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Florida vs. Michigan preview: Gators’ advantages eroded by suspensions

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Fun fact: Florida would probably be better with Jordan Scarlett and Antonio Callaway.

Missouri v Florida Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The Florida Gators had a lot of reasons for optimism entering their season-opening game against the Michigan Wolverines this summer.

As of earlier this August, several of those reasons were sidelined; as of earlier this week, there are even fewer of them.

But the Gators have been confident throughout their offseason, and speaking as if they expect to do big things this fall. And there’s no time like the present for Florida to start doing so.

Here’s how we see this game.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Michigan rush defense

Florida would have felt rather good about its chances of handing 20 carries to Jordan Scarlett and getting 100 yards from them, I think. Alas, Scarlett is suspended, and so Florida faces the teeth of Michigan’s defense — a line that features former No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary, five-star freshman Aubrey Solomon, and experienced contributors Maurice Hurst and Chase Winovich despite losing first-round Taco Charlton and two other linemen to the 2017 NFL Draft — with a complement of backs that features no clear leader. Sophomore Lamical Perine was the better of the two returnees — more reliable and versatile than the boom-or-bust senior Mark Thompson — and stands to be the primary choice in pass protection, given that freshmen Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons only enrolled in the summer. Davis may have the best chance of cracking explosive plays, while the other three have a better chance of bulling into or through tackles.

The Wolverines allowed just under three yards per carry in wins in 2016, but that number jumped almost a full yard in losses. And Michigan’s numbers in run defense were worse in its first and last months of the season — thanks to a clever UCF spread attack and good competition in the form of Ohio State and Florida State, largely — than in the campaign’s long middle.

The wild card for Florida? The possible deployment of wildcat and other quarterback-centric run options, made viable by the recruitment of speedster Kadarius Toney and the run-ready Malik Zaire. A gashing run from either of those players or from a situation in which they see the field could do plenty to help a run game that has a significant chance of stalling out.

Edge: Michigan

Florida passing game vs. Michigan pass defense

Florida will be breaking in redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks on Saturday, as he sees his first collegiate action beyond a pair of spring games. But Michigan will be breaking in far more in its backfield, especially given how many different positions Jabrill Peppers played for the Wolverines a year ago.

Peppers was one of four players to be drafted from Michigan’s linebacker and defensive back corps in 2017 — corner Jourdan Lewis was the other major departure — and plugged every hole as a hybrid linebacker/safety, recording 75 tackles to rank third on the team. Now, Michigan has far more holes: 11 of its top 13 tacklers from 2016 are no longer suiting up in maize and blue, with Hurst and Winovich being the only exceptions. (Gary was 14th.) And the players who hauled in all of Michigan’s 13 interceptions are nowhere to be found.

That’s the prelude to an even greener defense — especially in the secondary — than the one Florida fans have fretted over the Gators fielding in 2017, one for which inexperienced former (Detroit) Martin Luther King High teammates and corners Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas may be tasked with handling the somewhat more experienced Tyrie Cleveland and senior stalwart Brandon Powell. Florida will not have Antonio Callaway, obviously, but it has firepower in its receiving corps, and coaches with a penchant for going deep in Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier. If — a significant if, there — the Gators’ offensive line can keep Franks upright, he should connect on a few shots downfield.

Edge: Florida

When Michigan has the ball

Michigan running game vs. Florida rush defense

Michigan’s leading rusher in 2016 was not its best rusher in 2016: De’Veon Smith had 846 yards, but freshman Chris Evans tallied his 614 yards on nearly 100 fewer carries, and threatened seven yards per carry. He’s backed up by Karan Higdon, smaller and fleeter and possessed of his own nearly six yards-per-carry clip in 2016, and Ty Isaac, a bruising runner who was Michigan’s fourth player to tally more than 400 yards on the ground. Wide receiver Eddie McDoom and Peppers also managed more than 150 yards on the ground, and helped form a running game that scored 41 touchdowns, fifth-best in the country a year ago.

But all those carries and yards came behind or around a good, experienced line, one that has given way to more flux and inexperience on the 2017 line. And they did not come in large quantities against Ohio State or Florida State, which both held Michigan under 2.5 yards per carry at year’s end. Florida’s defense is lacking in established, totally healthy run-stoppers — Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark have sat and waited to become those players, while Florida’s linebackers were forced to masquerade as them in 2016 by injuries to Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone — but it resembles those defenses from a talent standpoint, and if its experienced upperclassmen and the touted underclassmen remain disciplined in Randy Shannon’s scheme, it could surprise.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan passing game vs. Florida pass defense

What happens when a question mark faces a question mark? That’s what we’ll see when Michigan throws on Florida, as the uneven Wilton Speight — a tall, strong-armed passer reminiscent of statues with arms of years past — throws to a nearly entirely new retinue of receivers against a secondary with just a few veterans. Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Jake Butt, Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Marcus Maye — almost all of them were integral parts of this matchup two years ago in the Citrus Bowl, and all of them are gone to the NFL now.

Michigan has the scariest athlete on either side of the matchup in freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones — the latest tall, long-striding receiver to come from the high school ranks, and a five-star prospect Florida pursued for a long, long time — but its leading returning receiver is Grant Perry, a wideout who had 13 catches in 2016. Michigan is not keen on throwing nearly as much as it runs under Jim Harbaugh — the Wolverines had almost 200 more rush attempts than pass attempts in 2016, and were closer to even in 2015 mostly thanks to closer games that necessitated more throwing. Speight should have chances to make plays against a young Florida secondary, which will have to hope that whomever plays opposite of Duke Dawson can be competent at corner, but Michigan’s chances of truly aerating the Gators’ defensive backfield appear slim.

Edge: Even

Special teams

Florida’s biggest advantage in this game, on a position-by-position basis, is assuredly at either kicker or punter. Eddy Piñeiro and Johnny Townsend are among the nation’s best at those respective positions, and Michigan is breaking in new players after the graduation of kicker/punter Kenny Allen. If those players are merely adequate, they won’t be as good as the cannon-legged Gators booters.

The return games may be closer to a wash. Florida lost its most dynamic — and decision-challenged — returner in Callaway, and may be tempted to keep the pedestrian Powell on returns as a result; if the Gators instead go with Massey or Toney or C.J. Henderson, they could pop a big return. Michigan, meanwhile, is replacing Peppers, and will also likely fall off — especially on punt returns, where Peppers was fifth nationally and snagged nearly 15 yards per runback in 2016.

Edge: Florida

Other factors

Michigan has been able to ride out this offseason largely without national attention, as Harbaugh’s well-documented antics of this year amounted to a team trip to Rome and the hysterical paranoia of not releasing a roster, rather than spending the months between January and July feuding with the rest of the nation over plans to set up satellite camps everywhere under the sun.

Florida ... has not ... done that.

Whether the Gators’ suspensions are truly deleterious enough on a personnel level — Callaway and Scarlett were the only two suspendees likely to play extensively this Saturday, and many of those suspended were headed for redshirts regardless of their eligibility to stand on the sideline in Dallas — to cripple this team remains to be seen, but there’s a chance that the supposed distraction of that tumult will actually function as a galvanizing factor for a program that has played well with its back to the wall — in wins over LSU and Iowa in 2016, unexpected dominations of Georgia over the last three seasons, and a resurrection act against Tennessee in 2015 — in recent years.

But Florida has far more to gain and less to lose, by my sight, in this game: Michigan is already back or close, and the Gators are not expected to prevail. Is that the cocktail for an upset?

Edge: Even