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Michigan vs. Florida: Who’s Back, Who’s Gone, and Why it Has the Makings of a Defensive Showdown

By: Stats Perform

Using STATS X-Info to analyze lost and returning production from two of the nation’s top defenses as the Wolverines and Gators open their season at Jerry World.

Jabrill Peppers won’t be strutting onto the field at AT&T Stadium when “Hail to the Victors” blares to introduce the Michigan Wolverines. You won’t find Caleb Brantley wearing a Florida Gators uniform anywhere in Arlington on Saturday, either.

In fact, plenty of the standouts from two of 2016’s best defenses won’t be on the field when the storied programs kick off their seasons. But after using STATS X-Info to analyze the production lost and returning on both offense and defense for the Wolverines and Gators, there are still plenty of reasons to believe a low-scoring duel awaits.

Proprietary STATS X-Info data provides detailed insights on statistical events not captured via traditional data collection methods. STATS integrates this data with conventional play-by-play information to create exclusive metrics for unrivaled football player analysis in NFL and NCAA competitions.

Take, for example, adjusted completion percentage, which eliminates screen passes and calculates accuracy based only from downfield throws. Michigan’s defense was the nation’s stingiest last season, allowing a measly 39.8 adjusted completion percentage. Of course, Florida’s unit ranked second with a 43.5 ACP against.

The Gators’ defense made life difficult for plenty of quarterbacks in 2016, as opposing passers finished with a combined 93.2 rating – the lowest in the country. As for Michigan’s defense? Third, with a 94.6 QB rating against.

Initial data shows we shouldn’t expect the same from either unit in 2017. And while the production might indicate a dip by season’s end, the opener could provide a solid matchup for both Michigan’s and Florida’s pass defenses when judging quarterback trends.

STATS X-Info calculates the Wolverines are losing 83 percent of their defensive targets with only one returning starter on defense, and the losses of cornerbacks Channing Stribling (46 percent of CB targets) and Jourdan Lewis (26 percent) especially could hurt.

A burn target is defined as a pass intended for a receiver who a player is defending. A burn is marked against a defender when the receiver makes a catch. Dividing burns against burn targets gives the percentage of times a defender was burned in the passing game. Lewis finished second in the nation for lowest burn percentage (26.3) while Stribling was third (28.8).

Florida cornerback Quincy Wilson finished in the top 20 with a burn percentage of 34 after receiving 37 percent of the team’s cornerback targets last season. He’s off to the NFL, but the Gators return a CB with an even better 31.3 burn percentage – senior Duke Dawson, who could make Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight’s afternoon troubling, should Speight beat out John O’Korn for the starting job.

That’s correct – we still don’t know who will be starting under center for Michigan as coach Jim Harbaugh and Florida coach Jim McElwain continue their stalemate. But as far as the Wolverines go, it’s safe to assume Speight has the upper hand to get the nod.

Last season, Speight threw 211 of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, compared to 120 at 11 yards or more. He completed 72.5 percent of his short passes and just 42.5 of his intermediate and deep balls. Speight did throw five TDs on deep balls (21+ yards), but he completed only 15 of 45 total passes of at least 21 air yards .

Coincidently, Dawson is at his best when defending passes at 10 yards or under. He was burned only six times on 24 targets in that range while adding an interception.

Although Speight isn’t extremely accurate on deep balls, he might want to go after Dawson on the right side. Dawson was burned three times on four targets to the deep right for a total of 93 yards. Speight finished 3 for 16 on right-side deep balls last season.

Predicting how Michigan’s secondary will fare against the Gators is a bit more difficult given the Wolverines’ losses, but that’s mainly because McElwain named redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks his starter for Saturday. However, there’s still a good chance last year’s starter Luke Del Rio and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire see time against the Wolverines.

Del Rio went 5-1 as a starter in 2016 but missed eight games – including Florida’s final five – because of injury. If McElwain gives Del Rio some reps as expected, the junior likely will be keeping the passes short while staying in the pocket – and that’s not just because top receiving target Antonio Callaway is suspended for the opener.

Not only did Del Rio finish 5 for 26 on deep balls last season, he completed only 41.7 percent of his passes from 11 to 20 air yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Those numbers are a bit surprising considering Del Rio made 85 percent of his attempts in the pocket and 72 percent under zero pressure at all.

Del Rio’s numbers drop when he’s forced outside the pocket and under pressure, and it’ll be up to the Michigan defensive line to make him uncomfortable. Losing players like Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow certainly presents an issue for the Wolverines, but sophomore Rashan Gary, a former No. 1 overall recruit, will get a chance to shine on the edge as a full-time starter, and senior Maurice Hurst might be one of the best tackles in the country.

Hurst finished with 4.5 sacks last season, with 3.5 coming on third down. Three of his 7.5 run stuffs were in the red zone.

Stuffing the run might not be much of a problem for Michigan going up against a Florida offensive line that was among the worst in the Power 5 last season. The Gators will need to make great strides towards improvement if they plan to keep the Wolverines off both Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson, who are likely to split carries following the suspension of projected starting running back Jordan Scarlett.

Perine put up solid numbers as a true freshman in limited action last season, running most frequently and efficiently to the left with a quality rush percentage of 68 to that side. That included 4.4 yards before contact when going left, but it’s natural to wonder how those numbers would look with a larger sample size. Florida’s offensive line had an extreme amount of trouble last season as the Gators finished dead last in the SEC in rushing.

That group loses starters Cam Dillard (67 percent of center snaps) and David Sharpe, who took nearly every left tackle snap. Right guard Fred Johnson and right tackle Jawaan Taylor return, but that’s not exactly something to boast considering Florida backs averaged just 2.7 yards per carry running to the right side. That average would’ve been even worse had it not been for Thompson.

The now-senior averaged nearly five yards before being touched and ran his best to the right. Could McElwain juggle his two running backs based on any developing weaknesses from the Michigan defensive line?


Michigan will have its own challenges in the running game, although not because of a suspension. The Gators did lose Brantley and Joey Ivie from their defensive front, but standout ends Jabari Zuniga, CeCe Jefferson and Jordan Sherit all return and are prepared to take on the Wolverines’ inexperienced offensive line.

Michigan lost three starters, although Mason Cole is one of the best and most versatile linemen in the Big Ten. Sophomore Ben Bredeson should be joining Cole on the left side at guard and, coincidentally, the left side was the best side for sophomore running back Chris Evans last season.

Evans, who takes over as Michigan’s feature back with De’Veon Smith gone, averaged 11.2 yards on 15 carries to the left and also had impressive numbers running up the middle.

It’s a mystery what Michigan will get from the right side of its line, though, as Patrick Kugler, Michael Onwenu, Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan Jr. all try to take steps forward. Unfortunately, the right side was an issue last season, too, as Evans averaged just 2.0 yards per carry on 13 attempts to the right, with an average of 0.7 yards before contact.

Whew, that was a lot of words and numbers. But when you dive into STATS X-Info to preview one of the biggest showdowns during college football’s first full weekend, the metrics begin to tell a more detailed and in-depth story.