No rest for the weary. Michigan takes the field tomorrow in its annual Spring Game, pitting its best players against one another for the third time under coach Jim Harbaugh. For fans, this will be the first chance to see some relatively unknown Wolverines in action, given the departure of seven offensive and 10 defensive starters from the 2016 squad.
As spring practices wind to a end, the entire focus for the program will shift toward preparing for the season opener. Unlike last year when the team kicked off the campaign with a home blowout win over Hawaii, the young and relatively inexperienced 2017 team will have to grow up in a hurry for when it faces the two-time defending champions of the SEC East, Florida Gators, on neutral turf.
- WHO: Michigan vs. Florida
- WHAT: AdvoCare Classic
- WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 (Time TBA)
- WHERE: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
The Gators finished the 2016 season ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll and No. 13 in the Coaches Poll. But how do they look heading into 2017?
Florida has done one thing extremely well since head coach Jim McElwain arrived prior to the 2015 season, and that’s keep its opponents out of the endzone. The Gators join Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State as the only schools that ranked in the Top 10 nationally in points per game surrendered for each of the last two seasons. Last year, the Gators held opponents to just 156 yards per game and 17.9 points per game.
From its stout defense, Florida is losing three linemen, three linebackers and three defensive backs, including star corner Teez Tabor. There is talent waiting in the wings, but it will be mostly untested heading into the season opener. What 2017 holds for Florida may be a shift from defensive dominance to an effective and efficient offensive team.
Quarterback Austin Appleby graduated, leaving the starting position up for grabs. Junior Luke Del Rio, who appeared in six games last season, throwing for 1,358 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions, will battle with two redshirt freshmen, Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. The good news for the Gators: the quarterback will be surrounded by talent with returning receivers Brandon Powell and Antonio Callaway, and running back Jordan Scarlett.
In 2016 and 2017, the Gators garnered the No. 12 and No. 11 recruiting classes, respectively, according to 247 Sports. Much like Jim Harbaugh is doing at Michigan, McElwain is building a program around his own system and finding talented players to buy in. The pieces may or may not all fall into place in the 2017 season, but in the years to come Florida will continue to build into a continual national contender.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Make no mistake, despite losing significant talent from a successful 2016 squad, similarly to Michigan, Florida still has a number of key players heading into the 2017 campaign.
With the quarterback position still up in the air, and therefore doubt about the effectiveness of the wide receiving corps, look for junior running back Jordan Scarlett to carry the load on the ground for the Gators, especially with an offensive line that returns four starters. In his freshman season, Scarlett played backup to junior starter Kelvin Taylor, who garnered over 1,000 yards and subsequently declared for the NFL Draft, opening the door for Scarlett to claim the No. 1 slot as a sophomore. And he didn’t disappoint, leading the team with 889 yards on 179 carries, which, according to the Florida Athletics website, was “the most by a Florida freshman or sophomore running back since 1995.” It’s scary to think 2016 might not have been this guy’s breakout season. Look for him to take the lead for the Florida offense in 2017.
On the defensive side of the ball, there is one guy Michigan needs to keep its eye on: safety Marcell Harris, who led the team in total tackles last season with 73. To begin 2016, Harris was splitting time with teammates before taking the full-time starting position with eight games to play. He is athletic and can hit, and he’ll be a true leader for a secondary that lost two corners and a safety from last season.
Like Michigan, Florida had a rough close to its 2016 season, losing two of its final three contests. Unlike Michigan, which lost its three games by a total of five points, Florida was outscored by 87 points in its four losses.
Heading into the offseason, the general consensus between major sporting publications’ “way-too-early” rankings for 2017 (for people who trust those) puts Michigan around the No. 10 team and Florida around No. 18. Regardless where these teams land on the official preseason ranking list, this should be an exciting Top 25 matchup to begin the season. These teams should produce an interesting matchup, with a young Michigan defense facing a largely unproven Florida offense, and a talented Michigan offense testing a continuously tough Gators defense.
The contest between the Wolverines and Gators will mark the fourth time the schools have met, with Michigan winning all three of the previous games, most recently in the 2016 Citrus Bowl when Michigan hammered the Gators, 41-8, to cap Jim Harbaugh’s first season at the helm. Can Michigan keep its perfect record alive in its 2017 season opener?
Over the course of the summer, we will be breaking down each of Michigan football’s upcoming 2017 opponents.