A great deal will be made of the outcome when Michigan and Florida square off at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium to start 2017 (Sept. 2, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). The Wolverines are in Year 3 under Jim Harbaugh and again considered Big Ten contenders. The Gators are infusing Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire into a third-year Jim McElwain offense and could win the SEC East for a third year in a row.
This game could have postseason ramifications, but it’ll more likely be a majorly entertaining tune-up, with bragging rights on the line.
However, the game will tell us something about which team has the pieces to contend in a conference championship. Each has a big question that the talent of the other can help answer.
Is Michigan finally a downhill offense?
The Wolverines came close in 2016 to the kind of thundering run game that helped Harbaugh put Stanford on the map. Then rising star LT Grant Newsome went down with a gruesome injury, and the shuffling of the line left the Wolverines without a dominant run game. They’ve yet to rank better than No. 80 in yards per rush against teams with winning records.
The first two years of the Harbaugh era were more about dropback passing to veterans Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt. Those guys are all gone.
The Michigan OL has continued to reshuffle. Senior center Mason Cole is sliding out to left tackle, while both guard positions are going to Harbaugh recruits: sophomores Ben Bredeson (eight starts as a true freshman) and Michael Onwenu (350-pound mauler). At the skill positions, the Wolverines return fullback Khalid Hill, an emerging cast of tight ends, and a strong stable of backs led by sophomore Chris Evans (614 rushing yards, 6.9 per carry, does not play Captain America).
Although Wilton Speight returns at QB, the Wolverines will probably invest more of their practice time into finally being able to run over teams.
Here’s an example of their first-team OL and 22 personnel package (two RBs, two TEs) executing power O like a Stanford squad:
It’s a mess of lines on the chalkboard and a bigger mess of bodies on the field, but the key is that the TE (Y here) drives that E out of the picture, to clear room for all the other blockers to find their targets. At TE, the Wolverines will lean on redshirt sophomore Tyrone Wheatley Jr., the 6’6, 276-pound son of a Michigan legacy and NFL star.
The Gators defense, ranked in the S&P+ top 10 three years in a row, should prove a worthy test, despite losing much of its front. Florida does return several contributors and star strongside end CeCe Jefferson. The junior has a knack for disrupting plays with his quickness. He can spill plays to Florida’s always-fast backfield.
You can see him darting inside and tying up the pulling guard, ruining the chances of LSU either securing a downhill angle on the edge or hitting the cutback lane.
If Wheatley can contain Jefferson, the Gators would be in for a long afternoon, but the bigger takeaway would be about the Wolverines’ brutal run game.
Do the Gators have a passing game yet?
The cornerstone of the McElwain offense is the zone running game. The Gators have won the SEC East due to defense, but also thanks to the steady gains they make by running off tackle behind TE-OT double-team blocks on DEs typically recruited for speed and pass-rushing.
Whether Zaire takes over the offense or the job goes to Panhandle passer Feleipe Franks, that run will be a primary part of the offense. The problem is that Michigan is far less susceptible to this tactic then most programs, thanks to coordinator Don Brown’s use of an “anchor” strongside DE and the athlete who’s filling that role this season.
The 6’5, 290-pound Rashan Gary and his counterpart, three-technique tackle Maurice Hurst, are ideal antidotes to the problems presented by double-teams. Between the styles of Michigan’s fronts, the quality of its DL, and its deployment of athletes like Jabrill Peppers over the TE, there wasn’t much to be gained from running at the Wolverines in this fashion a year ago.
Michigan is likely to be more vulnerable at pass defense this year, despite strong pressure from this line. In addition to losing Peppers, Michigan lost the rest of its starting secondary.
The Gators have star receiver Antonio Callaway, rising sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, and tight end DeAndre Goolsby and an OL that returns four starters. If they can finally execute McElwain’s passing attack (UF has ranked in the 50s in passer rating vs. winning teams), there should be opportunities to get after an unproven pass defense.
That attack includes some tweaks on normal dropback concepts, such as this unique way of running the smash combo:
Calloway is open against a Cover 2 bracket (albeit against walk-ons), thanks to a nice fake under the deep safety. That’s not a route combo teams are used to defending on the one-WR side of a set that has three WRs on the other side, and that fake can be tough to defend.
The protection has to hold up this well, and it’d be better if Franks moved his eyes a little, but it might be Zaire who executes this anyway. That begs the question of how well Zaire and Franks are learning McElwain’s passing game before having to learn a complicated Michigan defense.
Because Michigan will be young in the secondary but guided by an aggressive DC, it’ll bring man/zone combo blitzes that might be easier for Florida to beat with Zaire’s improvisations. For instance ...
... Zaire has a strong arm, and if he can build some rapport with Callaway, he’s capable of doing damage outside the pocket or pushing the ball down the field on play action. Michigan knows it’ll have to take care and perhaps double Callaway when it blitzes, to avoid getting burned on comebacks and play-action bombs.
No matter who wins, the takeaways for the rest of the season will be abundant.
This is a tough draw for the Gators in Week 1 to get a team that’s designed to counter the thrust of its offense.
However, the Wolverines are young and inexperienced on defense, and a dual-threat QB who can make plays that weren’t in the game plan is often a trump card in a college game.