When: Saturday, September 2, 2017
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Watch Online: WatchESPN App
Odds: The Wolverines are currently 5-point favorites, via OddsShark.
The long-awaited match-up between the Florida Gators and the Michigan Wolverines is finally here and both programs have new faces and question marks surrounding the team.
When announced in 2013, the Gators were coming off a 4-8 season and Wolverines finished 7-6. The next year, both schools fired their coaches and sought out replacements in Jim McElwain and Jim Harbaugh.
Since then, both programs have been on the rise and both rosters are beginning to reflect the style and personality of their head coach.
The Week 1, neutral-site game will be a first for the Florida Gators, but the Michigan Wolverines played in this same game against the Alabama Crimson Tide to open the 2012 season (and were beaten by the #2 Tide 41-14).
Both teams have high expectations for the season, are ranked in the preseason top-20 and are expected to win more than eight games.
Here is what people who enjoy gambling on college football are betting on. pic.twitter.com/ThWSbxtlaY— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) August 30, 2017
By now, the drama between head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Jim McElwain and the releasing of their rosters has been well publicized. Then early Wednesday morning Jim Harbaugh finally released the updated Wolverine lineup, but still no depth chart.
The Gators released their depth chart Tuesday, but still have the “or” designation for a few notable positions.
The gamesmanship by the two coaches and beef in the media only adds to the anxiety of the two fan bases as the two schools meet for the first time since the 2015 season when Michigan pasted Florida 41-7 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
Proud to announce the 2017 Michigan Football roster. pic.twitter.com/zc3VejbU1R— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) August 30, 2017
No. 11 Michigan Wolverines
On offense, the Wolverines return four starters on offense including last year’s quarterback Wilton Speight who threw for 2,538 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Speight is similar to Gator quarterback Luke Del Rio in that his ceiling isn’t very high, but is smart and athletic enough to move the offense with the playmakers around him.
The team played four running backs last year and lost De’Veon Smith but return Chris Evans who totaled over 600 yards and seven touchdowns on less than 100 carries.
The offense lost wide receivers Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt to the NFL and will have to look to replace 138 receptions, 1,908 yards and 13 touchdowns from a young and inexperienced group of pass-catchers.
No. 1 wide receiver recruit Donovan Peoples-Jones, who chose the Wolverines over the Gators in December, will have to shine in the passing game along with freshmen recruits Tarik Black and Nico Collins.
Returning junior Grant Perry and sophomore Eddie McDoom will provide depth to the young position group, but may not be as talented as the incoming freshmen.
The offensive line will replace three starters and look to some talented youth to fill in the holes. Those young linemen got meaningful playing time due to injury down the stretch and will have to be a strength for Harbaugh’s offense as they replace the bulk of the skill players.
The defense is lead by Coach Don Brown and lost 10, yes 10, starters from their 10-3 season a year ago. Ranked the number two defense last year in defensive S&P+ efficiency, the Wolverines must replace the entire unit from a team that relied on defense as their strength.
The true strength of the 2017 defense are the two defensive linemen Maurice Hurst Jr. and Rashan Gary. These two monsters are locks to be high NFL draft picks and Saturday will have to pressure Gator quarterback Feliepe Franks for the defense to be successful.
The linebackers return starter Mike McCray at linebacker but Harbaugh will have to rely on some new faces in the front seven. All-around athlete Jabrill Peppers is gone to the NFL and the “Viper” position he vacated looks to be filled by sophomore Khaleke Hudson.
Michigan will miss the versatility and leadership Peppers brings to the defense and the young secondary may be susceptible to big plays early in the season. Returners Josh Martellus and Tyree Kinnel played reserve roles last year and will be expected to take over the safety positions.
Like the Gators, the Wolverines secondary is young but talented and will look sophomores LaVert Hill and David Long to secure the outside for the Maize and Blue defense.
There has been a punter and kicker battle in Ann Arbor this fall and are very inexperienced at the position. The Wolverines will go with Freshman Quinn Nordin at kicker who hit a 48 yarder in the spring game.
Quinn Nordin, the kicker of sleepover fame, will be Michigan's kicker, Harbaugh says.— Kyle Rowland (@KyleRowland) August 28, 2017
The 2017 Wolverines are relative unknown on both sides of the ball after losing so much talent to the NFL and graduation. Harbaugh has recruited well and put together back-to-back top ten recruiting classes in 2016 and 2017.
What is known is that Jim Harbaugh will have Michigan ready to play. What is unknown is how they will replace one of the best defenses of 2016 and their four most productive offensive weapons from a year ago.
No. 17 Florida Gators
As of today, the Gators will be missing 10 players when they touch down in Dallas for this weekend’s game. In that group of 10 are stars Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett, who the Gators will sorely miss on the offensive side of the ball.
In the midst of announcing the suspensions Wednesday, McElwain threw a curveball at the gathered media and announced that redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks would be the starter against Michigan. The Gators have a plan for using the other quarterbacks if the situation arises.
McElwain on starting Feleipe Franks: "The whole body of work from Spring on, I think he was a little bit ahead." #Gators— Graham Hall (@GrahamHall_) August 30, 2017
Franks came to Gainesville as the No. 5 prep quarterback, but took a redshirt behind Del Rio and Austin Appleby last year while he became accustomed to the game and the weight room. His 6’6” frame and huge arm make him appealing for McElwain’s offense and has all the physical tools to be a stud in the future.
He performed well in the spring game, but has yet to take a snap as a college quarterback. It will be interesting to see how Franks handles his first start (away from home against Michigan) and how short McElwain’s leash will be if Franks struggles throughout the game. We know that Del Rio and Malik Zaire will be prepared to come in were McElwain to pull the trigger.
The loss of Scarlett for this game leaves sophomore Lamical Perine and senior Mark Thompson to carry the load at running back. Perine came on at the end of last season and produced two 100+ yard rushing games in relief of Scarlett last year. Overall, the duo accounted for 900+ yards of offense and 5 touchdowns as backups.
The Gators will likely see one (or both) of their true freshmen running backs Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons in backup or situational roles while Scarlett remains in Gainesville this weekend.
McElwain says freshman RB Malk Davis is going to “play a ton as well’’ in absence of Scarlett.— Scott Carter (@GatorsScott) August 30, 2017
The Gators are youthful at wide receiver and the combination of Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain will have to pick up the slack on the outside with Callaway out for the opener. The offense is loaded at the slot position returning senior Brandon Powell and junior Dre Massey.
The Gators will also add freshman athlete Kadarius Toney to the slot to add to the speed and versatility of the wide receiver group. The tight end duo of Deandre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis each have their strengths, Goolsby as a receiver and Lewis as a blocker, and athletic freshman Kemore Gamble came on strong in camp to secure the third spot on the depth chart.
Both tight ends are capable and should be utilized more this year with elevated line and quarterback play.
After two seasons of spotty offensive line play and breaking in young players, the Gators offensive line has become a strength for the team according to Coach McElwain this summer. The coaching staff has recruited well after the Muschamp staff left glaring holes and the offensive line finally has the proper depth to compete in the SEC and sustain cohesion through unavoidable injuries.
The line only lost David Sharpe from last year’s group and had multiple players get extended playing time because of injury. The only surprises from this week’s depth chart are that redshirt freshman Brett Heggie is replacing junior Tyler Jordan at right guard. Jordan is a versatile player that can (and has) played all three interior positions. The emergence of freshmen Fred Johnson and Jaewon Taylor on the right side last year gives the gators strength in the run game and consistency in pass protection.
Center TJ McCoy played well at center to finish the year and again secured the center position over the veteran Jordan. All-SEC tackle Martez Ivey moves back to his natural position at left tackle taking the place of the departed Sharpe.
For the first time in McElwain’s stint in Gainesville, he will not have to fill holes on the offensive line with FCS transfers or true freshmen and the offense should see more production because of the experience of this group.
The Gator defense is younger than it has been in a decade and lost some veterans to the NFL last year. The defensive line features redshirt juniors Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark on the inside. Both are looking for breakout years and hope to follow Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie to the NFL.
The Gators added three new defensive linemen in Kyree Campbell, Elijah Conliffe, and TJ Slaton that will all see playing time this year at the position. Veterans defensive ends Jordan Sherit, Cece Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Jachai Polite and Keivonnis Davis will rotate at the position with Jefferson being able to come inside if needed.
This is the deepest group on the defensive side of the ball and return 13.5 sacks from 2016. This unit will have to be more explosive in the pass rush and watch for Antonneous Clayton to emerge and live up to his 5-star billing.
The Gators will be missing a bulk of their linebacker depth against Michigan due to the suspensions, but all three projected starters will be available. Sophomores David Reese and Vosean Joseph impressed the coaching staff last year down the stretch and had their spots locked up by spring practice. Versatile converted safety Kylan Johnson has been battling a hamstring injury and is expected to play this weekend, but redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon may play in his place if necessary.
Behind them, there are walk-ons, former walk-ons, true freshmen and suspended reserves. Randy Shannon and the defensive staff are confident with all four potential starters, but the depth for this game may become an issue if injuries or poor conditioning come into play.
DBU lost three veterans to the NFL in Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye and will be without senior safety Marcell Harris as he recovers from an off season Achilles tear. The Gators return senior safety Nick Washington, senior cornerback Duke Dawson and budding star Chauncey Gardner who will start at free safety this year. The other positions (corner, nickel, dime, etc.) will be filled by the Joseph Putu and the excellent crop of freshmen and redshirt freshmen defensive backs Shannon and company have recruited to Gainesville.
True freshman Marco Wilson, and younger brother to Quincy Wilson, has impressed coaches in fall camp and will start opposite Dawson at the short corner. He is also listed as the first nickel so we may see freshmen Brian Edwards and CJ Henderson play some corner as well.
Starting a true freshman at corner is a scary proposition, especially against Michigan, and the veterans in the secondary will have to ensure these freshman limit their mistakes.
The Gators return two of the most dynamic special teams players in the country in kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend. Pineiro connected on 21-25 field goals and went 3-3 from beyond 50 yards.
The ever-consistent Townsend looks to end his Gator career as the best statistical punter in school history (45.7 yard/punt career average is best in UF history) while being a safety-net for the Gators young defense. Cleveland, Massey and Toney will return kickoffs while Massey and Powell will return punts.
#Gators receiver Dre Massey asked if there's any chance he takes a knee for Saturday's opening kickoff: "Naw."— Dylan Dixon (@dylanrdixon) August 28, 2017
So, what happens?
Both teams come in with unknowns and both fan bases are anxious to see their team take the next step towards making the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have a proven quarterback with a known ceiling and the Gators have an unproven quarterback with an unknown ceiling.
The Gators face suspensions of their offensive play makers while the Wolverines need to replace the ones that went to the NFL. Both defenses have youth in the secondary and are stout in the front seven, especially the defensive lines.
In these positional battles, who has the edge?
Quarterback - Michigan
Speight may not wow anyone with his athleticism, but the guy can play football. Gator fans would fall over themselves to have a quarterback (or multiple quarterbacks) throw for only 7 interceptions while tossing 18 touchdowns. I give Michigan the edge here simply because we know what we get with Speight and have no idea how Franks will fare in his first collegiate game.
Running Back - Push
The Wolverines will feature sophomore Chris Evans who backed up De’Veon Smith last year and the Gators will start sophomore Lamical Perine in place of suspended Jordan Scarlett. Both Evans and Perine are excellent backs and will take everything the offensive line gives them, but the depth behind Perine includes fumble-prone Mark Thompson and two true freshmen. If Scarlett were to play, I think the Gators would win out here, but the depth added by Ty Isaac and Kareem Walker keep them even.
Wide Receiver/Tight End - Florida
Even with the suspension of Callaway, the Gators have more experience and probably more talent at wide receiver. The Wolverines have a great trio of incoming freshmen, but none have taken a snap in college. The combo of Powell, Cleveland and Goolsby were much more productive and should continue to be with better quarterback and line play.
Offensive Line - Florida
The Gators offensive line is finally a strength and the Wolverines have too much to replace from last year.
Defensive Line - Michigan
Both defensive lines are experienced and formidable but Michigan has returning starters inside while the Gators have to replace their NFL departures. Hurst and Gary will prove to be one of the best combinations in the country this year.
Linebackers - Push
The suspensions significantly hampered Florida’s depth at linebacker, but the 2016 projected starters all started last year due to injury and played extremely well. Michigan only returns one linebacker with starting experience although the unit is very talented. Going off of experience alone the Gators are better at this position, but the lack of depth could factor in against Michigan.
Secondary - Florida
The Gators trio of Dawson, Washington and Gardner is one of the best in the country and the holes left by NFL departures will be filled by top freshman and sophomore prospects. The Wolverines must replace Jabrill Peppers and while Kinnel and Metellus have experience, they do not have the starting experience of DBU.
Special Teams - Florida
This is the easiest position to decide as the Gators return two of the best specialists in the country in Pineiro and Townsend and will be one of the biggest strengths of this Gator team. The Wolverines have no returning starters at either position and just named a true freshman their kicker. Michigan will miss Peppers in the return game while the Gators return Powell and a healthy Massey in Callaway’s absence.
Score: 20-17 Michigan
Even though the Gators have an edge in half of the position battles and are equal in two others, the unknown at quarterback carries much more weight. Speight is not going to win the game by himself for the Wolverines, but he sure won’t be the reason they lose either.
McElwain’s Gators have lost eight games in the past two years and all eight can be attributed to poor quarterback play. While we have not seen Franks play in live action and he may the quarterback to finally buck this trend, we just don’t know.
Michigan is going with the devil they know at quarterback and the consistency and confidence may be enough to score on the young Gator defense and put the Florida offense in tough situations.
The Michigan defense will be no slouch after the NFL exodus and the Gators will have to take advantage of the inexperience because the talent will show up. Call me a pessimist, but until we see the Gators have competent quarterback play, I will be uneasy picking them against the elite teams of college football.
Maybe this game is a continuation of 2016 or maybe Franks and the young Gators can prove us all wrong Saturday in Dallas. Tune in Saturday at 3:30 to find out.