2021 By the Numbers: Game 1 vs. Western Michigan

Michigan will need to put up points early and often for a couple reasons as the Wolverines kickoff the 2021 season against the WMU Broncos.


No game last week.  Here are links to the By the Numbers game-by-game preview and the season preview and game preview podcasts with Phil.

NEXT UP: vs. WMU: 72nd, 1.8

PREGAME SP+: U-M by 19, Michigan Win Probability 86%
Bill Connelly is on standby to adjust his model based on whether 2020 covid season data is correlated with early 2021 season performance.  Obviously Michigan fans are hoping that 2020 was an aberration.  The SP+ projected margin has increased from 16.5 to 19.0 since Connelly posted his preseason rankings.

Michigan Offense (28th) vs. WMU Defense (99th) 

We hear some clear themes coming from the Michigan offensive players and coaches as fall camp has shifted to game prep.  First, there will be a bolstered commitment to the run game.  On standard downs, the 2020 Wolverines were 50/50 between run and pass plays called.  Compare that to 2019, when Josh Gattis called 59% run plays, or to 2018 when Pep Hamilton et. al. called 68% run plays. 

Second, they want to start fast, and play from ahead.  Using Expected Points Added (EPA), the 2020 average offensive play actually improved from 2019 overall.  However, the 1st quarter split came back under zero! That means the average 1st quarter play in 2020 actually hurt the team’s chances of scoring points.  Gattis & the offense need to execute a clean game plan against Western’s 99th ranked defensive unit.  We absolutely must see balance, rhythm, and enough big plays to energize a fan base that is starving to reconnect with our favorite team.

Michigan Defense (10th) vs. WMU Offense (44th)

While the talk coming out of fall camp has been very positive, including being ranked #10 in SP+ on defense, I am still expecting to see significant growing pains from the defensive unit.  There will be a period of time early this season that Mike MacDonald will need to improve his feel for matching personnel groups to the opponent, while also signaling in calls from the sideline.  These things take repetition just like any other skill, and game day experience coordinating with coaches up in the booth is tough to simulate in practice.  We’ll also see execution mistakes from players on the field who are still learning the ins and outs of new positions, and young players who are seeing extended playing time for the first time. 

With all of that said, Michigan still has a significant talent advantage over the Broncos.  Also, Western has been forced to game plan using video from Baltimore Ravens games, and Tim Lester’s offensive staff is trying to guess what they’ll see just like we are.  I am bracing for a few eye-opening problems to cause concern with the fans at the Big House, but I expect Michigan’s most experienced and talented players will make enough key plays to secure a victory.  

PREDICTION: I am keeping my preseason prediction in place for the first game against Western Michigan.  All of our questions from the offseason are still valid.  I am encouraged by the optimism radiating from Schembechler Hall, but that is pretty standard fare for fall camp buzz.  I am looking for a solid performance out of the offense and special teams.  Those two units will have to give the new look Michigan defense some room for error.  I don’t expect the Wolverines to cover the spread.
Michigan 37 WMU 24 (Same as preseason)


SP+ Overall: 17th, 18.3
SP+ Offense: 28th, 35.4
SP+ Defense: 10th, 17.1
SP+ Special Teams: N/A

AP Poll: NR

Coaches’ Poll: NR

CFP Rank: N/A

About Clint Derringer

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

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