Forget the hype from the fanbases, forget the gamesmanship from the head coaches and forget the ten players suspended for Florida that still didn't move the betting line further than 4.5 in favor of Michigan. For that matter, forget the numerous starters and talent from 2016 that Michigan lost to the NFL draft, all but guaranteeing by the feelings of many pundits and experts that Michigan was going to be rebuilding in 2017, having missed a golden opportunity to win the Big Ten and get to the College Football Playoff with an upperclassman-laden team last year.
Predictions of anything from a 6-6 to a 9-3 record in 2017 were heaped on the Wolverines all off-season, and almost all of them included an 0-1 start at the hands of the Florida Gators on neutral ground at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That didn't quite go as many of the experts planned, though. In fact, what was seen and billed as a low-scoring defensive affair between two teams with better defensive units than offensive units was actually just two quick turnovers erased away from being a complete blowout. In fact, if not for a wrong penalty called in the first quarter that erased a touchdown and a pair of missed field goals in the second half, it might have been one of the worst losses in Florida Gators football history.
As it is, Michigan took care of business in a big way in Week 1, beating Florida 33-17 to start the 2017 season 1-0. It wasn't a perfect game by any means, but a lot more right happened than wrong for the Wolverines and the crazy part is that the 16-point margin of victory indicates a much closer game than what was actually played. It's Week 1 though, so the first thing that everyone tells you is to slow your roll and pump your brakes on the high expectations. One opening win against a ranked SEC opponent at a neutral site doesn't win you the Big Ten or put you in contention for the College Football Playoff. There's a few things that it definitely can tell us about this year's Michigan team, though:
1 - FAST AND FURIOUS DEFENSE
I've been watching Michigan Football since 1997 and I saw that national championship defense that put so many players in the NFL and is still the best all-time defense I have ever seen in college football history.
This year's Michigan defense might be faster and more athletic than even that team was. Seriously, it's scary.
Since Jim Harbaugh has been head coach of the Wolverines, the defensive line has been strong and dominant against the run and last year became particularly vicious against the pass. In 2015 though, linebacker wasn't a position on the team with much speed on it so stronger and faster running backs at the time like Jordan Howard at Indiana or Ezekiel Elliott at Ohio State absolutely victimized the defensive backfield, especially when run stopping specialist Ryan Glasgow left the D-Line with an injury late in the season for both of those games. Since then, attention has been paid to that position in recruiting to make it faster and more athletic and it appears to be working. Devin Bush was a nightmare for Florida all game long and between him and the speed of the D-Line inside and out, the Gators were helpless for most of the contest offensively.
That was Game 1 defense. There are a minimum of 11 more to be played this season. That was against a Top 25 ranked SEC opponent that wins its division on a regular basis and hadn't lost a season opener in 27 years. That was on national television at a neutral site in an NFL stadium. That was after losing 10 starters on defense from the previous season. Scary, isn't it? It's just one game, but the possibilities are staggering for what this defense can evolve into over the season.
2 - THE RUNNING GAME HAS IMPROVED, EVEN IF ITS NOT WHERE WE WANT IT TO BE......YET
Michigan is 20-0 under Jim Harbaugh when it rushes for more than 100 yards in a game, but it hasn't been in the imposing "three yards and a cloud of dust" style that a lot of people are expecting from a Michigan offensive line. In Harbaugh's first two years at the helm, jet sweeps and end arounds with speedy wide receivers were a more than common running play to get big gains on the ground, but hardly a stalwart running play to rely on when you need to chew up clock during the course of a game. For that obviously, you need solid running between the tackles which comes from your offensive line and your running backs doing their job.
215 yards rushing for a single game is nothing to complain about, and that was Michigan's output against Florida this year, but while it wasn't the consistent "cloud of dust" imposition that we are all still looking for, it still wasn't jet sweeps and end arounds like in the past. In fact, WR Eddie McDoom only had one carry for four yards in the game. 40 of Michigan's 49 team carries were from Ty Isaac, Chris Evans and Karan Higdon, the current running back triumvirate for the Wolverines. Evans was shifty at times, getting stuffed in some places but also slinking his way through the line for some clock eating three to four yard clips as well. Higdon, who didn't play in the first half at all was the feature back on Michigan's final go-ahead drive in the third quarter and he scored the go-ahead touchdown himself at the end of it. That was the centerpiece of his 7 carries for 28 yards, while Evans finished with 22 carries for 78 yards.
It was Isaac who gashed Florida the worst by far, with 114 yards rushing on 11 carries, a number of them coming third and fourth down runs that not only moved the chains but caught the Gators off guard enough to push Michigan further down the field without a pass attempt. It was sneaky good play-calling for the most part, but it was very effective against a fast and athletic defensive line from the Southeastern Conference. You could say the same about the O-Line as well, who despite a few off plays here and there and one too many sacks given up, played solid as a unit for its first game of the season. The bottom line here is that Michigan's running game has taken a step forward, even if it's not the giant step we all want to see. To get 215 yards rushing with pretty much only your running backs and not employing any trickeration or splash plays in the playbook to get it is definitely a sight for sore eyes. So is having the ball for 34 minutes and 13 seconds total in the game. Ball control is a Michigan staple and it was great to see that in Game 1 of 2017.
3 - THE PASSING GAME NEEDS WORK, BUT IT'S MOSTLY ON WILTON SPEIGHT
Everyone knows Wilton Speight didn't have a good game against Florida. 11 of 25 passing for 181 yards, one touchdown and two pick-sixes is a pretty awful day for any quarterback. The actual good news about that though is that it really is all on him to correct. With all of the talk about the youth movement at Michigan and all of the freshman that will be playing this season, there's been a great concern that a very steep learning curve would be taking place on both sides of the field, even with new wide receivers like Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones (DPJ), despite their immense hype and reported maturity. If the Florida game is any indication though, Black and DPJ will be just fine. Tarik had one pass that he nearly tip-drilled into a pick that he should have caught, but it was a high one in the first place and he made up for that with two stellar catches for 83 yards, one of them a 46-yard touchdown reception, the first of his collegiate career.
The thing is, Speight was high on a lot of his passes and he overthrew way too many of them. A high attempt to Sophomore WR Kekoa Crawford created a tip-drill that was the first pick-six., while a high overthrow of Junior WR Grant Perry was the second pick-six. On top of that, he led a number of throws out of bounds, including one to a wide open Crawford in the fourth quarter that would have been a game-sealing touchdown. At one point, Jim Harbaugh was visibly frustrated with Speight on the sideline after missing Perry with another high and out of bounds throw in the endzone that would have been a touchdown for certain. So it was clear after the game yesterday that passing game problems rest with the QB, and while that might scare a lot of Michigan fans it's actually a good thing because it means that everyone else was doing their job. It wasn't a case where so much miscommunication was happening between players and a lot of people need to get on the same page, it's a case where the QB needs to play better than he did on that day. It will be up to Speight and his head coach, who is the "QB Whisperer," to figure that out.
4 - THE YOUTH ISN'T WORRIED ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT IT WILL WIN GAMES
It was clear listening to a lot of the younger players on the team that the youth angle that has been taken by a lot of the media regarding Michigan's potential success in 2017 is one that they are all aware of. Based on the Florida game, the learning curve may not be as steep as many have assumed it to be. Even with a nine-point margin, Michigan didn't change it's defensive game plan with regard to personnel shifts. On the sack-fumble touchdown in the fourth quarter by Noah Furbush, the Wolverines had freshman Aubrey Solomon at nose tackle with Rashan Gary to his left and Chase Winovich to his right. They also had freshman cornerback Ambry Thomas out wide with Sophomore Lavert Hill. Sophomore defensive end Carlo Kemp was also part of the front seven rotation throughout the game. As I mentioned before, Tarik had a solid day leading all receivers on the team in yards and DPJ handled his punt returning duties solidly. Sophomore cornerback David Long gave up a few big plays but was never out of position along with Hill and the rest of the secondary. In summary, the new young starters acquitted themselves nicely in the game, on a neutral site in an NFL stadium with national TV coverage. Nothing changed whatsoever in Michigan's game plan from last year to this on either side of the ball. That's a lot of confidence that the coaches have in this team and the players seem eager to prove that confidence valid.
5 - AS WE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, MICHIGAN CAN WIN ANY GAME ON ITS SCHEDULE
My standing expectation for a Jim Harbaugh-coached Michigan football team is a floor of 10-2. The games I had circled as the possible two losses this year were Florida and at Wisconsin on November 18, as I believe those to be the team's toughest games on the schedule. Well, they won the Florida in convincing fashion so now what? Now it becomes clear that even after one game, there isn't a game on the schedule that Michigan can't win. That was always true from the start, but to see that first game up close and personal and see what this team has on the field for 2017 was certainly a sight to see. If that was Game 1 for the defense, imagine what Game 12 against OSU is going to look like. Getting ahead yes, but the point here is that Michigan has things to work on from Game 1 as dominant as they were and will spend the rest of the season perfecting them and getting things right on both sides of the ball. This team still has a lot of learning and growing to do, but it is clear that the raw talent that this team has right now is enough to compete with any and everyone on their schedule. They spotted Florida 14 gifted points in the second quarter and had their QB complete only 44 percent of his passes, yet they still won by 16 and had it not been for missed field goals and a touchdown wiped out on a wrong penalty call, they would have won by 26. Scary good.
It's a long season and it was only the first game, but it was more than enough to get us excited for sure. Here's hoping that continues throughout the entire season. GO BLUE!