Heading into the season opener, questions loomed everywhere for this Michigan team.
Who’s going to start at quarterback? Is Chris Evans the guy at running back? Think these young receivers can step up? Can the defense replace 10 starters and still be dominant? How do you fill the void left by Mr. Do-it-all Jabrill Peppers?
Who’s on the darn roster?
There are always lessons to be learned in both season openers and big games, and the matchup with the Florida Gators just happened to be both.
For the most part, all of our questions were addressed, at least to a certain extent, in the 33-17 victory over the SEC East’s finest.
Let’s take a look at what we learned in the win.
Lesson 1: There’s no substitute for speed
This Michigan team looks fast. All over the field. The receivers have some serious speed. The linebackers were flying around. The D-line swarmed. The offensive and defensive units as a whole seemed to have been operating in another gear from a year ago.
You can’t teach speed, as they say, and the Wolverines seem to have plenty of it on this team. The question moving forward will be about how they are able to refine the skills around that speed in order to best utilize it. But with Jim Harbaugh and Don Brown, I don’t anticipate that being a problem.
Lesson 2: The running back committee remains
Ty Isaac certainly had himself a game, tallying 114 yards on 11 carries, but that's not to say he'll be the guy moving forward. We know what Chris Evans and Karan Higdon can do, and both showed glimpses of playmaking ability against the Gators. Freshman Kareem Walker, who's rumored to be banged up, will likely get in the mix at some point as well.
I don't see this unit completely shaking out with a clear frontrunner until Week 5 or 6, but with the varying styles between all the backs this group could realistically keep a steady rotation of playing time throughout the course of the season.
And knowing Harbaugh, the battle for the starting spot will continue indefinitely.
Lesson 3: The best pass defense is a strong D-line
Possibly more than any other unit, the Wolverine secondary was hit hard by the seniors departing from the 2016 squad. To start 2017, there would be fresh faces at both corner positions and at both safety spots.
What is sometimes forgotten, though, as teams look to exploit a young defensive backfield, is that a ferocious defensive line can make passing a nightmare for opposing offenses.
That was certainly the case on Saturday.
Michigan's front seven was fast, aggressive and disciplined, first shutting down the run and then pressuring both Gator quarterbacks. Six sacks and four QB hurries goes a long way in relieving the pressure on an inexperienced secondary.
Lesson 4: Speight’s the guy, but needs to improve
Right now it looks pretty clear that Wilton Speight is still Harbaugh's guy—he has a full year of starting experience under his belt, and he seems to have command of the offense—but his accuracy passing the ball has been a continuous issue.
While one of the pick-sixes that he threw in the first half Saturday wasn't entirely his fault—deflecting off the hands of Kekoa Crawford—the other was unquestionably on him. He also missed a wide open receiver who would have walked into the end zone in the fourth quarter, instead tossing the ball out of bounds.
Speight has all the tools to be a great quarterback at Michigan, but he still needs to put it all together. And time is running out, as freshman Brandon Peters and fifth-year senior John O'Korn are eager to take on the role.
Lesson 5: Questions were answered on special teams
An often overlooked unit, the Michigan special teams had plenty to replace in 2017 with kicker/punter Kenny Allen and returners Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis all moving on. But the group didn't seem to miss a beat.
Freshman Quinn Nordin booted a 55-yarder on Saturday, one of his four successful tries on the afternoon, giving fans the initial clarity as to the future of the position for the Maize and Blue. He's certainly not without mistakes, as he also missed one from 32, but fans should be confident in a long-term solution in the field goal unit.
We didn't get to see the kick return unit in action, but freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones looks to be a solid replacement for Jabrill Peppers in the punt return game. That's not to say he's quite to Peppers' level yet, obviously, but the raw talent is there. Still, he made a few risky decisions, such as scooping up a bouncing ball and fair-catching one inside the 10, but he also showed an ability to secure kicks and make guys miss—hallmarks of a good returner.
There are high ceilings for these Michigan special teamers.
Lesson 6: Closing out opponents may still be an issue
At the end of the Iowa game in 2016, Michigan got the ball up 13-11 with 1:54 left, but was unable to gain a first down and punted the ball to the Hawkeyes 31 seconds later.
At the end of the Ohio State game in 2016, a contest in which Michigan led for the majority, the Wolverines closed out regulation with four poor drives—ending with one interception and three punts.
At the end of the Florida State game in 2016, Michigan scored the go-ahead touchdown with less than two minutes remaining, but on the ensuing kickoff surrendered a 66-yard return.
In each of the three losses a year ago, Michigan had opportunities to close out opponents. It was the difference between a potential shot at the College Football Playoff and another 10-3 season.
This obviously wasn't a major issue against Florida, since the Wolverines dominated on defense, but being unable to convert in Gators' territory, settling for six field goal attempts and failing to put the game out of reach is a problem—and one that, in closer games, could result in more losses in 2017.
Moving forward: What inexperience?
Michigan needed to get past Florida. That’s what we all said before the season.
After that, they could handle teams like Cincinnati and Air Force at home, go play Purdue on the road, and then come back to the Big House to take on the Spartans.
By that point in the season, we won’t be calling this Michigan team quite so inexperienced anymore. No, we’ll be talking about the incredible talent all over the field and how Harbaugh and Brown are wizards at further developing it.
This will be an intriguing season to watch.