The season opener is almost here. The No. 17 Florida Gators face off against the No. 11 Michigan Wolverines on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Arlington, Texas.
It’s Year 3 for Jim McElwain, who is eyeing a third straight trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. But first, McElwain and the Gators have to face Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines and will do so without 10 players — including star wide receiver Antonio Callaway and star running back Jordan Scarlett.
SEC Country Florida writers Zach Abolverdi, Jordan McPherson and Ryan Young give their predictions for how the game will unfold inside AT&T Stadium.
Zach Abolverdi: Florida has enough playmakers to pull through
After months of anticipation for Florida-Michigan, game week is finally here and it has not been a smooth one for the Gators. Three more players were suspended for the season opener, meaning the team will be without 10 players against the Wolverines. This is certainly cause for concern heading into Saturday, especially with a young team and a redshirt freshman making his first career start at quarterback in AT&T Stadium.
Jordan McPherson: Suspensions make season opener an uphill climb for Florida
This was a tricky matchup to pick for me even before the Florida’s suspensions. The Gators are fielding a young defense and an offense that will rally around redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks, who was named the starter Wednesday. Michigan is fielding a new starting lineup from last season, returning five starters overall from a team that went 10-3 and lost its three games by a combined five points.
Now, you add in the fact Florida’s top playmakers on offense, Callaway and Scarlett are suspended, and this makes the season opener an uphill climb for the Gators.
Franks has the arm strength and the confidence to carry Florida’s offense, but how well he carries the team in a real-life setting in front of 100,000 people is one of the biggest questions. He’s not going to be perfect, especially early on. There are probably going to be a few bad plays or an untimely turnover before he gets into a rhythm. He’s also not going to have Scarlett to rely on to open up the offense, even though the combination of sophomore Lamical Perine, redshirt senior Mark Thompson and freshman Malik Davis should be serviceable.
That means there’s an extra onus on a defense that’s thin at linebacker and young in the secondary to hold Michigan at bay long enough for the offense to break out — if it breaks out at all.
Ultimately, though, I think Michigan will pull away with a 17-10 win.
Ryan Young: Losing Jordan Scarlett is the difference maker
I’ll be honest. My prediction changed Wednesday. All month, I’ve been expecting Florida to win a close game over Michigan. Even after Callaway was suspended, I thought it was a 50-50 toss-up between the Gators and Wolverines.
Losing Scarlett is enough to sway me.
It’s not because I doubt Perine’s ability. Not in the least. I think he has potential and will put up good yardage. But Florida has been preparing a game plan that we assumed was built around Scarlett as the focal point. Now they have three days to adjust.
I have no doubt they would have rode Scarlett for 25 carries, trusting the proven veteran rusher to take the pressure off his young quarterback. I don’t know if they can ask Perine to do the same. He didn’t get more than 17 carries in any game last season. More to the point, look at Scarlett’s progression from freshman to sophomore to junior. Teammates and coaches were lauding his field vision earlier this week and saying he had found another level in his game. Those are the subtle things a running back learns through experience and adds to his arsenal over time. I think Perine is going to be a fine player, but he can’t be expected to be Scarlett all of a sudden.
So now the Gators have a quarterback making his collegiate debut and a running back taking on a larger load than ever before. They don’t have their best receiver and have to prove they are unfazed by the cloud that currently hangs over the team.
Can Florida win? Of course. Michigan has questions of its own with only one defensive starter back and a rebuilt offensive line. But the reasons to pick the Gators took a hit Wednesday. I’ll say Michigan 20-17, but I won’t be surprised if that score is flipped