College football’s 2020 season was not kind to Michigan and Penn State. Instead of challenging for a finish in the top 25, the Nittany Lions and Wolverines combined for a 6-9 record in the abbreviated Big Ten slate. But both programs didn’t sit idle this offseason and hope for improvement. Instead, there were significant changes to build optimism for ’21. Michigan’s revamped staff provides hope for a quick turnaround in terms of its on-field product (and recruiting efforts), while Penn State also made a key staff addition at offensive coordinator. Both programs have more talent in the program than last year’s record would suggest. However, the Nittany Lions and Wolverines enter the ’21 campaign with plenty of question marks to answer.
Will Michigan or Penn State experience a bigger rebound in 2021? Is Michigan poised to return to the top 25 behind a revamped staff? Or are the Nittany Lions a much better team than last year's 4-5 record suggested? That was the question posed to Athlon editors and college football contributors.
Michigan or Penn State: Which Team Has a Better Chance to Rebound in 2021?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The unusual circumstances surrounding last season make it difficult to know how much to read into what transpired on the gridiron in 2020 for most programs in the Big Ten. With that in mind, I do think both Michigan and Penn State show improvement in ’21, but a small edge goes to the Nittany Lions for a bigger jump this fall. Prior to last year’s win regression, Penn State won at least 11 games in three of its last four seasons. Getting back to 11 wins is going to be difficult without better quarterback play and a quick restock in the defensive trenches after a handful of key contributors departed. However, the Nittany Lions finished ’20 with wins in four out of the last five games, and some of the advanced metrics indicate this team was not as bad as its record indicated. Provided the trenches reload on defense, this unit should rank among the best in the Big Ten. While Clifford’s performance is under the spotlight, the senior quarterback has a strong supporting cast at receiver and running back to lean on. Also, a minus-eight turnover margin seems hard to repeat in ’21. James Franklin is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten, and with a solid track record in Happy Valley, the guess here is Penn State rebounds somewhere in the top 25.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Penn State's horrifying and historic 0-5 start gave way to a four-game winning streak that ended the 2020 campaign on a promising note. Michigan actually fared worse at 2-4, including what wound up being a season-ending loss to the Nittany Lions. The gap between both of these teams and Big Ten East kingpin Ohio State only seems to be growing, but for 2021 I like Penn State's chances to rebound better. Both teams lost some key players to the NFL draft, but James Franklin's roster appears to be in better shape entering this season. New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich is now calling the shots on that side of the ball with Michigan going through a similar transition on defense, which has been the Wolverines' calling card recently under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Yurcich is no stranger to directing productive FBS offenses while new Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, formerly the linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, is entirely new to the role. Macdonald has a bevy of returning starters to lean on while the Wolverines' offense is littered with question marks, starting with quarterback. Last season's strong finish combined with a little more clarity about how the offense and defense will line up are reasons why I'm expecting the Nittany Lions to put forth a better on-field product this season.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Neither team should be too confident at quarterback heading into next season, but Penn State has one clear edge that makes it one of the more intriguing offensive teams in the Big Ten: returning skill position talent. Jahan Dotson has a case to be perhaps the conference's best receiver, and the Nittany Lions also welcome back Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith. Leading rusher Keyvone Lee returns, as does Noah Cain, who missed essentially all of last season with a foot injury. Penn State needs Sean Clifford to cut down on the turnovers, but he should also provide a higher floor for the team than what Cade McNamara or J.J. McCarthy gives Michigan, which only returns three offensive starters. While neither team can be expected to knock off Ohio State, Penn State gets the edge because of what's coming back on an offense that already finished top-five in the conference in scoring, rushing, passing, and total offense.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Penn State will enter the 2021 season on much better footing as a program than the Wolverines. Even with a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich, the Nittany Lions had the benefit of having a full spring football practice with him and third-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford. The rest of the offense has all of the right ingredients to be a formidable threat and the defense should be good enough to keep them in games even amidst a challenging schedule. Consider last year going against the grain and trust the program that has won 11 games three of the last four years prior to that to be ready for a more notable rebound season.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
Both teams will have very similar paths to navigate in terms of strength of schedule. Penn State is working in a new offensive coordinator, and Michigan will have a new defensive coordinator. That said, the Nittany Lions appear to have fewer question marks where it matters — and a deeper more talented roster. Then you toss in the fact that Michigan travels to Happy Valley in 2021. I have little doubt Penn State finishes ahead of Michigan, but even then, I'm not sure that'll be good enough to finish in one of the top two spots in the Big Ten East.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
I think it's Penn State. Michigan has shown some positive signs during the offseason, including signing a potentially instant-impact 2021 recruiting class and John Harbaugh hiring a new, much younger defensive coaching staff. However, Penn State started its rebound late in the 2020 season and should carry some momentum into the season.
James Franklin could have lost the locker room and the Nittany Lions could have completely mailed it in after starting 0-5 (a somewhat unlucky 0-5 at that, since Penn State had a 67.4 percent postgame win expectancy in its season-opening loss to Indiana according to cfb-graphs.com, as well as a 50 percent in the loss to Maryland and 71.6 percent versus Nebraska). Instead, the squad beat Michigan and won four straight to finish. Assuming better injury luck at running back and in the secondary, and with a revamped defensive line thanks to Franklin embracing the transfer portal, there are no major weaknesses on the roster. Consistent quarterback play has been an issue for both teams, but senior Sean Clifford at least has 20 games of starting experience to his credit, and he'll work with respected new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, so there's reason to be optimistic he can improve.
I thought Penn State was the biggest threat to Ohio State entering the 2020 season, and believed the Nittany Lions could have made a run at the College Football Playoff. Obviously, things didn't work out that way. However, I think there's still a solid foundation in Happy Valley, and because of last year's late resurgence, Penn State appears better positioned to rebound in 2021.
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