Michigan Wolverines: CFN College Football Preview 2021

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College Football News Preview 2021: Previewing, predicting, and looking ahead to the Michigan season with what you need to know.

Contact/Follow @ColFootballNews & @PeteFiutak

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Michigan Schedule Analysis
– Michigan Wolverines Previews
2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015

2020 Record: 2-4 overall, 2-4 in Big Ten
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh, 7th year, 49-22 (78-43 overall)
2020 CFN Final Ranking: 54
2020 CFN Preview Ranking: 10
2019 CFN Final Ranking: 26

Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: Offense

The O just couldn’t find a groove. It’s been one of the strangest aspects to the Jim Harbaugh era that the guy who came into the gig as a brilliant quarterback coach hasn’t been able to get dominant play out of his passing game – more on that in the Keys To The Season – and last year everything sputtered and coughed.

The passing attack wasn’t awful – it averaged 250 yards per game – but it wasn’t consistent, the O as a whole averaged just 382 yards and 28 points per game, and there wasn’t enough consistent production. It couldn’t move the chains, couldn’t control the clock, and it at times the whole thing just stopped.

However …

The offensive line was a plus. Michigan led the Big Ten with the fewest tackles for loss allowed per game, and the pass protection was more than good enough.

In some configuration, four starters are expected back. There weren’t any top all-stars in the bunch – OT Andrew Stueber received an honorable mention All-Big Ten nod – but that’s going to change this time around. There’s enough depth and versatility to play around with the starting five.

Zach Charbonnet left for UCLA, but 220-pound senior Hassan Haskins was the best back of the bunch averaging over six yards per carry with six touchdowns. The ground game should have a strong rotation with Blake Corum a talented enough back to get the ball more in a variety of ways.

And then there’s …

The quarterback situation. Harbaugh has yet to get this quite right, but once again there are a slew of talented options ready to give it a go.

Joe Milton is a Tennessee Volunteer now, and Dylan McCaffrey is long gone to Northern Colorado. That leaves Cade McNamara as the main man after hitting 61% of his passes for 425 yards and five touchdowns.

However, because it’s Michigan and it’s always complicated, in comes Alan Bowman from Texas Tech. He’s the triggerman who can make the passing game go … when he’s healthy. Staying in one piece was his issue in Lubbock, but if the guy who hit 67% of his throws over three seasons for well over 5,000 yards and 33 touchdowns lights it up in fall camp, this will get fun.

The receivers are fine. They’re experienced – three of the top four wideouts return, only losing 15-catch Giles Jackson to the transfer portal – and they were able to make big things happen when the quarterbacks could actually get them the ball. Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson each averaged over 15 yards per grab.

– What You Need To Know: Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Michigan Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: Defense

Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: Defense

The offense had its issues and didn’t do enough, but the defense was the real stunner. It finished as the third-worst in the Big Ten allowing 434 yards and 35 points per game, it was a disaster against anyone who could throw, and the run defense – seriously, Michigan, after the first gajillion times, you’d think you could’ve figured out the Wisconsin jet sweep play – was, to be kind, lacking.

Even with an NFL pass rusher in Kwity Paye, there wasn’t a pass rush. The Wolverines came up with a paltry nine sacks in six games and wasn’t nearly disruptive enough up front.

The expectation is to go to more of a 3-4 under Mike Macdonald – your new Matthew and Nicole Lester Family Defensive Coordinator, coming in from the Baltimore Ravens defensive coaching staff – and finding a good group of starters shouldn’t be an issue among a deep group of options.

After missing half of last year, Aidan Hutchinson should be solid at one spot, veteran Christopher Hinton and 318-pound Donovan Jeter are okay working as a tackle or even at end if needed. However, that means the pass rush has to come from …

The linebacking corps – it’s going to be a bit tricky. Leading tackler John Ross will hold down one inside spot coming off a 53-stop season, but the disruption has to come from the outside.

Michael Barrett has the athleticism to grow more into more of a pass rushing role – he was third on the team with 44 tackles – and it’s going to take fall camp to round out the rotation with a whole slew of new parts in the mix.

Two. The Michigan Wolverines came up with two more interceptions in 2020 than you did, and only one came from the secondary.

To be fair to the defensive backs, they didn’t get a whole lot of help from the pass rush, and it showed as they got lit up by Michigan State, Indiana and Rutgers for well over 300 yards each. That’s three times in six games after going the first 11 games of 2019 without allowing a 300-yard day.

On the plus side, just about everyone is back, and there’s talent there to do a whole lot more. The safety tandem of Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins earned honorable mention All-Big Ten nods after combining for 85 tackles, and they’re going to need to be rocks with a fluid corner situation.

Gemon Green and Vincent Gray started every game last season, but they combined to pick off zero passes and there’s a slew of talented young prospects pushing for time.

– What You Need To Know: Offense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Michigan Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Best Michigan Wolverines Offensive Player

WR Ronnie Bell, Sr.
The 6-0, 190-pounder isn’t all that big, and he only has four touchdown catches in his three seasons, but he’s an explosive playmaker who could thrive with better quarterback play.

He caught 82 passes for over 1,300 yards averaging close to 16 yards per grab. For a passing game that needs more pop, Bell has to emerge as a bigger star. The talent is there to do it.

2. RB Hassan Haskins, Sr.
3. OT Ryan Hayes, Sr.
4. QB Cade McNamara, Jr.
5. OT Andrew Stueber, Sr.

Related

Michigan Football Schedule 2021: Analysis, Best and Worst Case Scenarios

Best Michigan Wolverines Defensive Player

LB Josh Ross, Sr.
The Wolverines have at least five real pro prospects on the defensive side – end Aidan Hutchinson will probably be the first of the bunch to go – but Ross is the the glue in the middle of the defense with a shot to be the team’s leading tackler for the second year in a row.

At 6-2 and 230 pounds he’s got the bulk to hold up against the run and the ability to get behind the line, even though he didn’t do it all that often.

2. DE Aidan Hutchinson, Sr.
3. S Daxton Hill, Jr.
4. S Brad Hawkins, Sr.
5. LB Michael Barrett, Sr.

Top Incoming Michigan Wolverines Transfer

QB Alan Bowman, Jr.
Yeah, Cade McNamara is probably the star going forward, but Bowman is about to make this interesting.

The Texas Tech quarterback just couldn’t stay healthy, potential 2022 No. 1 overall draft pick Tyler Shough transferred in from Oregon, and now he’s going to try being the answer to an ever-muddled Wolverine quarterback situation.

Don’t expect any mobility, but the guy can throw, he can spread the ball around, and he can move the chains.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Michigan Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

Michigan Wolverines Biggest Key: Offense

Start converting on third downs already. It’s been a big, big issue over the last two seasons after converting 49% of the time in 2018. Just when it seemed like the offense fixed the glitch – the 2017 offense had a rough time keeping things moving – third downs were a struggle in 2019.

The 2020 offense looked like it had it. It ripped through Minnesota to start the season, and even with all of the issues in the loss to Michigan State, the offense was able to keep drives going. And then it all fizzled out, failing to hit 40% in any of the last four games and 30% in two of those.

It put too much stress on the defense, the offense almost never had the ball, and it was impossible to find any sort of a rhythm.

Asking for 45% isn’t crazy. The Wolverines have won their last 12 games when getting to the mark going back to the weird opening loss to Notre Dame to start 2018.

And on the other side …

Michigan Wolverines Biggest Key: Defense

Third down stops. It all ties together. The offense couldn’t go on long marches, the team constantly got murdered in the time of possession battle, the defense couldn’t generate enough of a pass rush or takeaways, and everything just fell apart from there.

For all the things you might not like about the Harbaugh era, his defenses have generally been a force on third downs. The 2015 through 2017 defenses were brick walls on the money downs – allowing under 30% in all three seasons – and the 2018 and 2019 versions weren’t that bad keeping offenses to under 35%. 2020?

46%.

Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin and Penn State kept on hitting third down after third down. Stop that from happening, and start winning again.

That, and …

Michigan Wolverines Key Player To A Successful Season

QB Cade McNamara, Jr.
Michigan has to get good quarterback play. That’s basically it. That’s why the Jim Harbaugh era has been underwhelming – it’s been better than you think, but it obviously hasn’t lived up to expectations partly because he just can’t seem to get this right.

Since Harbaugh took over, Ohio State has had Justin Fields, Dwayne Haskins, JT Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller.

Michigan?

Joe Milton, Shea Patterson, John O’Korn, Brandon Peters, Wilton Speight and Jake Rudock.

It doesn’t have to be McNamara. Former star recruit JJ McCarthy will do, or Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman. No matter what, the team just needs to have an advantage at the position.

Michigan Wolverines Key Game To The 2021 Season

Washington, Sept. 11
The Ohio State game is more than two months after this. Realistically, for that to truly matter – beyond the outsized importance it already has – the Wolverines have to set an early tone. As lame a cliché as that might be, it fits after the rough 2020.

Washington is good enough to win the Pac-12 title. It’s a restaurant-quality non-conference home game for a Wolverine program that – at least in theory – is supposed to be good enough to be within sniffing distance of the College Football Playoff. Forget about that with a loss.

The pressure will never be off of Harbaugh, but lose this, and with road games against Wisconsin and Penn State looming in the Big Ten season, the margin for error goes down to nil.

Michigan Wolverines Schedule Breakdown & Analysis

2020 Michigan Wolverines Fun Stats

– Time of Possession: Opponents 34:23 – Opponents 25:37
– Field Goals: Opponents 8-of-11 – Michigan 3-of-9
– 1st Half Scoring: Opponents 117 – Michigan 66

NEXT: Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

Michigan Wolverines College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

Forget about Ohio State.

It’s like blaming an SEC team right now for not being better than Alabama, or an ACC program for not being able to get by Clemson, or any fast foot restaurant’s fries being compared to McDonald’s. It’s not fair.

Take the rivalry factor out of all of this and accept that Ohio State has become a bigger monster than ever that’s showing no signs of slowing the roll.

Of course, if you’re the Michigan head coach and you don’t beat that team at least once in a while, you’re soon no longer the Michigan head coach.

But again, that’s not really fair – even for Michigan. Ohio State is Ohio State. That’s not the problem … for now.

27-24 to a bad Michigan State team. Losing to Indiana by 17, being totally outclassed by a mediocre Wisconsin, and being dropped by a losing Penn State team 27-17 – that’s the problem.

For all of Harbaugh’s issues over his era, he has almost always been able to beat the teams he’s supposed to beat. That might seem like a low bar for Michigan, but there was a painful stretch before Harbaugh took over when taking down the winnable wasn’t always a given.

Before 2020, under Harbaugh, the tough 14-13 walk-off loss at Iowa in 2016 was the only time Michigan dropped a game to a team that didn’t finish with at least ten wins.

But you’ve heard this before – like in last year’s Michigan preview and as the guts for my stump speech on the Jim Harbaugh Apologist Tour.

2020 was 2020 – everyone deserves a break – but Harbaugh lost to two teams that finished with losing records and at home to a Wisconsin team that was a mere shadow of its normal self.

And no, Michigan shouldn’t be losing to Indiana no matter what.

Set The Michigan Wolverines Regular Season Win Total At … 8.5

As always, there’s talent at Michigan. As always, there’s no reason the starting 22 shouldn’t at least be able to hang with anyone outside of the elite of the truly elite.

It’s not like Harbaugh can’t coach – he came within a completion of possibly winning a Super Bowl; that trumps anything any college coach without a national title has done – but he just can’t seem to get his offense right.

Yeah, Ohio State is Ohio State, but Harbaugh is supposed to be able to create to offensive attack that can overcome the talent difference. But to be fair, the realistic goal right now is to get the Wolverines into a position where the game at the end of the regular season truly matters.

Yeah, it stunk in 2018 when they got rimrocked 62-39 in Columbus, but that was for a shot at the Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff. So set the bar there. Be in a position on a regular basis to play for something massive, and eventually that break will come.

But after last year, Michigan has to work to get there again.

The 2021 team is better. The offense isn’t going to be that inept again and the defense won’t be anywhere near as soft. The schedule is full of enough wins to bounce back with at least a winning season, but that’s not good enough.

Washington, at Wisconsin, at Michigan State, at Penn State. With at least three of the four, don’t whiff the winnable home games against Northwestern and Indiana, and don’t get caught napping at Nebraska.

Michigan needs to be good enough to win those games in Camp Randall and Happy Valley – but it won’t win them both – and forget about it if there’s another loss to the Spartans.

It’ll be a much better team, and this will be a bounce back year.

That might not be good enough.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
Michigan Schedule Analysis