Unknowns offer intrigue for No. 11 Michigan, No. 17 Florida
By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
When Michigan released its roster earlier this week and Florida announced its starting quarterback hours later, two of the big mysteries heading into the teams’ season opener were revealed.
Many more remain.
The No. 11 Wolverines and the 17th-ranked Gators should get some answers Saturday in Arlington, Texas. The palatial, 100,000-seat home of the Dallas Cowboys will provide the stage for two programs with high expectations and plenty of unknowns.
“It’s another game,” Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said. “We play at a big venue every weekend. Nothing different; just prepare. We’re Michigan, man. We play in big games. That’s who we are, and that’s why we’re here.”
The Wolverines will start either Wilton Speight or John O’Korn at quarterback. Speight seems to have the edge, mostly because he started 12 games last season. But in his last five starts, which included three losses , he threw five touchdown passes and five interceptions.
A bigger issue for the Wolverines could be replacing 18 of 22 starters, including a bunch of NFL talent on defense. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s defense led the nation in yards in 2016, giving up 261.8 a game, and ranked second in points (14.1). Eight players were drafted off that unit, including All-American safety Jabrill Peppers and pass-rushers Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley.
How quickly and seamlessly Michigan reloads could be significant as the team tries for its first Big Ten title since 2004.
“You’ve kind of got to go on what is their history,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “In the first game, you are always going to see some things you haven’t seen. There’s new wrinkles every year on both sides. … The unknown piece of that, it really comes down to you more than it does the opponent in how you go about it.”
The Gators have their own concerns, beginning with being without two of their best offensive players. Standout receiver Antonio Callaway and leading rusher Jordan Scarlett were among nine players suspended indefinitely for alleged credit card fraud. The ongoing investigation could lead to more suspensions, although McElwain does not believe there are any potential NCAA violations.
Florida has a 10th player suspended , too. Freshman receiver James Robinson was suspended after being cited for misdemeanor marijuana possession last week. He was cited for the same offense during his official visit to Ohio State in January.
“There are no excuses, you know?” McElwain said. “I don’t think we’ve ever made excuses for anything we’ve ever done or anything I’ve ever done. It’s just whatever hand you’re dealt, you go play it. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Gators will have redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks making his first start in what’s sure to be a challenging environment. They also are replacing seven starters on a defense that ranked fifth in the nation and lost coordinator Geoff Collins.
“It’s time for us to make a statement,” linebacker David Reese said. “Florida’s always been the underdog. They picked us to lose, of course. They didn’t think we were going to the SEC championship, but it’s fine.”
Some other things to know about Michigan and Florida:
OPENER STREAK: Florida has the nation’s longest winning streak in season openers. The Gators have won 27 consecutive openers, dating to a 24-19 home loss to Mississippi in 1989. The Gators haven’t opened a season away from Gainesville since 1987 — a 31-4 loss at Miami — and haven’t played a non-conference, regular-season game outside the Sunshine State since losing 38-21 at Syracuse in 1991.
CITRUS CRUSH: Michigan is 3-0 in the series, including a 41-7 thrashing of Florida in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines dominated both lines of scrimmage that New Year’s Day, outgained the Gators 270-28 in the second half, and handed Florida its most lopsided loss in two decades and its second-worst defeat in bowl history. “I didn’t even want to look at the scoreboard,” Gators guard Fred Johnson said. “But, yeah, that’s on everybody’s mind just to prove ourselves, like, ‘We can do this.'”
TEXAS TEARDROP: Florida will wear a special helmet decal during the game to help bring awareness to the thousands of families impacted by Hurricane Harvey. The helmet decal features a teardrop with the Texas state flag inside it.
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