Am I asking for trouble with this? Yeah, I probably am - which is weird, because I’m normally the last one to talk trash about other teams. Ye college football gods, smite me now.
In fact, not only do I not normally talk trash, but I spent all of August terrified that Florida was going to take the Wolverines down in Arlington. I made a prediction to that effect in mid-July. I’d already given up this game in a back little corner of my mind - that embarrassing corner you always pretend doesn’t exist, and never clean out, and that still has dirty socks.
The Gators were strong, they were fast. They were solving the bigger problems on the roster - they had options at quarterback and offensive line, and good young talent that I believed would play well. But mainly, I liked the Gators’ chances because they were more experienced in some key areas than Michigan’s oh so young roster of lean and mean and still very green athletes. Michigan fans were talking smack about Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier, but I was worried.
I’m not worried about the Gators anymore.
It started in the off-season, when fans were playing “Will they or won’t they” on Antonio Callaway’s suspension rumors. Callaway was without a doubt their best wideout, but I liked some of the breakout candidates like Dre Massey or Josh Hammond, so I wasn’t willing to write them off just yet. They have depth, I thought. Starting safety Marcell Harris got injured in July, and they most certainly don’t have depth in the secondary. But I wrote that off too - for some reason.
Then, in mid-August, Michigan’s first touchdown: Florida was suspending Callaway and six others for “choices that are extremely disappointing.” That was followed up by the loss of Jordan Scarlett just days ago, and that was when I knew: this team wasn’t mentally ready to play Michigan.
At the end of the day, great coaching is all about taking your team’s margin of error and making it as tiny as possible. You want to control the margins - make sure your team is motivated and lacks key weaknesses, and make sure you have back-up plans if the opponent has you beat in any one area. It’s as if you want to simulate the game a hundred times before you ever touch the field, and be able to win it 60 or 70 or 80 times. You need that perfect intuition when the bullets are flying and you know how to steer the ship. Give yourself the best odds, whatever the cost.
Well, Jim McElwain doesn’t have that. Jim Harbaugh does. Harbaugh has driven his players as hard as he possibly could to make that margin as minuscule as possible, and McElwain has responded by fumbling his big opportunity.
Harbaugh put as much pressure as he could on a young Michigan secondary to make them mature as quickly as possible - and McElwain, in turn, gave away his best receiver to make those DBs’ lives easier. Harbaugh threw Aubrey Solomon into the fire to help his defensive tackle depth, and Jim McElwain, in turn, gave away his best running back (and offensive weapon) in Jordan Scarlett. Harbaugh struggled, he prepared, he grinded, and McElwain took his eye off the ball. I don’t know what’s happened in Florida’s locker room, but I know it hasn’t been what they needed.
I hope that I can be proven wrong, and that tomorrow is a great game that challenges Michigan’s players to perform their best. But I already know that Harbaugh has challenged his players to be the best they can be, and that’s where the real battle lies. It is, in fact, possible to win a game before it starts, and now it’s just time to go out and show it.
It’s not a good sign when national outlets are talking about the game by using the headline, “Between Suspensions and QB Questions, Don't Expect Clarity From Michigan-Florida.” But that’s really just a generous way of saying, “Florida did not show up ready.” And Jim Harbaugh is always ready.
And he’s not very kind to those who aren’t.