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Key Matchups: what to look for in Saturday's showdown between Florida and Michigan

With the highly anticipated contest between Florida and Michigan just hours away from kicking off the 2017 season, here's what could make a difference in the game.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It is getting to the point where the days are turning to hours until the kick-off for the season opener between Michigan and Florida as a premier game of the weekend nationally.

For both teams, the stakes are rather high. It’s two programs that have been getting back to relevance on the college football landscape, on the cusp of being a top team in the country.

They are both good, but not quite College Football Playoff good yet.

With that being said, this game should mean a lot to both sides. In anyway that you cut it, the loser of this contest will have to be flawless (barring anything crazy) the rest of the way to have a shot at the CFP.

Michigan will have Penn State and Wisconsin on the road, plus the win their program and Jim Harbaugh need so badly against Ohio State. For Florida, the SEC offers enough tough games (LSU, Georgia, Tennessee and quite possibly Alabama) and Florida State to make a playoff trip more of a dream rather than a reality if they lose to Michigan.

There are so many “what ifs” and question marks on both sides that will start to reveal their answer during this game, but overall, it seems to be a pretty even matchup.

Here is what you should keep your eye on during Saturday’s game in Arlington, Texas.

Michigan’s O-line vs Florida’s Defensive Front

For Michigan, this could be an area that changes the game. The Wolverines have a lot of new faces on their entire team, but even their returning ones on the offensive line are shifting.

Senior Mason Cole is moving down to the left tackle slot and the guard positions will be played by sophomores Ben Bredeson (eight starts as a true freshman) and Michael Onwenu. With the other two spots being held by newcomers, this leaves an area of concern for the Wolverine offense.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Florida has a veteran front seven players returning that was ranked fifth overall in the country a season ago. They have a rotation of defensive ends (headlined by Jabari Zuniga and Jordan Sherit) that can get to the quarterback quickly and rush the passing game with great effectiveness.

Whether John O’Korn or Wilton Speight start the season, their experience can only be an advantage if they get time to fins their young wide receivers. Also for Chris Evans, who has a lot of high hopes, and the rest of the Michigan running game, it will all start up front for the success they have in this game.

It’s a serious advantage for Florida that will have to be the difference for them to win the game, after all, it basically was why the made the SEC championship game a season ago.

Florida’s QB’s vs the Michigan defense

For Jim McElwain and the Gators, things didn't get any easier for their quarterback issues when they lost their top receiver Antonio Callaway due to suspensions addressed earlier in August.

The starting QB will more than likely be the Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, but regardless if it’s him or others getting playing time, they will be playing in their first big game in the blue and orange jerseys. For Michigan and their new secondary, this means wonders.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Without Callaway being in the game and Zaire trying to get things rolling, it leaves an opportunity for the Michigan front seven to take control of the trenches early and force the Gators into some early turnovers or quick possessions.

Florida does still have some talent returning in junior wideout Brandon Powell and the sophomore rising star Tyrie Cleveland that have shown they can make big plays in the passing game. However, playing a bigger role right out of the gate could still limit the damage and allow the Wolverines to have better coverage.

Michigan’s defense has enough returning that they have the advantage, and if Rashan Gary and company can get the quarterback early, Michigan’s secondary should be able to limit the damage through the air, making this a huge aspect to how the game plays out.

Special Teams

It’s overlooked before every game and truly never gets the attention it deserves, but special teams wins and loses games more often than people think about it.

Michigan fans will soon realize how big of a loss Jabrill Peppers was in the return game. Last season, whether he caught the ball or it was kicked away from him, he was giving his offense good field position to start the drive more times than not.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

With Michigan’s youth on offense and no sure fire return game that will blow other opponents away like Peppers did, it will be very possible for this to be a large reason they struggle to move the ball if they can’t sustain long drives.

Florida, on the other hand, will suffer from the Callaway suspension yet again. He was their top special teams return man a season ago, and without him in this game and a offense with multiple flaws as well, they could have the same problems the Wolverines may experience in this first game.

Also, while Harbaugh won’t officially give away any starters, freshman kickers Quinn Nordin (field goals) and Brad Robbins are expected to start and replace Kenny Allen from a season ago. Although some people weren't the biggest fans of Allen, he got the job done more times than not. This could truly also play a large role in where Florida starts with the ball.

What will happen?

On paper, this matchup is about as even as they come and will be a great test for both teams to prove what they are made of early on. At the end of the day, it seems like the team that can grind out the best offensive possessions and find ways to get the ball in the end zone will walk away victorious.

The question is, will that be Michigan’s young, yet talented offense led by Speight, or will it be Florida who can find a way to jell quick with a new quarterback and the loss of Callaway.

Also just announced on Wednesday afternoon was the suspension of two more Florida players, one being their starting running back Jordan Scarlett. This just adds to problems with Florida's depth, and gives the Wolverines one less player to prepare for.

Both defenses will hold their own for most of the game, but it will be all about what offense can stay on the field more and keep their defense fresh for the fourth quarter.

In my eyes, the loss of Florida’s leading receiver in Callaway and running back Scarlett will play to be too big of a difference, and Speight will manage his offense better than Zaire will in his first game with the Gators.

Final Prediction: Michigan 20 Florida 13.

The game will played at Cowboys Stadium, otherwise known as “Jerry World”, on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and you can watch the game on ABC.