The 2017 season kicks off with a monster game against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys. This is part of national television doubleheader, with a lot of media attention and fans across the country tuning in to watch 2 big-time programs. There are a lot more questions than answers going into the start of the season. Has Coach McElwain finally constructed a competent offense? Does Florida have a QB? Is Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon re-loading the defense, or is it a re-build? Can Florida set aside the off-season distraction of suspensions to 7 players and play a focused, hard-fought game? We’re about to find out.
On offense, Coach Mac has been coy with the media about who will start at QB, but I am going with my season preview pick of Feleipe Franks as the guy who gets first crack at it. To help move the ball against a tough D-Line and keep Franks upright, I believe Coach Mac and Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier will have an assortment of quick passes, roll-outs, motion, counter plays, and misdirection to keep the QB clean while (hopefully) wearing down the Wolverine defense. I do expect to see at least 2 guys taking some snaps, though, as Mac has to develop Malik Zaire in this offense (he is a real threat as a runner), or get Luke Del Rio the opportunity to shake some rust off after missing the last month of 2016 due to various injuries.
The Gator O-Line will have to take charge of the LOS against a strong Michigan front four, and actually score enough points to help a talented but inexperienced defense. New OL coach Brad Davis has an O-Line that has enough experience, depth, and talent that it should be able to do enough to allow the skill position players their chance to make some big plays and announce themselves to the nation. Martez Ivey will be playing hurt, but is a potential all-SEC LT. TJ McCoy has to build on his good play at center after he became the starter the last month of 2016. Jawaan Taylor will be even better after a fine freshman year at RT. If the combination of Tyler Jordan, Fred Johnson, and Brett Heggie can hold their own in the interior, this will make the life of whomever is playing QB much easier.
New RB coach Ju’Juan Seider has a deep stable of RBs ready to do their part, if they are given some room. Jordan Scarlett and Lemical Perine will get most of the carries, and Mark Thompson is a big back that could start for many teams. True freshman Malik Davis may get some work if Thompson is suspended for the game. All of them are good receivers as well, and can really help take some pressure off of the QB with some safe throws while getting out into space to make plays.
The WRs must take up the slack for the loss of Antonio Callaway to suspension. It’s time for coach Kerry Dixon to get consistent performance out of this group. Tyrie Cleveland and Josh Hammond have their turn to show out, while Dre Massey, Brandon Powell, and freshman Kedarious Toney could do some serious damage from the slot, as all are big play threats. Toney will also get a few snaps in the wildcat formation in order to keep Michigan’s defense honest while giving him additional touches where he could make something happen. Michigan’s secondary is completely new, so the Gator WRs should have a decided advantage and be able to generate some big plays.
Michigan is replacing 7 defensive starters with a lot of young talent, but it is inexperienced, and it’s doubtful they have reliable depth to count on at the start of a season. Their D-Line has real quality players in Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, and Bryan Mone. This is the strength of their defense, and will be a huge challenge for Florida’s O-Line. At LB they have only one returning starter in Mike McCray, but he is a potential all-conference player. Michigan likes to employ a big safety on a majority of snaps that can drop down into the box, but they no longer have the luxury of All-American Jabrill Peppers, who is in the NFL. Their new secondary has very little experience, few tackles, and no interceptions among the group. A bunch of lightly-used upperclassmen and true freshmen will be thrown in to the fire, and it’s imperative that Mac and Nuss exploit them.
The Gator defense has a lot of unknown talent getting it’s chance to make a name for itself. Despite the losses of 8 players to the NFL, there is enough talent and depth returning to again be an upper-level SEC defense and hold it’s own against any offense. The D-Line will need to lead the way, in order to protect a good LB corps that lacks depth and a secondary that has lost impact players and is very young. The DT rotation of Taven Bryan, Jachai Polite, Khairi Clark, and 3 freshmen have to stand up to a tough Michigan running game. The Wolverines are replacing 10 offensive starters, and Coach Jim Harbaugh will rely on the run along with multiple TE sets to try and wear down Florida’s front seven. It will be fun to watch Randy Shannon and DL coach Chris Rumph mix and match a deep rotation to try and gain at least a stalemate at the LOS and be able to turn loose a large group of pass-rushers at DE. If the Gators can force Michigan to pass, CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, and others should be able to make life miserable for QB Wilton Speight, new OTs and an inexperienced WR corps.
Shannon’s defensive schemes usually ask the D-Line to occupy the blockers, allowing the LBs to clean things up. The starting LB group of David Reese, Kylan Johnson, and Vosean Joseph will be tested by the Wolverine running game, and have to tackle well. Michigan returns 3 RBs that combined for over 1,500 yards, led by Chris Evans, who has elite size and talent and should get the majority of carries. Coach Tim Skipper has only Jeremiah Moon and Christian Garcia as experienced backups, and will have to manage this group wisely.
When Michigan does choose to throw they have a young but physically large group or WRs led by Grant Perry and Eddie McDoom, but true freshmen Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones will play a lot. They will have a size advantage over CBs Duke Dawson, Chauncey Gardner, Joseph Putu, and a handful of true freshmen led by Marco Wilson. These guys have to try and alter routes at the LOS and prevent letting the WRs use their size on slant routes. Nick Washington is the only returning starter at safety, and will be tasked with getting the entire secondary lined up properly and getting the right coverage calls in. Jaewon Taylor saw increased playing time the last month of 2016, and needs to play well. Gardner may have to move back and forth from CB to safety during the game. Freshmen Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart will be pressed into duty and, while being promising prospects, have zero college experience along with being thrown into a high-pressure game against a quality opponent. Coach Corey Bell is going to have his hands full all season finding the right combinations of players while having to develop the young guys immediately.
One area that Florida should have a sizeable advantage is on Special Teams – especially the kicking game. K Eddy Pineiro and P Johnny Townsend could be the best kicking duo in the country, and could prove to be a huge edge in the field position battle along with providing relief to both the offense and defense. Both will have to be sharp from the outset and come through in pressure situations. There may so little room for error in this game that either one could be the difference. With Callaway out, Massey or Powell will handle punt returns, while Cleveland and Toney will get their shot at kickoff returns. Each of these guys has the ability to impact the game with a big return, which would take some pressure off of both the offense and defense.
I can’t overstate how important this game is to both teams to start the season. There is a lot riding on the outcome for Florida – national respect, conference pride, building confidence in the direction of the program, and a boost in the chances of this year’s team attaining some major goals. Coach McElwain now has most of the roster filled with his own recruits, and has to try and put together a big season against a very tough schedule. The entire staff and the players have to be as prepared and as sharp as can be expected right out of the gate, with little room for error. Having the entire offseason knowing they had Michigan in the opener has hopefully given the team the focus and incentive it needs to win. If the offense finds it’s footing and actually carries it’s own weight, while the defense plays solid assignment football and limits big plays, I think the Gators have enough of an edge in experience to win the game.
Prediction: Florida 24 Michigan 20