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 UMGoBlue.com 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

PAST RESULTS

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 UMGoBlue.com 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?

Michigan 17 Penn State 27 – Week 6 Recap

WEEK 6 PROJECTION vs. RESULTS

Final Score: 17-27, Penn State by 10 over Michigan
SP+ Projection: Penn State by 1.0 (-9.0)
CD Projection: Michigan by 1 (-11)

FIVE FACTORS

WEEK 6 RECAP vs. Penn State

Offensively, the Wolverines lost their first-half rhythm when Cade McNamara left the game with a shoulder injury.  The broadcast team mentioned that Joe MIlton was also less than 100%, and he was unable to mount a charge.  The salt in the wound for this week was Michigan netted 174 rushing yards.  In my data set, they averaged 6.5 yards per run play (garbage time & sacks removed).  However, they could not sustain drives and continue to move the chains.  While McNamara was hurt, Hassan Haskins was inexplicably standing on the sideline.  This week, Josh Gattis was unable to scheme his WRs open, and Michigan could only muster a 28% success rate on pass plays. 

Defensively, I saw just about what I expected.  While the defensive line was boosted by Kwity Paye’s return, the defensive interior could not stand up to Penn State’s mediocre offensive line.  The Nittany Lions netted 254 rushing yards, and averaged 5.2 yards per run play in my data set.  Michigan needed a big stop after tightening the score to 20-17 in the 4th quarter.  The Wolverines were merely an annoyance to Penn State as they marched 75 yards in 5:00 to stretch the lead to 10.  I think the defensive staff has adjusted to help mitigate the huge plays against man coverage outside, and that is commendable.  I thought holding PSU under 30 would be enough to win, but instead James Franklin has his first win of 2020.

Last week, special teams hurt Michigan with 3 missed FGs.  This week, it was 2 muffed punts, one of which resulted in a turnover and a field goal for Penn State.  Michigan certainly missed Giles Jackson, who was the latest to hit the injury report.  This year cannot end soon enough.

Every problem that plagues Michigan right now is also weighing down the Nittany Lions.  The game was in Ann Arbor on a beautiful November day.  All the potential excuses have withered and Michigan is left with just one option: acknowledging that they don’t know how to win football games right now. 

By the Numbers: Week 6 vs. Penn State

LAST WEEK RECAP

The Wolverines survived three OTs against Rutgers to win 48-42 on the road.  The offense did a near-180 degree turnaround under Cade McNamara.  The defense did not.

NEXT UP: vs. Penn State: 29th, 9.8

PREGAME SP+: Penn State by 1.0, Michigan Win Probability 48%
Michigan & Penn State both look radically different than anybody expected before the Big Ten kicked off in October.  Michigan has underperformed SP+ expectations on defense allowing an average of 12.8 points more than SP+ projections.  Penn State has underperformed on both sides of the ball.  The Nittany Lion defense gives up an average of 11.2 more points than projections.  Their offense has scored 6.6 points less than projected.

Michigan Offense (44th) vs. Penn State Defense (30th) 
Michigan may have answered a couple big questions on offense.  It looks like Hassan Haskins will get a larger share of the running back carries going forward.  Also, Josh Gattis seemed to have more plays that use post-snap reads at his disposal once Cade McNamara took over at quarterback.  Still, the largest question mark still looms: how healthy will the Wolverines’ offensive line be?  We asked the same question headed into the Rutgers game, but lost center Andrew Vastardis to injury instead of regaining Jaylen Mayfield or Ryan Hayes at tackle.  Regardless, this Penn State defense is also short handed and just gave up 34 points to Iowa (54th SP+ offense).

Michigan Defense (37th) vs. Penn State Offense (34th)
In my mind, this game will be decided in big moments while Penn State has the ball.  First, it’s critical for Michigan to get off to a solid start.  Penn State has yet to score more than 7 points in the first half in any game in 2020.  That includes games against Maryland (67th SP+ defense, PSU 19 points) and against Nebraska (76th SP+ defense, PSU 23 points).  Second, the Wolverines need to keep the Penn State quarterbacks uncomfortable.  If Don Brown can get back to using havoc and confusion to create turnovers, then the defensive unit could give their offensive teammates a big boost.  That may be too big an “IF” statement though, given the injuries stretching the defensive two deep perilously thin.

PREDICTION: Michigan should be able to string together successful offensive plays against this diminished Penn State defensive unit.  If I was confident that Michigan would have their best 5 offensive linemen healthy, I would feel much more comfortable heading into Saturday.  While we are starting to see a few playmakers emerge on offense, the Wolverines need some young defenders to step forward.  I will be looking for DT Chris Hinton, LB Michael Barrett, and S Daxton Hill to be difference makers during crunch time in Ann Arbor.

Michigan 28 Penn State 27 (PRESEASON Michigan 27 Penn State 21)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE (11/24/2020), 2-3

SP+ Overall: 40th (↓13), 6.8
SP+ Offense: 44th (↓9), 31.6
SP+ Defense: 37th (↓11), 24.7
SP+ Special Teams: 81st (↑2), -0.1

AP Poll: NR (same), 0

Coaches’ Poll: NR (same), 0

CFP Rank: NR

Michigan 48 Rutgers 42 – Week 5 Recap

WEEK 5 PROJECTION vs. RESULTS

Final Score: 48-42 3OT, Michigan by 6 over Rutgers
SP+ Projection: Michigan by 19.3 (-13.3)
CD Projection: Michigan by 6 (✔)

FIVE FACTORS

WEEK 5 RECAP @ Rutgers

Admittedly, it felt weird to be treating a week 5 trip to Rutgers as a must win.  But, it absolutely was a must win game for Michigan, and for Jim Harbaugh.  They won, and that matters a lot.  There were still a litany of errors to correct for this coaching staff, and for these players.  But in the end, Michigan finally managed to make some key plays in big spots.  This will prove to be a memorable lesson in how to win for these players, especially those with very little game experience.

I hope everyone is prepared for a very fast transfer from the Joe Milton hype train to the Cade McNamara hype train.  McNamara looked very sharp after taking over for Milton in the second quarter.  He was 27-36 (75%) for 260 yards and 4 TDs.  Perhaps more importantly, once the offense forced Rutgers to defend the whole field, the running game was able to find some creases.  There is still a lot of work to do to bolster the depth while three of the five starting lineman recover from injuries.  Hassan Haskins seems to have stepped forward to gather more carries than the other three running backs.  However, Chris Evans had perhaps the play of the game on a 4th & 5 conversion in the 4th quarter.  Josh Gattis finally seemed to get into a rhythm for the first time since October 24th in Minneapolis.

On first glance, this game was a lot like the rest of the 2020 performances for Don Brown’s defensive unit.  There were still huge chunk plays given up through the air to a Rutgers QB who was averaging 5.3 yards per pass attempt coming in.  Rutgers managed 6.8 yards per called pass play tonight against Michigan.  There were a few glimmers of hope, however.  Early on, we saw a flash of speed off the ball from Chris Hinton.  If he emerges as an interior threat, this defense immediately improves.  We also saw Dax Hill make a technique correction from early in the game to the end.  In the 1st quarter, Dax made a passive play on a deep ball and the WR high-pointed a 43 yard bomb to set up Rutgers’ first score.  On the final play of the game, in a similar coverage technique, Dax left no doubt by going up high to snatch his first interception of the season. 

Giles Jackson continues to show his propensity for being a playmaker.  Today, it was as a kick returner.  His 95-yard touchdown return to open the 2nd half was a huge part of why Michigan was able to execute a comeback victory.  When Rutgers kicked away from Jackson, Blake Corum was very capable of converting short kicks into good field position also.  Michigan was very fortunate that their explosive return game was able to pick up the place kicking.  Three missed field goals nearly cost Michigan this game in regulation, and in overtime.  One missed field goal was affected by a poor snap, but the other two were clearly pushed right by Quinn Nordin.  I expect Michigan’s special teams unit will sink even lower in next week’s SP+ rankings.

By the Numbers: Week 5 @ Rutgers

LAST WEEK RECAP

Michigan was steamrolled by the Wisconsin Badgers 49-11 in Ann Arbor.  Even with low expectations, the fan base was still mortified by the poor performance.

NEXT UP: @ Rutgers: 108th, -10.5

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 19.3, Michigan Win Probability 87%
A quick note: Bill Connelly’s content at ESPN has moved behind the ESPN+ paywall.  In addition to his rankings article I always link (PREGAME SP+ above), I’ll also share this article where Connelly discusses why SP+ missed on Michigan (the defense).  He mentioned that without preseason projections, the Wolverines would be in the 60s in SP+ overall ranking.  They are currently 27th overall.

Michigan Offense (35th) vs. Rutgers Defense (90th) 
Here is some bad news, then some good news, then some unknowns.  The bad news is Michigan’s offense has only looked viable in one game versus Minnesota.  The Gophers were the 44th ranked defense per SP+ heading into week 1, but have plummeted to 85th after four games.  The good news is the week 5 opponent is Rutgers and they are putting the 90th ranked defense out there on Saturday.  Will Michigan be able to mount any successful offensive rhythm this Saturday in prime time?  We won’t know much until we’ve seen whether the two OTs, Jaylen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes, are back in the lineup.  Also, we need to find out who steps forward at quarterback after Joe Milton was benched in favor of Cade McNamara last week.

Michigan Defense (26th) vs. Rutgers Offense (112th)
Rutgers has been boom or bust from drive to drive this season.  They have scored at least 20 points in every game, including 27 against Ohio State.  They were able to cash in on Michigan State’s 7 turnovers to score 38 in week one.  However, in terms of efficiency and explosiveness, they are still lacking severely and have slipped to 112th in offensive SP+.  I expect they will attack Michigan the same way the last three opponents have.  They will test the corners deep down the sidelines.  Also, running back Isaih Pacheco will run right at the edge defenders who struggled so mightily against Wisconsin.  

PREDICTION: This may very well be Jim Harbaugh’s last stand.  A loss to Rutgers will signal that the 2020 team may have decided to pack it in.  While I do expect to see many frustrating plays on both sides of the ball, I don’t think the program will roll over.  I am prepared to see a close game throughout, but in the 4th quarter Michigan’s playmakers will have to step forward.  I would feel better about this prediction if I knew for certain who those playmakers are.

Michigan 33 Rutgers 27 (PRESEASON Michigan 41 Rutgers 10)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE (11/17/2020) 1-3

SP+ Overall: 27th (↓9), 10.7
SP+ Offense: 35th (↓5), 33.0
SP+ Defense: 26th (↓7), 22.2
SP+ Special Teams: 83rd (↑21), -0.1

AP Poll: NR (same), 0

Coaches’ Poll: NR (same), 0

CFP Rank: N/A