools have played, yet to hear Carr evaluate the Gators' offense is like a U-F history lesson.
“I haven't seen Florida struggle. I think they've played as tough a schedule as anyone in the country, and I think that we are very similar teams in that regard,” Carr said.
Recent moves by the Wolverines have shown Carr's comments are hardly pre-bowl hype.
In an attempt to slow Grossman and the Gators' passing game, Michigan (9-3) will play two linebackers instead of three and add another defensive back to counter Florida's three-receiver set.
The move can be partially attributed to a host of injuries to the Wolverine secondary. Starters Carl Diggs and Zach Kaufman are out until spring practice and U-M also has had to deal with several injuries to its backups.
Filling the void will be senior Victor Hobson, who will change from outside to inside linebacker for his last college game.
“I think that right from the beginning of the season Victor has taken a leadership role,” Carr said. “What I like about him is that he's had the best year of his career. Victor is a senior, he's a captain and is a great leader.”
Hobson leads the Wolverines in tackles (87) and is second in sacks (five).
More importantly, the fifth-year senior has proven he can excel in big games.
In November versus Ohio State, Hobson had seven tackles, three for a loss and a sack. During last year's loss to Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl, he was one of the few bright spots for the Wolverine defense with eight tackles.
Given the circumstances, he will need an equally impressive performance in Tampa in an unfamiliar position. After four seasons playing outside linebacker, Hobson has little time in order to adjust to a different, albeit only slightly, position.
“You deal with that issue by trying to move people and strengthen yourselves from a depth standpoint,” Carr said. “It [the injury situation] won't affect Victor at all.”
While much of the pre-game attention has focused on Hobson, sophomore cornerback Marlin Jackson may be the one to keep the Florida offense from catching fire. Jackson leads the team with three interceptions and is fourth with 50 tackles.
“Any time teams have good receivers, they want to challenge you and find out if you can stop them,” Carr said. “I think Florida is going to take what the defense gives and see how Jackson covers. They want to find out how good he is.”
NOTES: After spending three days in St. Petersburg practicing, the Wolverines moved to Tampa after Christmas to begin final preparations for their New Year's Day game. Although this is the team's ninth consecutive January bowl game, being away from home over the holidays is never easy. “They understand that coming in. That is always the downside of coming down to the bowl early because everyone would like to be with their families,” said Carr. “It is something that we had to do because of our academic schedule.” ... Despite last year's Citrus Bowl loss to Tennessee, Carr has an impressive record vs. Southeastern Conference opponents (17-5-1). ... Carr also has fared well against first-time opponents, going 5-1 in inaugural meetings against Memphis (1995), Arkansas (1999 Citrus), Rice (1999), Bowling Green (2000) and Utah (2002). Carr's only first-timer loss was against Tennessee last year. ... The game is sold out for the third consecutive year and will kick-off ESPN's New Year's Day lineup at 11 a.m.