2017 Michigan Football Season Preview: Previewing the Four Biggest Games of the Year

The season is officially underway and college football Saturdays are just four weeks away. Michigan opened up fall camp on Monday in preparation for their opener against Florida on Sept. 2.

Opening with Florida should provide extra, all-around focus in August, even though Jim Harbaugh won’t admit it. In fact, UM plays four games that stand above the rest in regards to having that “big game” feel.

UM theoretically should win all other eight games on their schedule. Each of these four games have factors that could lead to victory or defeat. Here is my breakdown of the Florida, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State games: 

Game #1: Florida, Sept. 2 at AT&T Stadium

Feel Good Factors:

  • UM owns Florida and Harbaugh just demolished the Jim McElwain-led Gators in 2015. UM leads the all-time series 3-0, all January 1 bowl wins.
  • Florida has struggled offensively since Tim Tebow left and will start either Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. Either way, they will have to adjust to the blitz orders given by Don Brown. Also, the Gators will be breaking in a new center, likely TJ McCoy. Communication between a new center and new quarterback in an atmosphere like AT&T Stadium should give Florida offensive issues for at least the first half.
  • Florida has just three guys back that started on the SEC runner-up defense a year ago. However, just like UM, they have several guys that played a lot of snaps. Cornerback Duke Dawson held off on the NFL for one more year and is their the most well-known defensive player. Jordan Sherit returns at defensive end, but will have to wait for Cece Jefferson to be assigned an official position before determining his role. Jefferson can play both inside and outside, much like Rashan Gary. Safety Marcell Harris had a nice first year of starting last year for Florida. With Harbaugh’s difficult-to-prepare-for offense and returning Wilton Speight and Chris Evans, will Florida be able to stop UM?

Feel Bad Factors:

  • Antonio Callaway is a difference maker. Although Callaway was cited for possession of marijuana back in May, it does not look like he will be disciplined by McElwain. Callaway is electric and explosive with the ball in his hands. UM will start two new cornerbacks, likely David Long and Keith Washington with LaVert Hill, Brandon Watson, Ambry Thomas, Drake Harris and Benjamin St-Juste getting game reps early on. Callaway has the traits of a slot receiver but plays primarily on the outside and likes to run straight by corners.
  • Defensively, UM returns only one true starter in Mike McCray. Conversely, Florida returns eight offensive starters including four offensive linemen and running back Jordan Scarlett. If Doug Nussmeier’s offense finally clicks with the returners and the new quarterback fits right in, the Gators can move the ball effectively.
  • With UM breaking in new starters all over the place, could the moment just be too big? It is impossible to simulate the atmosphere, noise, and pressure of a top-20 matchup in a big stadium in your first game as a “true” starter. Although guys like Gary, Eddie McDoom, and Evans played a lot last year, they were not asked to do it all at their respective positions. Mix that in with true freshmen and you get a group with very little experience.

Game #7: at Penn State, Oct. 21

Feel Good Factors:

  • Penn State has “overrated” written all over them. Coming off of a magical Rose Bowl season in which they had all the breaks go their way and their receivers bail out Trace McSorley on jump balls in every big moment, Penn State simply cannot be that good two years in a row. Now, that doesn’t mean that Penn State can’t enter the game 6-0 (keep reading), but the wins will likely not all be wide in margin like a true top 10 team.
  • By this time, UM should have its offensive growing pains behind them. Speight will be starting to generate NFL draft buzz, Evans could be a Heisman dark horse, and Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black will be playing like upperclassmen. Being able to attack vertically down the field and have a speedy running back should help light up the scoreboard. Scoring points should not be a problem like last year’s Wisconsin and Iowa games.
  • Defensively, UM’s confidence should be growing at this point, especially after holding Penn State to only 10 points a year ago. “New” starters will start to become known as just “starters.” Brown should have his unit up to the challenge of facing McSorley and Saquon Barkley.

Feel Bad Factors:

  • Barkley is arguably the best running back in the country and has four starters back from the offensive line that paved way for him to 1,496 rushing yards. Barkley is a difference maker and will likely be the first running back taken in next year’s NFL draft.
  • Penn State returns all but one of their offensive starters from last year’s Rose Bowl team. Not that their numbers were earth shattering (with exception to 37.6 points per game), but experience of winning always helps.
  • Coming off of a bye week has its positives and negatives. In this case, it should help Penn State. It comes at the right time, the midpoint of the season. UM, however, will have already have had their bye week and played two games after it. Also, it will be a rowdy atmosphere, likely at night.

Game #11: at Wisconsin, Nov. 18

Feel Good Factors:

  • Wisconsin’s style is not something that should give UM problems. They like to play hard nosed football and UM does as well. Wisconsin is not historically flashy in any way and just has solid players that do their job.
  • UM has a speed and athleticism advantage all over the field. McDoom, Evans, Hill, and Thomas all are elite athletes. If UM can use their speed (unlike vs Iowa in 2016), they should be able to stifle the Badgers.
  • Although Wisconsin has a top-notch offensive line and Hornibrook, they don’t have much of a receiving group to throw to outside of Troy Fumagalli. Jazz Peavy is a nice receiver, but nothing that UM’s confident, athletic secondary can’t handle. After Fumagalli and Peavy, who is Hornibrook going to throw to? Also, the Badgers are breaking in a new running back this year in either Bradrick Shaw or Chris James.

Feel Bad Factors:

  • This game is very similar to the Iowa game a year ago. Playing a west division, hard nosed, defensive minded team on the road at night (potentially). Lately, UM has not fared well in these type of games. On the other hand, Wisconsin usually plays well in those night home games. UM will have to find a way to pass the ball with a banged up offense playing at the end of the year.
  • The Wisconsin offense should be looking much better than a year ago with the return of four offensive linemen and quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Returning starters aren’t indicative of everything, but the combination of four returners and Wisconsin’s elite offensive line tradition make the Badger offense potentially potent.
  • While UM has all the flashiness and popularity with Harbaugh and his highly recruited players, Wisconsin is the complete opposite. Paul Chryst recruits guys that do their job and don’t care who gets the credit. This culture usually pays dividends in November. UM could fall short if they enter overconfident with their 10-0 record.

Game #12: vs Ohio State, Nov. 25

Feel Good Factors:

  • The game being in Ann Arbor will certainly will help Michigan. UM will have all of its fans creating an atmosphere to give their team the best chance to win. Speight probably won’t throw the same interceptions he did a year ago in front of the home crowd. But at some point, UM will have to score or get a big stop to win the game. Will they be able to this year?
  • One thing Harbaugh is really good at is preparation. He will have eleven games of film on Ohio State and be able to come up with a gameplan for success, much like last year. I have no doubt he will have his team prepared, but it is a matter of how they perform and react to adversity.
  • The UM defense should be able to hold Ohio State to under 20 points. Mike Weber will struggle to find holes in the UM d-line and that will force JT Barrett to have to beat UM with his arm. Becoming one dimensional will hurt the Buckeyes (unless they are able to sustain a consistent running game). It will be a matter of if the UM offense will be able to score three or four touchdowns.

Feel Bad Factors:

  • Ohio State returns 15 starters from last year’s playoff team. They were one of the youngest teams in college football a year ago and finished in the top four. Like UM, the Buckeyes still have holes to fill on their depth chart, but have four and five stars all over the place with stardom written all over them.
  • Dual threat quarterbacks always seem to beat up on UM and Barrett is that. He is already 3-0 against UM and can run and throw it pretty good. He may not be Armanti Edwards or Braxton Miller, but Barrett does a good job of facilitating the offense.
  • Urban Meyer is 61-6 in five years at Ohio State. Harbaugh has six losses in two seasons. Michigan fans can talk all they want about Meyer’s recruiting tactics but they can’t ignore his success everywhere he’s been… arguably better success than Harbaugh.

How will Michigan do in its biggest games of 2017? Let us know in the comment section below! 

Photo Credit: Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog

Evan Paputa