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2021 football opponent preview: Michigan Wolverines

After a down year in 2020 the Wolverines are faced with a ton of changes in 2021.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It is August now, which means that it is time to seriously turn our attention to college football. The Wisconsin Badgers opened up fall practice on Friday and the rest of the country will be joining them shortly. For the rest of the month, we will be posting two articles about each opponent on Wisconsin’s schedule.

The first post will be written by one of our staffers and will give you a basic overview of each team the Badgers are playing. The second post will be written by a variety of fans and writers of each team, giving us a more in-depth look at the team from those who follow it closely. We’ve got other SB Nation site contributors, newsletter writers, podcast hosts, and other Twitter sports shouters on deck. It should be a lot of fun.

Up next is the Michigan Wolverines.

Michigan State v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Team name: Michigan Wolverines
2020 record: 2-4, No. 6 in Big Ten East
Date/location of 2021 game: Saturday, Oct. 2nd, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison
Last time vs. Wisconsin: 2020, Wisconsin 49 - Michigan 11, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Returning leaders:

Passing: Cade McNamara, 43-of-71 (60.6 completion %), 425 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions
Rushing: Hassan Haskins, 61 attempts, 380 yards, six touchdowns, 6.1 YPC
Receiving: Ronnie Bell, 26 receptions, 401 yards, one touchdown
Tackles: Josh Ross (MLB), 53 tackles, one sack, one INT
Sacks: Four players tied with one sack in 2020
Interceptions: Josh Ross, Daxton Hill tied with one INT in 2020

Key offensive player: The Wolverine's best overall player on offense is wideout Ronnie Bell, but with all good wideouts the key is being able to get them the football. By that logic, you would have to argue that the starting quarterback would be the key offensive player for Michigan in 2021. Cade McNamara is the leading passer returning, but he will be battled for the job by Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman and incoming 5-star freshman JJ McCarthy.

The favorite to win the job is McNamara, and he will be the key to keeping the offense moving in a bigger role in 2020. In the limited time he played in 2020 it appeared McNamara was taking on the game manager role. Do enough, and keep the ball out of harms way. With zero interceptions, he did just that, and that is something he can build on. However, for Bell and others to make an impact Michigan will need a bit more from their signal caller in 2021.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 Michigan at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Key defensive player: Of all new faces that played for Michigan in 2020 free safety Daxton Hill was the one that seemed to shine the most. Hill was the top player out of the state of Oklahoma in the class of 2019 and made a clear difference for the Wolverines in 2020. In a season where the secondary struggled mightily, Hill stepped in and helped clean up some of the woes. Hill was second on the team in total tackles and looks like he could be a start for the Wolverines defensively. With many big names gone from the front seven, Hill will be the player that gets a large amount of attention this Fall.

2021 season preview: Ladies and gentlemen, this is not your grandfather's Michigan Wolverines. After years as a premier program in college football, the Wolverines have plummeted, finishing behind Rutgers and Maryland in the Big Ten East a year ago. The question now is whether or not that was the low point for Michigan football going into year seven under Jim Harbaugh. Part of the disaster that was 2020 was the defensive output. The Wolverines allowed 434 yards per game and 33.5 points per game, their worst output since 2010. Long-time defensive coordinator was shown the door and in steps Mike Macdonald, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens.

Macdonald will shift the Wolverines to a 3-4 defense to try and produce more explosive plays. In 2020 Michigan ranked No. 120 in havoc rating (TFL’s + INT’s + FF) and in turn it left their secondary exposed for far too long. The young and inexperienced corners struggled, and the defense as a whole collapsed. Overall, the change was needed, but it’s unclear whether or not it will solve things in the short term. The defense really struggled a year ago and shifting to a new complicated NFL system may be too much for a young defense to handle and learn right away.

Offensively, Michigan enters year three under coordinator Josh Gattis. The numbers weren’t great in 2020, but they have some pieces to build around in running back Hassan Haskins and incoming 5-star freshman Donovan Edwards. Additionally, wideout Ronnie Bell (pictured below) is a solid WR1 option.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The big question will be can the quarterback position give them a bit more? As mentioned earlier, McNamara will need to be more than a game manager to really give them a spark. Additionally, they’ll need an offensive line that is healthier after an injury plagued 2020. Career starts are still a concern, as UM rises from 17 a year ago to a still low number of 30 according to Phil Steele.

Overall, they’ll need a bit more from every position to escape the bottom of the Big Ten East. Fans expect more, but there are still some clear concerns this team will take on in 2021. The schedule does not do them any favors either, as the Wolverines rank No. 12 in Phil Steele’s strength of schedule.

The Wolverines get Western Michigan, a top team in the MAC, to start the season and then face off at home against the Washington Huskies. After that they get Northern Illinois and Rutgers before heading on the road to face the Badgers and Nebraska. After a bye the back half of the schedule is very tough with road trips to Penn State, Maryland, and Michigan State. They do get Indiana and Ohio State at home, but it doesn’t seem to matter when Michigan gets the Buckeyes anymore. Overall, I would be surprised if the Wolverines eclipse their 7.5 win total this Fall.