It’s about time for the game by game previews to start rolling again.
Last year, I had Florida going 10-2, which was not far off from their 8-3 finish. But this year is a big test for Jim McElwain. Can his Gators take the next step toward becoming a college football powerhouse?
It all starts against Michigan…
|MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (2016: 10-3)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2016 offense||2016 defense|
|Jim Harbaugh||3 offense, 1 defense||425 YPG/40.3 PPG||253 YPG/12.5 PPG|
|20-6, 3rd year||12%, 14% of stat production||58th/11th in FBS||2nd/2nd in FBS|
Series history: Michigan 3, Florida 0
Last meeting: Michigan 41, Florida 7 (Florida Citrus Bowl- Orlando, FL)
Synopsis: This fall, Michigan will answer the question of “What happens when you lose virtually your entire team from a year ago, recruit at a high level, and then throw all those top recruits on the field at once?” Talent has never been the issue with Jim Harbaugh, but the Wolverines are almost certain to take a step back in 2017 with a complete lack of experience across the board. How big of a step back is yet to be determined.
Offensive breakdown: of all the players the Wolverines lose, one of the few they get back is QB Wilton Speight. Unfortunately for Michigan, he’s severely limited as a passer and doesn’t present a particularly serious downfield threat. In his final three games as a starter last year, he threw just three touchdowns and four picks. Not coincidentally, Michigan lost all three of those games. What’s even more worrisome about Speight, for Michigan at least, is that he threw for 230 yards or more in just four of the Wolverines’ thirteen games last year- against Central Florida, Illinois, Michigan State and Maryland, who combined for a paltry 12-32 record.
The running game is in slightly better hands. Even though star De’Veon Smith is gone, the Wolverines can confidently turn to sophomore Chris Evans, who ran for 614 yards last year. Behind him, Michigan will use Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon and fullback Khalid Hill in bunches to keep Evans fresh. But the receiving situation is a complete mess. Hill is the leading returning receiver with 118 yards, and you can only rely on a fullback so muche as a pass catcher. Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford figure to be two of the three starting wideouts, and they’ve got a total of nine career receptions between them. The lone good news here for Harbaugh is that incoming freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones is a rare talent and could make an immediate impact at the other WR spot.
The offensive line did receive some good news when center Mason Cole elected to return for his senior season, but as is the case in most other places on the Wolverines’ depth chart, the good news is about one sentence long. Freshman Cesar Ruiz and sophomores Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu will all likely be thrust into starting roles immediately- and while each brings promise, the task of staving off a hungry Gator defense might be too tall a first order for them.
Offensive Grade: C. There’s potential here, but given that the offense’s sole constant from last year is a highly ineffective quarterback who struggles mightily against equal or better competition, Jim Harbaugh appears to be in for a rough year.
Defensive breakdown: In most years where Jim Harbaugh doesn’t have a reliable offense, he turns to his defense. Unfortunately for him, his defense will be even less experienced than his offense. The key returning starter they do have, though, is linebacker Mike McCray, who has become a vocal leader for his team. And he’ll get some help up front from senior Maurice Hurst. But those two guys have tremendous shoes to fill with the losses of Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton. How quickly they, along with sophomore Rashan Gary, develop will go a long way toward determining Michigan’s fate.
But at least the line has some returning talent. On the other hand, Michigan’s second oldest linebacker this year will be sophomore Devin Bush, behind McCray. That is horrifying news for a defense that traditionally makes its living stopping the run. The situation there is so dire that Michigan had to plug sophomore safety Khaleke Hudson into the hybrid Viper position that Jabrill Peppers once occupied just to field a two deep. And while Hudson brings the physical upside of an aggressive safety, he’s also extremely raw.
The situation in the backfield is even worse. The two deep of the Wolverines’ secondary looks like the aftermath of a nuclear testing site. Half of them weren’t even eligible to vote in last year’s Presidential election and now four of them will be thrust into action for the first time, at the same time, on perhaps the grandest stage in sports. Want names? Sure: Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus will probably start at safety, and David Long and Lavert Hill will likely grab the corner spots. They’ve combined for exactly zero meaningful snaps in their careers, so best of luck to them in their quest to grow into stars by the time September rolls around.
Defensive grade: C-. And that’s only because D and F grades are reserved for the Troys and Citadels who finish dead last in their mid major conferences. At least Michigan recruits well, and good thing they do, so there’s hope for the future. But faced with filling virtually every possible hole a team could have to fill in an offseason will at the very least make for a rough September for defensive coordinator Don Brown.
Key matchup: Feleipe Franks vs. Michigan defense. I have little doubt that Jordan Scarlett, LaMical Perine and maybe even Mark Thompson will have a large say in the outcome, but there’s going to come a time where Franks will have to make a play with his arm. Or several such times. And as sick as Gator fans may be of hearing the phrase “game manager,” if Franks can fit that description against the Wolverines, Florida will breeze to another season opening win.
Florida wins if… they don’t turn the ball over. The Gators could- and should- eclipse 400 yards with ease against the Wolverines’ young defense, but that won’t matter if they give it away. That means no fumbles from Mark Thompson, no bad decisions from Feleipe Franks, no miscommunications, or anything foolish like that. A young and hungry team like Michigan doesn’t need any more chances to win than they’re going to get over the natural course of the game flow.
Michigan wins if… they can shut down the Florida running game. As much as Feleipe Franks appears to have grown over the course of the year-plus-spring he’s been in Gainesville, I’m still worried about what happens if he’s asked and/or forced to do too much. And while Michigan doesn’t strike me as particularly apt to shut him down or force mistakes, I reserve the right to have doubts about a Florida quarterback until I see him prove me wrong on a consistent basis given the happenings at that position since 2010.
Overview: In any other year, I’d be scared of Michigan. Jim Harbaugh is one of the game’s top recruiters, and has commanded a reputation of being able to guide teams beyond their projected ceilings. So it’s impossible to take the Wolverines lightly. But this year, the Wolverines are so depleted that it’s impossible to think very highly of them, either. Other schools, take note: if you’re mad at Michigan for any reason, this is your chance for revenge.
There’s a lot of history working against Florida. Jim McElwain is 0-1 against Harbaugh. The Gators have never beaten Michigan in three tries, not even with Tim Tebow. Speaking of Tebow, the Gators haven’t had a highly touted quarterback pan out since his departure on the first day of this decade. And worst of all, Florida hasn’t won a regular season non conference game outside the Sunshine State since the year before Steve Spurrier arrived in Gainesville. (Which is partly due to a fear of playing them- yes, I’m one of the few Gator fans who will accept that. But in our defense… we’re playing this game.)
Yet, history has a funny way of being taken out of the equation when one team is significantly more experienced, bigger, faster, stronger, and better. Sheer talent and guts will keep Michigan in the game, maybe for longer than they should be in it, but there will come a breaking point where Florida flexes its muscle and the young Wolverines will begin to wilt. I have no doubt that Harbaugh will eventually guide this team back to contending for Big 10 and national titles, but Jim McElwain owes him some payback first. And though Florida will struggle a little bit with a new quarterback and the expected first game jitters, he’s going to get it.
Projection: Florida 28, Michigan 17