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Can Florida back up McElwain’s gaudy talk against Michigan?

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 02: Florida head coach Jim McElwain looks out towards his offense during the Outback Bowl game between the Florida Gators and the Iowa Hawkeyes on January 02, 2017, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)
Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

Games are won on the field in entertaining, dramatic or boring fashion. What is said before the game – once known as bulletin board material but now fodder for social media – only helps spin the hype machine.

There are contests, especially during this opening weekend, which are intriguing to the point they require little promotion (Exhibit A: Florida State vs. Alabama in Atlanta).

One game won’t get lost in the many interesting matchups thanks to the juicy back-and-forth of the last week or so. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, No. 17 Florida will take on No. 11 Michigan.

Jim Harbaugh, in his third season as the Wolverines’ coach, is about as popular in Southeastern Conference country as General Sherman. His counterpart, Jim McElwain, has been happy to return fire with his statements.

“We’re headed to Dallas here in a couple weeks to go beat the heck out of Michigan,” McElwain told a group of Florida students.

Neither team figures to be in the national championship picture. Michigan, which returns just four starters from last season’s 10-3 team, might be the third-best team in the Big Ten East Division. Florida will try to win the SEC East Division for the third-consecutive season but if so won’t be given much chance to get past the West Division winner.

Both coaches have fanned the flames of hyperbole in their own unique ways.

Harbaugh has created “Roster Gate.” Like Dean Wormer, he took advantage of a little-known codicil that allowed him to keep his roster secret until Wednesday morning. Harbaugh last year failed to provide a two-deep chart for the Colorado game, which led to the school’s sports information department to provide its own spoof of a two-deep for the teams’ game.

NJ Advance Media filed an open records request to obtain the Michigan roster but the school turned it down (which, if this was anything close to important, would be a breach of open-record laws). Up until Thursday, the roster on the school’s web site was from last season and included current NFL players Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis.

“We haven’t gotten into Michigan prep at all,” McElwain said 10 days before kickoff. “When you guys get their roster let me know who we’re playing.” 

Florida hasn’t named a starting quarterback and McElwain has hinted he may play three QBs. That led Harbaugh to snark back; the Wolverines haven’t named a starter yet despite the fact Wilton Speight is a 99 percent certainty.

“We’d love to have that information, so we’re not going to announce our starting quarterback,” Harbaugh said.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh talks to his players during the NCAA college football team’s spring game Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Other than the championship-level hissing contest, the following story lines are worth noting as a prelude to the game:

  • How much bad blood is there between these two teams? The coaches have certainly made it appear that they don’t like each other. Two years ago, with Harbaugh and McElwain each in their first seasons, Michigan spanked Florida, 41-7, in the Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines never let their foot off the gas pedal and were trying to score even late in the game.
  • How much of the angst is created by Harbaugh? Going into his third season, he appears to have taken dead aim on tweaking the SEC. His satellite camp incursions led to an NCAA rule change and ruffled the feathers of SEC schools who believed their recruiting territory was being challenged by a Yankee. “He obviously felt he needed to do some things to be relevant and that’s his choice,” McElwain said this week. “I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
  • Does Florida have enough firepower, especially on offense? The Gators go into the game with eight players suspended for off-field issues. Receiver Antonio Calloway, the team’s best big-play threat, is among those suspended.
  • Even with the suspensions, Florida fans will be curious to see what the team has at quarterback, a position that has yielded poor results over the last few seasons. Feleipe Franks and Luke Del Rio are familiar to Gators fans, while Malik Zaire, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, is another contender to run the offense.
  • Year 3 for Harbaugh might be a step back in the win-loss column. With so many new players in starting roles, there is considerable mystery regarding Michigan. The Florida opener is nearly a must-win contest consider that the Wolverines will also face Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in Big Ten play.

On his radio show this week, Harbaugh went full Eddie Haskell and complimented Mrs. Cleaver (aka McElwain).

“I’ve got no problem with Jim,” the Michigan coach said of the Florida coach. “We’re coaching our ball teams, that’s all we’re doing right now. We’re busy getting ready for the game. It’ll be a great game. Is there something I’m missing here?”

We know there’s no good reason to miss Saturday’s game, coach.

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