For college football fans, September 2nd has been highlighted, circled, and planned around for the last seven months. By now, we are so tired of watching old and used footage of last year’s highlights; we’re ready for some new ones. Tomorrow is one of the most highly anticipated days of the year and, for Michigan and Florida fans, it features just about as good of a marquee matchup as we can expect in the non-conference season.
One of the many weekly features you can expect to see from the Maizenbrew is a 10 Keys piece the day before every game. So let’s get started with Week 1! Here is ten keys to the game this weekend:
#1 Speight’s Development as a Passer
There has been a lot of drama and uncertainty from the coaching staff about who the starting quarterback will be, but nobody has been particularly fooled. Wilton Speight will take the field as Michigan’s starting quarterback. However, he needs to show development and improvement on his passing ability, particularly throwing downfield. Michigan can beat Florida without an improved Speight, but if he shows some things he hasn’t before, like accuracy on passes over 20 yards, watch out.
#2 Who Has the Better Defensive Front
There’s no doubt both teams have a talented front 7, but will one emerge more dominant than the other? Michigan likely has the edge on the defensive line as Florida’s front 4 is still unproven, but the situation is reversed with linebackers. If Michigan’s front 7 put on a show by stopping the running game AND putting pressure on the quarterback, they may not need a quarterback of their own. If Florida’s front 7 can do the same to Speight and company, it is anybody’s ball game.
#3 The Suspension of 10 Florida Players
By Wednesday, the amount of suspended Florida players was up to 10, but the two most significant names on the list were RB Jordan Scarlett and WR Antonio Callaway. These are, arguably, the two most anticipated offensive returnees of the Gators. Replacing 889 rushing yards, 721 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns from these two players will not be easy, but it has to happen. The Florida offense cannot afford to come out sluggish or depleted against a talented Wolverine defense.
#4 Harbaugh vs McElwain
There has been plenty of drama between these coaches the past several weeks. By the final whistle tomorrow, it is unlikely there will be any love lost between either coach. However, there is a lot of similarities between these coaches who’s programs are in very parallel trajectories in their conference.
Both are third year coaches for their respective programs. Both took over their team after several poor seasons under the previous regime. Both have been steadily increasing the program’s success and quality of players. Both are one team away from winning their conference every year, but are never favored to win (Michigan with Ohio St and Florida with Alabama in SEC Championship). Neither coach has everything to lose from this game, but both have a lot to prove.
#5 Will One Florida QB Emerge as Primary Starter?
The fact that the Gators still did not have a starting QB before Wednesday speaks volumes. In an interview on August 23rd, McElwain implied he would play all three of the competing quarterbacks in Feliepe Franks, Luke Del Rio, and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaier. Almost everyone thought Zaire would win the job in the end, but then McElwain announced Franks would start during a press conference.
I fully expect Zaier to play in running packages and Del Rio to rotate in if Franks disappoints, but Florida is not going to get a ton of opportunity to experiment at this stage. If, by the end of the game, Florida is as equally uncomfortable with all of its three quarterbacks as they are now, they will lose. I am a full believer in the school of thought that if a team has to play two or three quarterbacks, it has no quarterbacks.
#6 Can Michigan’s Offensive Line Dominate Against a Top Defense?
One of the biggest criticisms of the past several Michigan teams has been offensive line play. For most Michigan fans, both of their regular season losses were due to having an inconsistent run game against top tier defenses. Michigan has to show improvement in this area in order to fair well against an SEC defense, let alone challenge for a playoff berth.
#7 Special Teams
Both teams will likely be punting early as they test each other out and don’t take unnecessary risks too early. Here, Florida has the edge with kicker Eddy Pineiro, who was 21-for-25 on field goals last year and punter Johnny Townsend, who averaged 47.9 yards per punt last year. Michigan will be kicking with a new, but talented redshirt freshman in Qinn Nordin and an unproven kicker in Kyle Seychel.
Florida also has the edge in punt and kick returners even with the suspensions. With defense, Michigan has the best track record in getting after punts and blocking kicks.
Neither Michigan, nor Florida will likely look the same by season’s end as young players get experience and experienced players shake off first game jitters. The question is, which team plays looser? Premature timeouts, false starts, turnovers, and broken plays are all evidence of a nervous, overwhelmed team. The most disciplined team will likely win the day.
#9 Which Team Has the Most Talented Running Back?
Scarlett is a strong, power back who can hit the holes hard, stay on his feet, and go the distance. He’s one of the best backs in the country, but he’s suspended. The Gators will likely look to sophomore Lamical Perine (421 yards in 2016) for the majority of the load. He is a balanced back with a good combination of speed and strength. Chris Evans was one of the most elusive backs in the country as a back up last season and finished strong. However, he is a first-time starter, will likely split carries with three other backs, and is running behind a line that hasn’t had a 1,000 yard rusher since 2011. Both backs have quarterbacks with their share of question marks, so their respective teams are desperate for their names to shine.
#10 Will Michigan’s Secondary Hold Up Against Talented Receivers?
The best defense in the nation as far as passing yards per game is returning zero starters in the secondary. It’s unreasonable to expect they will be as good as 2016, but can they keep the ball in front of them and not give up big plays? The two safeties in Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus are solid enough, but can Lavert Hill and David Long answer the call when Don Brown frequently puts them on an island?
Should be a great matchup either way in Arlington, Texas. Just remember. It is football. And it is here.