By the Numbers: 2021 Michigan Football Season Preview

Michigan’s offense will be led by a deep and talented group of running backs. Hassan Haskins returns as the leading rusher, averaging 6.1 yards per carry in the 2020 season.

Michigan’s six-game 2020 football season was the shortest of the modern era, but it didn’t feel that way.  After an excruciating 2-4 slog, a rampant covid outbreak, multiple canceled games, and an over-analyzed, anticlimactic contract extension for Jim Harbaugh, I think we all deserved a break. But now it’s August, and that means we kick off the 2021 return of By the Numbers analysis with a game-by-game preview of the 2021 Michigan Football season. In the By the Numbers articles and podcasts we will compile, review, and summarize various metrics to look deeper into the football team’s performance while trying to provide a clearer picture of how the upcoming games may turn out.

The foundation for most of my analysis comes from the ESPN SP+ college football analytics model, created by Bill Connelly. While his system was meant to be predictive for beating the odds against Vegas, studying the Five Factors is also useful for understanding what a team does, or needs to do, to win football games. Here are his 2021 B1G West & B1G East preseason preview articles (ESPN+ subscription required).

What is SP+
SP+ is the tempo and opponent adjusted college football analytical model developed by Bill Connelly for Football Outsiders (he is now at ESPN). SP+ is based around the core concepts of the Five Factors of winning football: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers.  The resulting metric is expressed in adjusted points per game, as compared to the average CFB team. Original Explanation
2021 Preseason SP+ Rankings


When it comes to predicting the outcome of Michigan Football games, I’ve tracked my own record, and that of the SP+ projections, since I started writing for 3 seasons ago.

Connelly’s SP+ preseason projections were amazingly accurate in picking the straight up winners in 2018 & 2019, missing only twice (2018 picked MSU & 2019 picked Michigan over PSU). In 2019, as Connelly updated his model through the season for Game Week projections, SP+ correctly picked the straight up winner in all 13 games for Michigan. Just like almost everything in 2020, college football projections were a total crapshoot, even for the best in the business. Predicting Michigan’s version of 2020 in the preseason produced a record of 3-3 straight up and versus the spread for SP+, and for me too.

While it’s no shock that I tend to be more optimistic on Michigan in the preseason, I have learned to adjust from my original viewpoint once we’re into game weeks. The 2018 season was a real learning experience while riding too high on the Revenge Tour. While I picked the correct outcome in 10 out of 12 games, I was bad at predicting the margins. That led to a 3-9 inaugural season against the spread. In 2019 I bounced back against the spread to 10-3, and followed up with a 5-1 record last season. That one miss in 2020 was my worst ever, in Game #2 vs. MSU. At least I was able to recalibrate after that disaster. Let’s hope the football program can too.

Predicting Michigan Games in Preseason (2018-20)

2018-20 Preseason Projections

Predicting Michigan Games on Game Week (2018-20)

2018-20 Game Week Predictions

SP+ Projections & By the Numbers Predictions

Michigan 2021 SP+ Preseason Ranking

Overall – 17th, 18.3
Offense – 28th, 35.4
Defense – 10th, 17.1

I am sure these numbers are a surprise to most Michigan fans. The SP+ model takes multi-year history into account, especially in the preseason version. While 2020 was a near total collapse, Michigan has maintained moderate success on the recruiting trail in the Harbaugh era, and returns an average amount of production on both sides of the ball. The ranking of the defensive unit will be pretty volatile, given that Mike MacDonald is coordinating for the first time. While I don’t think Michigan will end the season with the 10th ranked defense, this is a reminder that we are likely to see a significant improvement over last year’s unit.

2021 Regular Season Schedule

vs. Western Michigan: 72nd Overall, 44th Offense, 99th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: U-M by 16.5, Michigan win probability: 89% 

PREDICTION: This is a great game to open the 2021 season for a couple reasons.  First and foremost, it’s a game that Michigan should win.  The Wolverines could also, in the best-case scenario, get a comfortable second half lead and let some young players gain valuable experience.  But, the game is also great for us to gauge what type of season we’re in for.  Western’s offense is a legit threat with a returning QB who threw for 285 yards per game last year.  This will be a solid test for Mike MacDonald to cut his teeth, and there will be more than one instance of growing pains.  As a forewarning, WMU’s SP+ ranking of #72 is the same as the 2019 Army squad that took Michigan to double overtime.
Michigan 37 WMU 24, 1-0

vs. Washington: 13th Overall, 11th Offense, 25th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Washington by 1.9, Michigan win probability: 42%

PREDICTION: The Wolverines get their first Power 5 test in Week 2 against an interesting Washington Huskies team.  On one hand, the Huskies won the Pac-12 North last year with a 3-1 record.  On the other hand, they played all 4 games at home, and had games canceled vs. Cal, WSU, Oregon, and USC.  Clearly Washington’s program navigated the covid year much more smoothly than Michigan did, but there will still be a boat load of unknowns for both teams heading into this game.  U-M and U-W rank dead even in returning production at #55 and #54 respectively, but I think it’s the 91% returning production on the offensive side of the ball that allows Washington to make plays that end up being the difference.  
Michigan 27 Washington 30, 1-1

vs. Northern Illinois: 116th Overall, 121st Offense, 97th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: U-M by 30.3, Michigan win probability: 97%

PREDICTION: By the third game week of the regular season, we should be able to clearly see the identity that both Josh Gattis and Mike MacDonald will have instilled into their squads.  Strengths will have emerged.  Weaknesses will have been identified and hopefully corrected.  This is absolutely a spot where we should see Michigan put its best foot forward and play a complete football game against a team that doesn’t project to be very strong.
Michigan 45 NIU 17, 2-1

vs. Rutgers: 83rd Overall, 90th Offense, 63rd Defense

PRESEASON SP+: U-M by 19.0, Michigan win probability: 92%

PREDICTION: In 2020, Greg Schiano showed that he can be an immediate difference maker for Rutgers.  Michigan famously needed 3 overtime periods to defeat the Scarlet Knights last year as Cade McNamara took the reins of the offense.  I have no reason to doubt that Rutgers continues to improve this year.  Rutgers comes to Ann Arbor for the Big Ten opener, and is capable of catching the Wolverines looking ahead to Wisconsin.  If Michigan appears unprepared for this one, I expect the volume to increase from the portions of the fanbase who are already rooting for changes at the top.
Michigan 33 Rutgers 24, 3-1

@ Wisconsin: 6th Overall, 32nd Offense, 2nd Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Wisconsin by 4.1, Michigan win probability: 29%

PREDICTION: In the past two seasons, the Badgers have delivered the harsh reality that Michigan’s team was not as good as expected.  The 2019 game in Madison was over in the first half, and had alumni questioning the team’s mental toughness.  In 2020, at the Big House, it was immediately clear that the Wolverines were not capable of righting the ship, even though Wisconsin was struggling to contain their covid issues.  This season, Michigan again faces off with Paul Chryst and Co. early in the Big Ten season.  This year, however, we will have seen the Badgers against Penn State (Sep. 4th) and Notre Dame the previous week.  I don’t expect Michigan to win in Madison, but I will be measuring the program’s leadership and direction based on their performance in this game.
Michigan 24 Wisconsin 30, 3-2

@ Nebraska: 32nd Overall, 46th Offense, 29th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: U-M by 5.9, Michigan win probability: 47%

PREDICTION: The SP+ model has significant conflict surrounding the 6th game of the season in Lincoln against the Cornhuskers.  Michigan is ranked 15 slots ahead of Nebraska, and would be projected to win by 5.9 points on a neutral field.  However, their preseason win probably from Connely’s Big Ten preview has this as a tossup, and even a slight edge to Nebraska.  Scott Frost could potentially be soaring high at 5-1 headed into this one because Oklahoma is the only team currently favored to beat Nebraska in the first half of their schedule.  However, if the Huskers do trip up early in the season Frost’s hot seat will again take center stage and another season could spiral out of control.  This matchup is circled on my calendar as the pivotal moment for the 2021 Michigan football season.  You already know I am optimistic.
Michigan 42 Nebraska 23, 4-2

vs. Northwestern: 76th Overall, 123rd Offense, 12th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: U-M by 17.3, Michigan win probability: 86%

PREDICTION: Northwestern might be the program that best capitalized on the chaos of the 2020 season.  The Wildcats won the West division with a 6-1 regular season record.  They also gave Justin Fields and the rest of the Buckeyes fits in the Big Ten Championship game.  Unfortunately for Pat Fitzgerald, they rank dead last in FBS, 129th, in returning production going into 2021.  We’ll see how Northwestern can reload from a talent perspective, but I expect them to play their best game in Ann Arbor, especially defensively.  I think this one will come down to a few critical plays to be made in the 4th quarter.  The Wolverines’ playmakers must answer the call and step up in a big moment.
Michigan 24 Northwestern 20, 5-2

@ Michigan State: 51st Overall, 82nd Offense, 17th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: U-M by 11.7, Michigan win probability: 68%

PREDICTION: This rivalry game has moved back into the second half of the season for 2021.  In the Harbaugh era, the Michigan State game has served as a statement platform in each season.  In 2020, Mel Tucker announced his arrival, and bought himself some patience from the sparty fanbase, by embarrassing the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.  This reversal from Harbaugh’s 2019 farewell statement to Mark Dantonio made last year’s catastrophe even more shocking.  The 2021 chapter of this rivalry will be another golden opportunity for one program or the other to put an exclamation point on the series.  I would imagine Mike Hart’s name will hit the news cycle around this time of year, also.
Michigan 31 Michigan State 21, 6-2

vs. Indiana: 28th Overall, 33rd Offense, 32nd Defense

PRESEASON SP+: U-M by 4.5, Michigan win probability: 58%

PREDICTION: The final stretch of the season kicks off with a major test in Michael Penix and the Indiana Hoosiers.  Tom Allen had the Hoosiers in position to compete for the Big Ten East crown last year, and this well-balanced team is a legitimate part of the conversation in the preseason this year.  By the time they come to Ann Arbor, Indiana will have already played Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State, and non-conference giant Cincinnati.  If the Hoosiers are still in the hunt for the East, then this will make for a titanic showdown.  I expect them to drop two or three of those early contests, and I think both Indiana and Michigan will be trying to claw back into the race with a quality November victory.
Michigan 25 Indiana 17, 7-2

@ Penn State: 10th Overall, 22nd Offense, 7th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: PSU by 2.9, Michigan win probability: 33%

PREDICTION: By November 13th, the 2021 Big Ten pecking order will be much more clear.  If the Nittany Lions are making a push for the Big Ten East at this point, then the White Out atmosphere in Happy Valley will be a figurative Mount Everest for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines to attack.  However, I don’t think Penn State will stay in the race to this point in the season.  James Franklin’s crew starts the season in Madison against the Badgers, and will have also seen Auburn and  Indiana at home, with road trips to Iowa and Ohio State by the time the Wolverines pull into town.  This will be an important game for both coaches in terms of establishing control of the series, and I think it will be a defensive slug fest.
Michigan 20 Penn State 16, 8-2

@ Maryland: 38th Overall, 54th Offense, 41st Defense

PRESEASON SP+: U-M by 9.1, Michigan win probability: 51%

PREDICTION: In the 2021 11th game trap spot that has been traditionally reserved for Indiana, Michigan will travel to College Park to take on Maryland.  In the rollercoaster year of 2020, Maryland may have had the highest highs and lowest lows.  Things looked bleak after the Terrapins were blown out by Northwestern to open the season, but they rebounded to beat Minnesota at home and Penn State in Happy Valley.   Then covid struck, causing a 3 week shutdown, followed by losses to Indiana and Rutgers.  In terms of SP+, I think Maryland is still a load of questions marks and unknowns.  We will have a much clearer idea of whether Mike Locksley has things rolling or not by November.  I expect we’ll see a result that is reminiscent of pre-covid days. 
Michigan 39 Maryland 14, 9-2

vs. Ohio State: 4th Overall, 1st Offense, 27th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: OSU by 8.2, Michigan win probability: 34%

PREDICTION: Here at the crescendo of the preview, it’s my duty to remind you that I tend to lean optimistic in my preseason picks.  If things play out similarly to how I’ve written here, Michigan would be 9-2, on a 6-game win streak returning to the Big House for The Game, likely with Big Ten title implications on the line.  Ryan Day and the Buckeyes are coming off a National Championship Game appearance, where their biggest question marks are: 1) how closely can CJ Stroud and/or Quinn Ewers replicate Justin Fields’ success, and 2) will an average-ish defense be good enough for Ohio State to make another title run?  The Buckeyes are still loaded with talent, and they will have a handful of key personnel advantages when they play Michigan.  All that said, I still think Michigan will put their best foot forward in this battle.  My main prediction for this game is that afterward we’ll be talking about the 2 or 3 plays that made all the difference, and whether or not we believe the program is moving in the right direction.
Michigan 21 Ohio State 31, 9-3
3rd Place in B1G Ten East

Dax Hill is a prime candidate for a breakout season on Michigan’s defense. Can first-time Defensive Coordinator Mike MacDonald put all the pieces together quickly enough for Michigan to challenge in the division in 2021?

About Clint Derringer

@clint_derringer on Twitter U-M B.A. Sport Management & Communications ‘05 U-M M.S. Program & Project Management ‘18