With the season-opening showdown between the Michigan Wolverines and Florida Gators now less than two weeks away, it’s time to examine three key X-Factors that will help determine who walks away victorious on September 2.
The recent revelation of Florida head coach Jim McElwain‘s decision to suspend seven players for the season-opener, after news broke of their involvement in an alleged financial fraud scheme, has changed the outlook of this contest for the Gators offense. The most pivotal inclusion on the list of suspended players is starting wide receiver and likely future NFL draft-pick Antonio Callaway. With Callaway missing from the lineup, a golden opportunity is presented to former top-recruit Tyrie Cleveland, the presumptive replacement for Callaway as the team’s go-to option in the passing game.
Who’s Under Center?
3-0 in his career as a starter at Notre Dame, quarterback transfer Malik Zaire represents the most intriguing option in Florida’s stable of gunslingers. How his playing style will assimilate to the Florida offensive scheme remains an open question, but his ability to operate the zone read and make defenders miss with his feet is a very dangerous proposition for opposing defenses. As of this writing, Florida has yet to announce a starter for the opener against Michigan. Given the matchup problems it would create and the player’s overall ceiling in relation to his competitors, Zaire appears the most logical choice for the job.
Will the O-Line hold Up?
One of the biggest weaknesses on last year’s 9-4 Gators squad was a lackluster offensive line that was often mismatched against stout front-sevens of the SEC elite. With an opening contest against a Michigan team boasting a pair of future first-round NFL draft picks on the defensive line, coach McElwain and the Gators will not have to wait long to get a feel for the strength (or weakness) of their offensive line.
Secondary in Search of New Leadership
With starting corners Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis both having departed for the NFL this past offseason, the Wolverines will be facing a tremendous experience deficit in the defensive secondary. The depth chart at both corner and safety will be littered with freshmen and sophomores. Among the handful of young and highly-touted prospects whom Jim Harbaugh has brought to Ann Arbor over the past three years, Michigan will need at least two to emerge as stable and productive options.
Lavert Hill, a Detroit product, and former four-star recruit out of King High School appears set to step into a starring role as Michigan’s top outside corner. While his opening day workload may have been eased significantly after the news of Callaway’s suspension, the Gators still possess enough skill at the position to provide a true test of Hill’s ability and potential in Don Brown‘s Michigan defense.
Wilton Speight‘s Development
At times during the 2016 campaign, Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight looked the part of a potential All-Conference player. At others, he struggled to establish the type of consistent performance necessary to compete against high-quality competition. Now surrounded by a much-less experienced cast of supporting characters in 2017, Speight must take major strides forward in his game to keep the Michigan offense in tune while breaking in several freshmen. With redshirt freshman Brandon Peters and veteran transfer John O’Korn each also available, Speight will face pressure to improve his consistency or risk losing his place on the depth chart.
Who’s Number One?
In the passing game pecking order, that is. Faced with nearly the same predicament they find themselves in with the secondary, Michigan will have to replace a pair of graduating starters at the wide-receiver position. The most experienced returnees at the wide receiver position for the Wolverines will be sophomore Kekoa Crawford and slot-man Grant Perry. With Perry’s status in question and at least one open starting position on the outside, it remains to be seen who will emerge as the top options in the Michigan passing game. Reports from spring and fall camp each suggest a sudden impact is expected from freshmen wideouts Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones. After months of speculation, we will soon get a look at Michigan’s newly revamped offense.