Arlington, Texas and AT&T Stadium is home to one of college football’s marquee showdowns for Week 1, as Michigan and Florida meet on Saturday afternoon in one of the top non-conference tilts of the 2017 season.
In addition to conference bragging rights between the Big Ten and SEC, the nation’s longest winning streak in openers is also on the line. Florida has won 27 openers in a row, but this the first non-conference game for the Gators outside of the state since 1991. Extending that streak against Michigan won’t be easy. Adding to the challenge for coach Jim McElwain was the suspension of 10 players, including standout receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett. Not having Callaway and Scarlett makes McElwain’s job a little harder on Saturday, especially since the offense plans to hand the controls to redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks at quarterback. Franks won a three-man battle for the starting job and faces a Michigan defense that finished in the top 10 nationally in fewest points allowed last year.
Michigan has recorded 20 wins in coach Jim Harbaugh’s two seasons in Ann Arbor and is a program poised to be an annual contender for a CFB Playoff spot. The Wolverines are recruiting at a high level, and the roster is filled with talent in the freshmen and sophomore ranks. It’s only a matter of time before Harbaugh guides this team to a Big Ten title after finishing 7-2 in league play last year, with both losses coming by no more than three points. But Harbaugh will have his work cut out for him in 2017. Michigan lost several key pieces from last season’s team and returns only six starters. How quickly will the new faces emerge?
Michigan and Florida have just three previous matchups – all in bowl games. Additionally, the Wolverines have won all three contests in the series between these two programs. The last matchup took place in the 2016 Citrus Bowl, with Michigan defeating Florida 41-7.
Florida vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Michigan - 5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Both Michigan and Florida opened fall practice with a competition or battle under center. Despite throwing for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games in his first year as the starter, Wilton Speight had to win the job in offseason workouts for the Wolverines. Speight held off John O’Korn and redshirt freshman Brandon Peters and seems poised to build off a steady 2016 campaign. However, Speight will have his hands full on Saturday afternoon against Florida’s athletic and speedy defense. The Gators allowed only 16.8 points per game last fall and the defense isn't expected to take too much of a step backwards despite having a new coordinator and just two returning starters.
On the other sideline, the Gators finished spring practice with redshirt freshman Felipe Franks at the top of the depth chart. Franks won the job over junior Luke Del Rio, who was slated to return in the fall after offseason shoulder surgery, and Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire, who joined the team in late May. Zaire had experience as a starter in South Bend and brought a different dimension (running) to the offense. While Zaire has flashed potential in his limited action with the Fighting Irish, he was unable to make a claim for the starting job this fall. Instead, the Gators will go with Franks on Saturday afternoon. The redshirt freshman’s first start isn’t going to be easy against a Michigan defense that limited opponents to 14.1 points per game last fall. Franks was a four-star recruit out of high school by the 247Sports Composite and was regarded for his arm strength and accuracy.
Needless to say, both quarterbacks in this game have traveled an interesting road to the starting job and will be under the microscope in the opener. With a defensive struggle anticipated, one or two big plays by either offense (or mistakes) could prove critical. Which quarterback will step up on Saturday?
2. Skill Talent
While the quarterbacks in this game are under a lot of scrutiny, both teams enter the opener with concerns in the supporting cast.
Harbaugh’s offense must replace three starters up front and loses its top three receiving options, as Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt expired their eligibility. Despite the turnover at these two positions, the long-term outlook for Michigan is bright on offense. Freshmen receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black were two of the Big Ten’s top recruits in the 2017 signing class and should play right away. Additionally, left tackle Mason Cole is one of the Big Ten’s top offensive linemen and is joined by rising star Ben Bredeson at guard. At running back, the Wolverines have a strong four-man rotation in place. Sophomore Chris Evans is primed for a breakout season after rushing for 614 yards last fall. He’s joined by Karan Higdon (425 yards), Ty Isaac (417) and redshirt freshmen Kareem Walker.
Entering the offseason, Florida appeared to have its best collection of skill talent since the Urban Meyer era. The pool has thinned a bit after the suspensions of receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett. Callaway caught 54 passes for 721 yards and three scores last year, and Scarlett led the team with 889 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Both players will be missed on Saturday, especially Callaway who was also a valuable weapon on special teams. The Gators aren’t without talent at receiver, as sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, tight end DeAndre Goolsby, senior Brandon Powell and sophomore Josh Hammond are capable threats. Sophomore Lamical Perine is next up on the depth chart at running back, but freshman Malik Davis is expected to see time. Just like Michigan, Florida’s offensive line enters the year with question marks. This unit returns four starters but must improve in run blocking and pass protection.
3. The Defenses
The unquestioned strength of both teams rests on defense. And barring a major breakout performance by either offense, it’s safe to assume Saturday’s game should be a low-scoring affair.
Florida returns only two starters after safety Marcell Harris was lost for the year due to injury. However, new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon isn’t hurting for talent on this side of the ball. Linemen Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga are the next stars up front, and the secondary is anchored by standout senior cornerback Duke Dawson and true freshman Marco Wilson on the other side.
Michigan technically returns only one starter on defense, but that total is deceiving. Senior linebacker Mike McCray is one of the leaders for this unit and should push for All-Big Ten honors. Senior tackles Bryan Mone and Maurice Hurst return up front, with rising star Rashan Gary primed for a huge season at defensive end. The secondary remains the biggest issue for coordinator Don Brown. However, this unit isn’t hurting for talent and could emerge as a strength by midseason.
With a tight game expected, the defenses should control the flow of the game. With both offenses possessing question marks in the trenches, which line can generate the most pressure and stuff the run? Both defenses want to force the offense into third-and-long situations and create havoc around the line of scrimmage. Negative plays, third-down defense and forcing turnovers are three keys to watch for these two standout defenses on Saturday afternoon.
Expect a low-scoring, defensive game decided in the fourth quarter. Florida’s question marks on offense are slightly bigger than the ones facing Michigan. The Gators have talent at receiver, but Callaway will be missed. And at running back, Perine and Davis will need to pick up the slack with Scarlett suspended. When Michigan has the ball, Harbaugh has a proven quarterback in Speight and a solid stable of running backs to utilize. The matchup of the Wolverines’ receivers against the Gators’ defensive backs is one to watch. But the difference in this game will be the play of Michigan’s defense under Brown's direction. Expect Brown to utilize several blitzes and different looks to confuse Franks. Look for Gary, Hurst and McCray to turn in big performances, as Michigan wins by a touchdown.