Optimism hit an all-time low for the Michigan Wolverines in 2020 as they finished 2-4 with one of the worst statistical defenses in program history, allowing 34.5 points and 434.3 yards per game. Offensively, it wasn't much better; the Wolverines finished in the bottom half of the conference in rushing and threw for less than 100 yards in two of their last three games.
Much of the offensive core returns in 2021, as do some key playmakers on defense, so a rebound season is likely. Catching Ohio State in the Big Ten East standings next year is probably an unrealistic goal, but there are reasons to believe Michigan can make a push towards the top of the conference next season.
1. Revamped coaching staff
You can't go 2-4 at Michigan and not expect to overhaul the coaching staff. The Wolverines added five coaches this offseason, none of whom are over 40, with a blend of experience that head coach Jim Harbaugh hopes is a recipe for success both on the field and off in recruiting circles.
Most notably, Harbaugh looked to his brother's team as he hired Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald (33) to run the defense, taking over for Don Brown. An old face also joined the staff with former Michigan running back Mike Hart being named the new RB coach after spending the last few seasons with Indiana.
Thus far, the new hires have been met with rave reviews, as the group has hit the ground running with the current roster and prospective recruits.
2. Influx of talent at positions of need
A late surge on National Signing Day by the aforementioned coaching staff helped the Wolverines finish 10th nationally in the 247Sports Composite rankings and second in the Big Ten behind only Ohio State. Not all that uncommon for Michigan, which has finished in the top 15 in the country in recruiting each of the last three years, but some of the most distinguished recruits the Wolverines are bringing in are at positions of need.
In the late signing day window, the new staff beefed up the defensive line, which had lacked size in previous years, flipping two 4-star defensive tackles who were previously committed to Colorado and Michigan State. Four-star running back Donovan Edwards was named Mr. Football in the state of Michigan and will have every chance to contribute immediately, with the Wolverines losing two running backs to transfer earlier this offseason.
Lastly, the crown jewel of the class is 5-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy, whom the Michigan faithful hopes will finally help the Wolverines get back into national title contention in the coming years. This class isn't at the level of an Alabama or Ohio State, but it hit on positions of need that should serve the team well moving forward.
3. Manageable schedule
The Big Ten announced its revised football schedule for 2021 in early February, and the slate sets up nicely for the Wolverines. The first four contests to begin the year will all be at home, including a non-conference bout with the Washington Huskies. Michigan will have a pair of back-to-back road games later in the year, but three of the four opponents had losing records in 2020. The bye week occurs right in the middle of the season in Week 7. And the yearly matchup with Ohio State will be in Ann Arbor after last season's meeting in Columbus was canceled.
Stating the schedule is manageable certainly doesn't mean easy, but there aren't any significant roadblocks — outside of Ohio State — on the slate that appear insurmountable.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.