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How important is Michigan’s showdown with the Gators?

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Michigan takes on Florida at Jerry World in a season opener with some big implications.

Photo credit: Dustin Johnston, Maize n Brew

Whether you think this game will be a cake walk or a trial by fire, I have a spoiler: it will matter a lot if Michigan is going to have a great season.

Past Season Openers

Let’s be honest: It’s time to exorcise some season opener demons for the Maize and Blue.

Over the past 15 years - ever since a thrilling #11 vs. #14 matchup with Washington in 2002 - Michigan’s season opener schedule has gone pretty soft. Sure, there was ‘Bama in 2012, and Utah in 2015, and Utah again in 2008. There was the game that shall not be mentioned, as well. All four of those turned out to be losses, by the way.

But before that, Michigan scheduled high-profile season openers about every other year. It helped that Notre Dame was always a willing partner - we played them in 1990 (they were ranked #1), 1992 (they were ranked #3), 1998 (#22) and 1999 (#16). And we won those high-profile games more often that not, including that game against Washington.

But in the last 10 seasons, Michigan is 0-3 vs Power 5 teams in season openers thanks to those two losses to Utah (2008, 2015) and one very humbling loss to ‘Bama in 2012. The Wolverines haven’t won a season opener against a Power 5 team since 2006 when Michigan handled the Vanderbilt Commodores to begin the season. Yes, it has been that long.

Michigan used to open up the season with big games against Notre Dame regularly, but that’s no longer recent memory. The time is now; not next season versus the Fighting Irish in South Bend, but next week in Arlington. Michigan has the opportunity to purge the memories of embarrassing opening losses from fans’ minds and really jump start their season with a win against the Gators on the national stage on Sept. 2.

One of the Biggest Michigan Season Openers of The Last Quarter-Century

I can’t think of a recent high-profile opener that has meant more to the Wolverines than this game against Florida. I think you have to go back to the ‘90s and find a showdown with Notre Dame to find a bigger game.

With how many important pieces the Wolverines have lost from a year ago, a win would prove this team is a real contender. A victory over the Gators buys this young team another five weeks to improve while remaining (hopefully) undefeated in preparation for Penn State. A loss makes the rest of the season a steep hill to climb the rest of the way.

Beating a ranked SEC opponent could go a long way in the eyes of the playoff committee, if Michigan surprises some people this year. It would be a resume-builder - and Harbaugh likes building resumes.

The opener will also give both fan bases a good idea of what to expect from their teams this season. Both fan bases seem to be fairly confident about their teams chances, and both feel like their team will win by double-digits. We’ll see who’s right.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days
UF head coach Jim McElwain told students at a pep rally they are headed to Texas to “beat the heck out of Michigan.”
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Playoffs?

Is the loser of this game out of playoff contention? No. Neither team’s season is over with a loss. Michigan and Florida would both still control their own destinies, but it makes their paths more difficult.

I think Florida could make the playoff with one loss to Michigan, likely even with two losses if they win the SEC. Michigan makes the playoff this year if they win the Big Ten with a loss to Florida; that would be a no-brainer. I think even a two-loss Big Ten Champion Michigan team could sneak into the playoff.

After all, Michigan would likely play Wisconsin twice, as well as Penn State and Ohio State and could possibly win three of the four games. But I’m looking ahead a little.

A Clash Between Fan Bases?

Unlike the season opener in 2012, there is some history between the Michigan and Florida fan bases. I was at that Alabama game in 2012 and I will be at this year’s game as well. There was no tension at all between the fan bases in 2012 in my experience in Arlington.

In reality, why would Crimson Tide fans have a reason to be hostile? They are the most dominant program in college football. The ‘Bama fans were very hospitable and nice. I have been around Tennessee fans and ‘Bama fans a few times and only had enjoyable experiences. My dad and I were given free food and drink by a Air Force veteran Alabama fan at their tailgate, and he even refused to accept payment when we offered it. We couldn’t have had a better experience with ‘Bama fans.

I’m not sure if it’s going to be the same experience this go around. Michigan has beaten Florida twice in the last 10 years: 2008 in Lloyd Car’s last game as head coach and a dominating performance in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. With both fan bases feeling so strongly about their team’s chances, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some tension surrounding the game. The game would go a long way in terms of confidence in their respective football teams. This video by MichiganMade TV shows the past between these two teams in recent years.

This Game is what College Football Needs

There needs to be more openers like this Michigan-Florida game in college football. I give credit to Alabama and Florida State for playing a game that has a National Championship-type feel to it.

The amount of excitement this year surrounding the return of college football feels to be a bit stronger than normal. Fans know they get to watch two prime time matchups on Sept. 2. They don't have to watch their favorite team beat down on East Cupcake State to begin the season. So, the nation’s eyes will in large part be on Michigan and Florida, and that raises the stakes for what’s already becoming a showdown.

Four historically dominant forces in college football have taken initiative to challenge their players and coaching staff to begin the season, and I can guarantee you it’s making the teams better for it. Heck, it’s what Michigan used to do on the regular. These prime time matchups are good for ratings, the teams and the entire college football fan base. I cannot wait to watch one of the biggest season openers in Michigan football history unfold.

Prediction: Florida struggles to find rhythm within their offense constantly shuffling QBs. Michigan’s defensive line makes the difference.

Michigan 27 Florida 17