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Roundtable: What to look for in the season opener

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl - Michigan v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Ed: Hey, guys, let’s get right into this one. The season is finally here. What are you most eager to see in the opener?

Von: I’m just eager that football is finally back! It’s been much too long.

But on a real note, I am eager to see how Michigan’s corners react to Zordich’s comments from last week. Michigan’s secondary coach isn’t pleased with the position at the moment (minus Lavert Hill) and I cannot say I am surprised.

The inexperience from this group is greater than any other position on the team, so there are bound to be growing pains. Stepping up against a top-25 team like Florida to begin the season would be a nice thing to see out of the corners, so I am definitely going to be keeping my eye on them all day.

Colman: Game week at last! The week before the first game is my favorite of the season. Expectations are always high and unknowns are plenty and we get to re-evaluate and totally overreact one way or another in a week from now.

I am most eager to see if the offense takes as big a step forward as I think it will. Every QB has had his chance to learn and grow in Harbaugh’s system and that typically means a step forward in that department. The running back stable is deep and each guy brings a little something different to the table.

Tight End U is in full effect and the WR...well it’s been noted, we have a lot of talent there. If the O-line comes together I think we’re looking at one of the best offenses in college football. With a perennial top defense lining up across from them on Saturday we’ll get to find out if they are ready to take the next step up.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Florida Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

David: I am excited and eager for a few things.

  1. Play at quarterback with a lighter Speight, though he's not been officially named the starter yet.
  2. Play of young wide receiver group and special teams to see who takes punt/kickoff returns.
  3. Which freshmen establish themselves with a great game.
  4. Secondary and how they can eliminate big mistakes in the first game for many.
  5. Rashan Gary (top player in 2016 recruiting class) vs. Martez Ivey (top player in 2015 recruiting class)

Jared: Just knowing that football is back makes me want to run through a brick wall out of excitement.

There is no shortage of things I am anxious to see, but I think just seeing so many of Harbaugh’s recruits together is going to be exciting. It won’t be the real deal until Peters or McCaffrey is starting at quarterback, but this is as close of a look as we have had. I anticipate a team that plays faster and more athletically, and has the kind of offensive line that can wear you down and win games. Won’t that be nice to finally see again after a decade?

Specifically, I am all in on Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson on the defensive side of the ball. I think those dudes are going to be terrors by the end of this season, and just a shade behind Gary and Hurst as our best defenders.

Offensively, I want to see a 1,000-yard rusher again. Chris Evans has every tool to be that guy—it’s time to make it happen. Just seeing the Maize and Blue back on the field is a victory in itself.

Drew: It’s definitely not Michigan’s alternate all-mustar…, er pardon me, all-maize uniforms.

I’m most eager to see how Michigan’s new-look offensive line performs. It was the Achilles’ heel last season, as the Wolverines struggled to run the ball against top competition, particularly when trying to close out games in the fourth quarter, and it is their biggest offensive concern this season. Mason Cole is a known commodity and All-Big Ten caliber, yet he has been forced to shift back out to left tackle from center. Everyone else? Not so much. Will Ben Bredeson begin to resemble his recruiting billing after an understandably up-and-down true freshman season? Can Patrick Kugler be serviceable at center after being a career backup? Is mini-planet Michael Onwenu ready for primetime? Will the right tackle (hint: Nolan Ulizio, per Wolverine247’s Isaiah Hole) being anything other than a sieve? Those are lots of questions that must be answered.

And we are going to learn those answers right away against Florida. The Gators’ defense was No. 4 in S&P+ and No. 11 in Rushing S&P+ in 2016 and projected to be No. 2 in S&P+ in 2017. Further, Florida is likely to be most fierce up front, which will be staffed by defensive ends Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga (combined 15 TFLs and 6.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Taven Bryan (No. 10 in pass-rush productivity among returning interior defenders, per Pro Football Focus).

If Michigan wins the line of scrimmage offensively and can churn out yards on the ground late in the game, it would be a very, very promising sign for the rest of the season.

Ed: Since we know Harbaugh withholds as much info as he can from the media during fall camp, let’s talk question marks still looming for the opener. What are some of your biggest concerns heading into this one?

Von: My biggest concern is by far the secondary, but another question mark for me is the kick/punt returning job. Over the past few seasons, we have been fortunate enough to not have to worry about that thanks to two guys named Jabrill and Jourdan.

But who will be the new punt and kick returner this season? Eddie McDoom? Donovan Peoples-Jones? Multiple players? We will soon find out, I suppose.

Colman: I have to agree with Von—the secondary is the biggest concern starting with those young corners. The rest of the concerns aren’t even close. I could throw RT in here as a distant second place finisher, but I think it pales in comparison. If we need to shift the line around to cover that spot I think we can. However, the corners are out on islands in this defense and if these guys aren’t ready we’ll know immediately. With Washington’s exit, depth is even thinner and the starters are going to have to shoulder the load.

David: Secondary group, but also the offensive line. I think the guys we have like Tyree Kinnel and Lavert Hill will do fine but there will be growing pains. Our defensive line will be solid causing many quarterbacks we face not much time to throw. If these two groups can improve over the season we may be in for a thrilling November.

A solid offensive line can help Michigan establish a strong run game, which is something they have not had in several years. If we can create an impressive run game this year, it could mean a few more wins than many predict.

NCAA Football: Florida Spring Game Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Jared: My colleagues already touched on it, but the secondary and the offensive line will be the two position groups to keep an eye on.

Wilton Speight’s development will be a make or break aspect of this team, and I am interested to see how much he improves going into his second year as a starter. This is supposed to be a rebuilding/reloading year, but if he takes a major leap forward, it could catalyze this team to a big year.

The kicking game also has question marks, if Quinn Nordin has the kind of ridiculous, crime-fighting-leg that it looked like he had in the Spring Game though, we will be fine.

Drew: I must be in an echo chamber because the two biggest concerns are the offensive line and the secondary. I already addressed the offensive line in my answer above, so I’ll address the secondary here, even though it is not as much of a concern as the offensive line for the opener. This is because Florida likely does not have the weapons to stretch Michigan vertically. Star wide receiver Antonio Callaway (721 yards, 13.4 YPC) and four-star incoming freshman James Robinson are out with suspensions. Sophomore Tyrie Cleveland (298 yards, 21.3 YPC) appears to be the Gators’ only starter who can get over the top. However, he had just 14 catches last season, and 98 of his 298 yards came on one (monumental) play. Can he do this consistently? And will redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks be able to get the ball to him consistently? Even with a brand-new secondary, Michigan should make that a “no.”

Ed: Okay, now onto the contest itself. How does this Michigan team matchup with Florida?

Von: Well. Very well, I believe.

A lot of my confidence, however, hangs in the balance of Michigan’s offensive line. If it holds up like I think it will, the offense can be deadly. Having Chris Evans as your lead back with Karan Higdon, Ty Isaac and Kareem Walker getting in their to do their thing, this run game can be dangerous. We all know the speed and athleticism of the receivers on the team, young and old. Match up that athleticism and height against Florida’s relatively small (height wise) secondary, and you have mismatches all over the field.

Defensively...look, I could spend all day talking up that line, but I will save my words. Florida’s offensive line is going to get worked all afternoon. Gary, Hurst, Winovich and Mone are hungry and ready to feast on quarterbacks.

Colman: I think we have advantages in several areas—the QB, the RBs, and the DL stand out to me and those may be the difference in the game. However, the biggest advantage we have is Jim Harbaugh. Last time these two coaches met it was not good for the Gators and though there are two different teams lining up on Saturday, theirs looks very similar to the one that got smoked in the Citrus Bowl, not to mention they have suspensions all over the field. Harbaugh studies his opponents well and will have our guys ready for whatever they throw at us.

Again, I’ll have to agree with Von on the OL, if they hold up in the running game I see this being a big win. Despite the inexperienced secondary, Michigan’s defense will be very, very good and I don’t see Florida being able to keep up.

David: I see it ending like the last three matchups have since 2003. Michigan’s defense is too strong in the second half with Florida playing multiple quarterbacks and is a comfortable first win for the Wolverines. The offense features several guys at RB, TE and WR in the rotation. Several freshman have great performances and true starters from last year do very well. Gary wins the battle against Martez Ivey and gets two sacks.

Jared: I will echo what my comrades said in that I think this is a very winnable game for Michigan, and that was before the suspensions. If our offensive line plays well and gives The Accountant Wilton Speight time to operate, I think we will grind them down with ball control and a stingy defense. The X-factor would be if our secondary is REALLY porous, and are allowing big plays all afternoon. That seems unlikely though, as Michigan’s safeties are sound and this is a well coached defense. Not to mention, it is difficult to throw an accurate ball downfield when Rashan Gary is hunting you like a lion hunts gazelle.

Drew: This will be a defensive duel. Michigan has an excellent defensive line and strong defensive front seven, which should make life difficult for Florida running back Lamical Perine. Florida has an excellent defensive line and strong defensive front seven, which should make life difficult for Chris Evans and the rest of the gang running behind an unseasoned offensive line.

This game will be decided by which quarterback can exploit the other team’s inexperienced secondary the best. There have been some questions this offseason about Wilton Speight’s ceiling, but not nearly as many those asked about Feleipe Franks, who will make his first career start. Speight, when healthy, has shown the ability to make crisp, tough throws and the composure to stand tall in the pocket and shed rushers. More faith should be placed in him to be the game’s best quarterback, especially when Franks will not have the luxury of throwing to its best playmaker, Antonio Callaway.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Florida Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Ed: I personally think Michigan has the edge in this game. Florida is a good team, there’s no doubt about that, but I think there’s enough leadership and talent left on this Michigan roster—not to mention great coaching—to pull it out. But I want to get your final thoughts and predictions on this one.

Von: I agree, Ed. The leadership on both sides of the ball is encouraging and well needed, especially at the quarterback position.

I think this will be either A) a blowout, or B) a really, really close game. I think Michigan wins, either 42-7 or 27-20.

Colman: Very bold Von, way to go all the way to the end of the limb there. I see where you are going’s always tough to predict the first game, especially with such a young team. I’m on the blowout side, but I think Florida will get more than 7. I’m thinking 42 sounds pretty good, but the Gators get 17. Michigan is bound to have a few mistakes out there that will give Florida an explosive play or two to get them a few scores.

David: I see this not being as high-scoring compared to the last three games in the series. The final score on January 1, 2016 was 41-7 and Michigan has outscored Florida in the three matchups 120-72. I will say a final score of 34-21 with Michigan pulling away in the second half after some halftime adjustments. The new coaches with Pep Hamilton and Grey Frey help the offense click better than expected as well. Secondary commits a few costly mistakes turning big pass plays into points.

Jared: I think Von covered all of our options here, in that it will in fact be either a blowout or a close game. I will go with a close game that has Michigan pulling away in the second half. It will be interesting to see how the secondary holds up towards the end of the game when trailing offenses start airing it out trying to make a comeback. Michigan holds on to win it, 31-24, but dominates the game on paper.

Drew: You guys are predicting way too much scoring. The O/U is 45, and I would still consider taking the under if it was 35. These are two defensive-oriented teams with questions in the secondary and about their aerial attacks. This is setting up for a first half full of stuffed runs and booming punts as both teams try to figure not only each other out but of what their own team is capable.

However, in the second half, Wilton Speight will settle in and connect with Tarik Black, who will demonstrate why he has received so much offseason hype, for some big passes and a critical touchdown, and Michigan will walk away as the victors, 20-10.