Here are a few things to watch during the opening week of the Southeastern Conference football season:
GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 17 Florida vs. No. 11 Michigan. A lot of eyes will be on the Alabama-Florida State game — and rightfully so — but a better barometer of the SEC’s overall strength this season could come when the Gators face the Wolverines in Arlington, Texas. The SEC has struggled to establish a second-tier of elite teams behind the Crimson Tide over the past few seasons. This year’s preseason AP Top 25 has just one SEC team (No. 1 Alabama) in the top 10. If Florida can beat Michigan, it would go a long way toward pushing the Gators back into the national conversation.
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK: Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley vs. Florida State cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Assuming these guys line up against each other, this shapes up as the best individual matchup in a game featuring plenty of future NFL talent. McFadden was a first-team pick and Ridley was a second-team selection on the AP preseason All-America team . Through his first two college seasons, the 6-foot-1 Ridley already has 161 catches for 1,814 yards and 14 touchdowns. McFadden, who is 6-2, picked off eight passes last season to tie for the NCAA lead. Both Ridley and McFadden come from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “We have a little bit of history,” McFadden said. “We played against each other in 7-on-7s all the time. That’s a big thing in high school. We’re very familiar with each other, so it is going to be a great matchup.”
NUMBERS GAME: No. 12 Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway averaged 122.4 yards rushing per game last season, the most of any returning Football Bowl Subdivision player. … Florida has won its last 27 season openers, the longest active streak of any FBS team. … The SEC East went 0-3 last season against Georgia Tech, which opens the 2017 campaign against No. 25 Tennessee. Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky all lost to the Yellow Jackets last season. … Georgia’s Nick Chubb has 3,424 career yards rushing to rank fifth among active FBS players. He trails Oregon’s Royce Freeman (4,146), Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (4,129), Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin (3,639) and New Mexico State’s Larry Rose III (3,618). … Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald is one of three returning quarterbacks who had both 1,000 yards rushing and 2,000 yards passing last season. The others were Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville and South Florida’s Quinton Flowers.
UPSET WATCH: Ole Miss is a 23½-point favorite over South Alabama even after a tumultuous offseason that included losing coach Hugh Freeze in July. South Alabama has had recent success against the SEC, beating Mississippi State in the season opener last season. … Vanderbilt is a 3 ½ point favorite over Middle Tennessee even though the Commodores are on the road and have lost their past five season openers.
IMPACT PERFORMERS: Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks: This redshirt freshman won Florida’s preseason quarterback competition and now has quite a challenge in front of him. The Gators have suspended 10 players for their game with Michigan. The list of suspended Gators includes their leading rusher (Jordan Scarlett) and top receiver (Antonio Callaway) from last season. Franks was named the starter for the Michigan game Wednesday after beating out junior Luke Del Rio and Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire.