As the No. 11 Michigan football team’s season opener against No. 17 Florida at AT&T Stadium grows closer, there has been plenty of controversy to pick from. There were jabs thrown between Jim Harbaugh and Jim McElwain about roster releases, the Gators have racked up 10 suspensions and some in Gainesville have called this a chance to redeem the 41-7 Citrus Bowl loss in 2015.
Either way, this matchup will pit two alarmingly similar teams against each other. Both have lost plenty of veterans to the NFL ranks, and both have youthful talent waiting to seize new opportunities.
With that in mind, here’s what to watch for in the 2017 season opener.
1. Will this be Rashan Gary’s coming out party?
The hype has surrounded sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary ever since he committed to play football in Ann Arbor on Feb. 3, 2016. The former No. 1 overall recruit in his class, Gary was given plenty of time on the field in 2016.
He played in all 13 games, accumulating 27 tackles and a sack, but was behind a line stacked with NFL talent in Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Taco Charlton and Matt Godin.
Now, Gary unquestionably has the starting job, and has a chance to wreak havoc against a Florida defensive line that has struggled in recent years. And AT&T Stadium is the perfect place to see what Gary is capable of in a starting role.
2. How will the Wolverines use McDoom?
Michigan’s receiving core is young, and that is exactly what makes them so intriguing as a whole. Maybe the most polarizing among the group, though, is sophomore Eddie McDoom.
His name echoed around Michigan Stadium last year when the Wolverines lined up in the jet sweep package — a phase where he racked up 160 yards on just 16 rushes.
Now, with Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson gone, McDoom has said publicly that he has practiced at every receiver position. If that’s the case, he could become one of the most exciting members of this Michigan offense — whether he lines up at one spot or moves around as the game unfolds.
Either way, he is going to get the opportunity to flash his speed much more on the receiving end. You’re going to want to pay attention.
3. How will the Gators’ running backs fare without Scarlett?
By now, the suspensions that Florida continues to accumulate are well known. The total hit 10 on Wednesday, when it was announced that running back Jordan Scarlett and reserve wide receiver Rick Wells were suspended indefinitely from all team activities.
Scarlett may be the biggest blow yet. He was given a team-high 179 carries last year, racking up 889 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. And without their starting running back, the Gators will likely rely on a committee to replace Scarlett’s production — made up of redshirt senior Mark Thompson, sophomore Lamical Perine and freshman Malik Davis.
Perine backed up Scarlett last season, rushing for 421 yards and one touchdown on 91 carries, while Thompson followed with 299 yards and two touchdowns on 68 carries. Finally, Davis — a former three-star recruit — will be making his college debut against a talented Michigan defensive line.
Regardless, it’s safe to say that life would be a lot easier for Florida with Scarlett, and how effectively this running back trio can fill his shoes could change the outcome of this game.
4. Is Wilton Speight still Michigan’s starting quarterback?
Much like last year, Harbaugh has remained mute on who will start under center for the Wolverines leading up to the season opener. Still, he did clarify that the quarterback competition is — once again — down to fifth-year senior John O’Korn and redshirt junior Wilton Speight.
Speight, obviously, is the candidate with more game experience in Ann Arbor. He started all but one game for the Wolverines in 2016, racking up 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing 61.6 percent of his passes.
O’Korn, however, recorded his lone start against Indiana, when Speight was sidelined with a shoulder injury. And frankly, it didn’t go the way he would have hoped. The former Houston transfer completed seven of his 17 passes for just 59 yards, though his 30-yard rush on third down late in the third quarter kept the Hoosiers from mounting a legitimate comeback attempt.
Ultimately, while no coach on Michigan’s staff will delve into depth charts, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno credited Speight’s growth Wednesday afternoon. And with an inexperienced receiving core, it’s a pretty good bet that Speight will retain his starting job in Dallas.