Crystal Ball: Predicting every game on Michigan’s schedule in 2021
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Michigan. We’ll stay with the B1G East all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every B1G West team.
The calendar couldn’t have turned to 2021 any quicker for Michigan fans. The 2020 season was a disastrous one, with just 2 wins and a handful of embarrassing losses. And Michigan didn’t even have to play Ohio State.
One of my best friends is an alum, and I like to joke with him that Michigan is a basketball school now. And it’s really only a half joke, because Michigan’s basketball program is awesome. But I know he and the rest of the fan base are dying for a return to the days of Michigan being a Big Ten contender in football.
For all the hype and interest in Michigan football, it is strange to think that it hasn’t finished better than 10th in any final AP poll since 2006, which was Llyod Carr’s penultimate season. In the previous 37 years, Michigan finished better than 10th on 24 occasions. That’s almost 2 out of every 3 seasons, so forgive Michigan fans for being just a little frustrated with where their program stands.
It underscores just how far the program fell in 2020. The biggest concern the last few years used to be getting beaten up by an SEC team in a bowl game. Now in 2021, Michigan is just hoping to make a reputable bowl game.
For the first time since Jim Harbaugh’s tenure began in 2015, Michigan is unranked to start the season. The Wolverines did finish 12th that season, so an optimist might say that good things are on the horizon. A realist, though, would probably disagree.
Is this season make-or-break for Jim Harbaugh?
Harbaugh’s new contract that runs through 2025 involves a sizable pay cut (down to $4 million from nearly $8 million), with on-field incentives that could push that number back into the $8 million range. It also allows Michigan an easy out, with just a $4 million buyout (a fraction of the cost schools like Auburn and South Carolina paid last year) after this season and $1 million fewer every year after.
So is this an all-or-nothing season for Harbaugh? I tend to think not. I think there are reasonable expectations on Michigan this season. If the administration at Michigan really wanted to rid itself of Harbaugh, after a 2-4 season would’ve been the perfect time to do so. As long as Michigan doesn’t go 5-7, I think Harbaugh is secure. No one is expecting a return to glory in 2021.
And the odds of Harbaugh going 5-7 are, in my opinion, slim. He has 3 losing seasons in 17 years as a head coach (including the NFL). Two of them were his first 2 years as an FBS head coach at Stanford, and the other was in a COVID-mired campaign in which his best players were hurt (Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye), opted out (Ambry Thomas and Nico Collins) or just plain stunk (Joe Milton).
Harbaugh also revamped his coaching staff after last season, hiring 6 assistants younger than 40. That’s a sign he wants his program to change. Firing coaches is also usually a life raft for head coaches and buys them at least a few more years, barring catastrophe.
The defense is new, but is it improved?
It’s somewhat amazing that Michigan has won as many games as it has in Harbaugh’s tenure without an elite offense. Michigan has finished 78th, 68th, 50th, 105th, 58th and 68th in total offense since Harbaugh has taken over, yet it is 49-22. That’s because Michigan has always fielded a top-10 defense — until last year, when the bottom fell out and defensive coordinator Don Brown was the sacrificial lamb.
Enter Mike Macdonald, who speaks fluent Harbaugh after 7 years on John Harbaugh’s staff with the Baltimore Ravens. The blitz-heavy, single-high-safety looks appear to be a thing of the past, and Michigan’s corners will no longer be left on an island. Michigan’s base defense will be a 3-4 instead of a 4-3, with star edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson playing more of a hybrid role than traditional defensive end.
While Michigan has played a lot of man defense under Brown, look for that percentage to go down. Whether the defense is better than the No. 84 defense in the country, as it was in 2020, remains to be seen.
Success, though, is often predicated on QB play
Remember that part about Michigan not having a great offense under Harbaugh? A lot of it is due to the fact that Harbaugh just hasn’t recruited the QB position well. It’s a new year, and optimism is aplenty in Ann Arbor. Cade McNamara is the starter for now, but all eyes are on 5-star freshman J.J. McCarthy.
I like how Harbaugh has handled the situation in the preseason. He named McNamara the starter from the get-go, allowing him to walk around campus as the QB1, which is an opportunity he didn’t really get last season. Besides, he is the most equipped to start strong with his familiarity in Josh Gattis’ offense. Whether he gets passed up eventually by Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman or McCarthy will be an interesting storyline to watch.
McCarthy is like the ace up Harbaugh’s sleeve. With impatience growing by the day amongst the faithful, how long will he wait to play it?
Week 1: vs. Western Michigan (W)
Michigan against an in-state opponent it should beat? That’s been a recipe for disaster in the past, like last season. I know Michigan is 7-0 all-time against Western Michigan, but the Wolverines better be careful here, because the Broncos are a threat to win the MAC, as they usually are.
Week 2: vs. Washington (L)
This is a huge game in terms of perception of the Big Ten and Pac-12. Michigan is expected to be middle of the pack, but Washington is expected to contend with Oregon for the North crown. If the Wolverines could pull this off (and Ohio State can beat Oregon), it would give the B1G a very nice boost for when the CFP rankings come out.
The problem for Michigan, though, is that Washington is a very good team, with a strong offensive line and a good defense. With 18 starters back, the Huskies have very high expectations after getting in only 4 games last season, going 3-1.
Week 3: vs. Northern Illinois (W)
Two games in a row against Huskies won’t mean 2 losses in a row for Michigan. Northern Illinois has somehow become one of the worst programs in the MAC after 5 straight double-digit win seasons from 2010-14.
Week 4: vs. Rutgers (W)
Rutgers nearly pulled the upset last year before McNamara rescued Michigan. Even with all of the positive momentum of last year, it’s hard to imagine the Scarlet Knights beating Michigan at the Big House.
Week 5: at Wisconsin (L)
After watching the last 2 meetings between these teams, I don’t think anyone in their right mind is picking Michigan. Wisconsin has won the last 2 by a combined 84-25, and to be honest, it hasn’t even felt that close. The contests have been total domination from start to finish. These are the games that have really revealed that Michigan is a couple tiers below being a Big Ten contender.
Week 6: at Nebraska (W)
It is tempting to pick Nebraska, which is as unpredictable as it gets in the Big Ten. It’s even more tempting to tell Michigan that it is looking in the mirror: a once-dominant program that is living in the past and will never return to its former glory. Michigan isn’t there yet, having won double-digit games 3 times from 2015-18. This one will be close.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: vs. Northwestern (W)
If this were 2020, I wouldn’t be picking Michigan. But Northwestern lost so much from that West Division champion, and it will be starting a new QB. Even with some instability from Michigan (on the coaching staff), it doesn’t compare to a Northwestern squad that brings back just 8 starters.
Week 9: at Michigan State (W)
This is a game Michigan has circled on the calendar. They are Michigan’s rival, according to Harbaugh, so it only makes sense. You have to think Michigan is going to be fired up for this game after a 27-24 loss to Michigan State last year. It had to be a little humiliating for Harbaugh, then in his 6th season at Michigan, to lose to Mel Tucker in only his second game with Michigan State. That’s just how this rivalry goes sometimes; expect the unexpected.
That’s why it’s tempting to pick Michigan State. But, alas, I’ll go with Michigan in some sort of Revenge Game.
Week 10: vs. Indiana (L)
Michigan managing only 13 rushing yards against Indiana last year was surprising, to say the least. The way Indiana torched Michigan’s corners was not, considering the Wolverines had struggled the week prior. This game was Ty Fryfogle’s coming-out party, and I can see him feasting again.
Week 11: at Penn State (L)
These programs should, at a minimum, be on equal ground. Even in the midst of Penn State’s awful 2020, it still won by double digits in the Big House (though Michigan had a chance late).
Week 12: at Maryland (W)
This is one of those games that, normally, you don’t think twice about. But Maryland is on the rise, and Michigan has a lot to prove. Still, Michigan should have an edge at most positions.
Week 13: vs. Ohio State (L)
The one-year hiatus won’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for this great rivalry, which had been played every year since 1918 until last year. Unfortunately for Michigan, it won’t dampen Ohio State’s dominance either.
There was a point last year when I thought that 2021 would be the year that Harbaugh finally beat Ohio State. As Joe Milton and Michigan were shredding Minnesota in last year’s season opener, I honestly had the thought of, “Well, Justin Fields is gonna be gone, Joe Miton will be in his second year as the starting QB and the game will be at the Big House.” By the following week, I obviously no longer felt that way.
Ohio State has won 15 of 16 in this series, and I don’t see a way for Michigan to prevent it from being 16 of 17.
2021 projection: 7-5, 4th in B1G East
No one will be celebrating a 7-5 season in Ann Arbor but … it’s better than 2-4, right? Of course.
This season can be a bridge to bigger and better things, or it will be the beginning of the end for Harbaugh. As I said, I believe Harbaugh will get at least another season after this, especially with his new staff and a 5-star QB on campus.
That’s not to say Harbaugh gets a pass. If 2021 looks anything like 2020, Harbaugh may be fine-tuning his resume (if he isn’t already).