For the first time since 2012, the No. 12 Michigan football team will be playing a nationally-televised neutral-site season opener. Coincidentally, the Wolverines will be back at AT&T Stadium, home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, in Arlington, TX.
This time, Michigan will face off against SEC East powerhouse No. 17 Florida — albeit a markedly less intimidating version. While most teams spent the past few weeks deciding which players would see the field for their respective season openers, the Gators were forced to do the opposite, suspending a whopping 10 players — most notably, running back Jordan Scarlett and receiver Antonio Callaway.
Here’s how the two teams match up in the AdvoCare Classic on Saturday:
Michigan pass offense vs. Florida pass defense
Though Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has not named a starting quarterback between redshirt junior Wilton Speight and fifth-year senior John O’Korn, it’s relatively safe to assume Speight, who started all but one game last year, will retain his spot under center.
But even if the Wolverines’ passer remains the same, his targets will change dramatically. Without last year’s star trio, Speight will be throwing the ball to far less experienced hands. Sophomore wide receivers Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom and senior tight end Ian Bunting seem to be their most likely replacements in the passing game.
Florida’s pass defense ranked second in the country in yards allowed per game last season — behind only the Wolverines — but that was before the Gators lost both of their starting cornerbacks and their starting safety to the NFL. Florida’s pass rush, meanwhile, was far less impressive, as the Gators averaged just 2.4 sacks per game. Michigan can breathe a sigh of relief that two of its most pressing question marks — offensive line and wide receiver — won’t be tested as much as they could have been against a different opponent.
Michigan run offense vs Florida run defense
While the Wolverines lost their main contributor in the backfield, the run game seems to be one of their least concerning position groups. Sophomore Chris Evans seems to be De’Veon Smith’s heir apparent, as the speedy back finished as Michigan’s second-leading rusher last year, but fifth-year senior Ty Isaac and junior Karan Higdon will certainly contribute as well.
The Wolverines’ offensive line, by contrast, seems to be one of their most concerning. Besides senior left tackle Mason Cole and sophomore left guard Ben Bredeson, none of the other contenders for starting roles have received significant playing time in their careers.
Though Florida’s run defense averaged 144.5 yards allowed per game last season, its forces are severely depleted. On top of losing its two key defensive tackles and its two key linebackers to the NFL, the Gators recently suspended two reserve linemen and two reserve linebackers that could have provided some much-needed depth. Michigan may have question marks in this department, but Florida has far more.
Florida pass offense vs Michigan pass defense
After a three-way quarterback battle, Florida coach Jim McElwain announced Wednesday that Feleipe Franks had won the starting job. Though unproven, Franks seems to have earned the confidence of McElwain, as he was chosen over the Gators’ former starter and a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, Malik Zaire.
Three of its wide receivers have been suspended, none more important than Callaway. The junior led the team with 721 yards and three touchdowns last season and is one of the Gators’ most dangerous offensive weapons. Still, Florida can turn to Dre Massey, Josh Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland in Callaway’s absence.
Michigan’s secondary, meanwhile, is a work in progress — as is its whole defense after losing all but one starter from last season. The Wolverines will hope that some of their role players can emerge as dependable starters. Junior Tyree Kinnel and sophomore Josh Metellus fit this bill the most with their experience handling Michigan’s blitz-heavy defense. But defensive backs coach Mike Zordich expressed frustrations that no one had separated themselves in the competition for the second starting cornerback spot just over a week ago, and the unit’s relative inexperience could hurt them against the Gators.
Florida run offense vs Michigan run defense
The Gators’ perceived position of strength was dealt a major blow Wednesday when it was announced that starting running back Jordan Scarlett was suspended indefinitely. Scarlett led the team with 889 yards and six touchdowns last year while sharing carries with two other backs and is likely Florida’s most potent offensive player.
The Gators will try to replace him with a trio of backs, but they may not be able to make up for his absence. A strong push from the offensive line would boost their chances, but that task has also been made more difficult, as two reserve linemen are also part of the team suspensions.
Though the Wolverines have to replace their starting defensive line, last year’s second unit played a key role in the dominance of Michigan’s line. As starters, sophomore Rashan Gary, fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst and redshirt juniors Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich will be expected to maintain that level of production.
Kenny Allen pulled double duty as Michigan’s kicker and punter last year, and now the Wolverines are looking for three players to take his place. Harbaugh wants a different punting, kickoff and field goal specialist this season.
The kicking competition is between sophomore Quinn Nordin, junior Ryan Tice and senior Kyle Seychel, while the punting battle has sophomore Will Hart vying against freshman Brad Robbins. The return game has little clarity, as the Wolverines seek to replace the dynamic duo of Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis. Special teams coordinator Chris Partridge has said that roughly a dozen players are in the mix.
Florida is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum in this phase of the game. Junior kicker Eddy Pineiro and senior punter Johnny Townsend were both named to the preseason All-SEC second team. Pineiro made 21 of 25 field-goal attempts last year and 11 of 13 from 40 yards or farther, while Townsend averaged 47.9 yards per punt with 27 downed inside the 20-yard line. This one is a no-brainer.
It may have been a year and a half ago, but there are plenty of players on both teams who were in Orlando for the Citrus Bowl and remember being on either side of Michigan’s 41-7 blowout win over Florida.
The Gators may very well be eager to exact revenge for such a humiliating loss at the end of a successful season, especially since the game was played in their own backyard. But the most important storyline Saturday is how Florida responds to having so many players suspended, with chatter of more suspensions to come.
On top of giving the Wolverines the upper hand physically, that will surely give them a psychological advantage. Considering they already had one from being the victors of that bowl game, the pendulum swings in favor of Michigan in this matchup.
Prediction: Michigan 24, Florida 13