A pair of resurgent programs with National Coach of the Year candidates will meet in Mickey Mouse’s backyard on New Year’s Day.
The No. 19 Florida Gators will face the No. 18 Michigan Wolverines in the 2016 Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 1 (1 p.m., ABC) — a matchup featuring heralded first-year coaches Jim McElwain and Jim Harbaugh.
“What a great honor for our team and how far we have come this year,” McElwain said, as Florida was the first Southeastern Conference school picked outside of the New Year’s Six Bowl teams Alabama and Ole Miss.
“It’s a great Gator city. … It’s a great opportunity for all the people in the area and recruits to see and support the Gator Nation.”
After Alabama rolled over the Florida in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday, the Gators (10-3) slid to No. 19 in the College Football Playoff rankings and lost any possibility of appearing in the Sugar Bowl.
Still, despite two consecutive blowouts (Florida State and Alabama) McElwain’s rapid rebuild has been universally praised, and the 53-year-old coach isn’t wallowing in disappointment.
“The future is bright,” McElwain said. “Were a program on the rise. A program on the build.”
So are the Wolverines.
Harbaugh returned to his alma mater and immediately turned around a dormant program, leading Michigan to nine wins after a 5-7 season a year ago.
The two coaches have consistently credited their players for such a swift renaissance, saying, “It’s the way the players played. It’s the kind of job they’ve done in the past year. They’ve worked extremely hard. They’ve competed well. We look forward for the opportunity to compete again.”
The New Year’s Day bowl matchup is ripe with story lines, as it features a rematch of the 2008 Capital One Bowl with Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow — a thrilling 41-35 overtime win by the Wolverines in Hall of Fame coach Lloyd Carr’s final game.
Florida-Michigan is also a preview of the 2017 Cowboys Classic season opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Both schools are among the top six defenses in the country, too, as Michigan ranks No. 4 in total defense, and UF checks in at No. 6.
The Gators are 0-2 all-time against the Wolverines and are 21-20 in bowl games.
“These guys have done a great job,” McElwain said. “We’ll have our hands full.”