Despite being so close in proximity, Saturday will mark just the eighth time in the schools' history that the Michigan Wolverines and Western Michigan Broncos will meet as both teams look to begin the 2021 college football season off with an in-state win.
For the Wolverines, this is a chance to quickly erase what may have been one of the worst campaigns in the program's history: a 2-4 record with a defense that ranked 12th in the Big Ten in points allowed. Even Rutgers was better in that category. As to be expected, head coach Jim Harbaugh turned over much of his coaching staff with the hopes of providing a better on-field product that has been sorely lacking the last few seasons.
On the flip side, Western Michigan looks primed to compete for a MAC title in 2021 with a star-studded offense that returns 88 percent of its production from a year ago, including one of the best Group of 5 quarterbacks in Kaleb Eleby. If head coach Tim Lester and his staff can improve a defense that allowed 34.2 points per game last season, the Broncos could be playing for some hardware by year's end.
Western Michigan at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan -17.5
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
The Broncos will undoubtedly be in the running with Kent State for best offense in the MAC in 2021 with Eleby captaining the show. The 6-foot-1 junior put on a clinic during the abbreviated six-game schedule last season, carving up conference defenses with a 65 percent completion rate for 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Eleby's 11.2 yards per attempt were tied for highest in the nation along with Alabama's Mac Jones, though he will enter this season without his primary target from a year ago in D'Wayne Eskridge who was a second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks. Minimal concern, though, about the vacated production with starters Jaylen Hall and Skyy Moore both returning, and the staff added in Chattanooga grad transfer Bryce Nunnelly who passed Terrell Owens on the school's all-time career receptions list before leaving.
If Michigan preps to defend the long ball, Western Michigan can carve up opposing defenses on the ground with a trio of talented running backs in former Michigan State transfer La'Darius Jefferson, Sean Tyler, and former Nevada transfer Jaxson Kincaide — all of whom averaged better tahn 5.5 yards per carry in 2020.
The Wolverines and their new-look defense under coordinator Mike Macdonald will have their hands full with this group on Saturday.
When Michigan Has the Ball
While Michigan is revamping its defensive identity, the scheme on offense remains the same, just with different faces as the Wolverines return just three starters. It was an "open" competition at quarterback this offseason, but most anticipated that steady-handed sophomore Cade McNamara would win the job after completing 61 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and zero interceptions in 2020. McNamara won't wow anyone with his physical attributes, but Harbaugh repeatedly mentioned how fiery of a competitor his starting quarterback is and his ability to make his teammates around him better, which are vital qualities for the position.
Michigan's strength on offense will undoubtedly be the running back spot, where constant praise has been heaped upon leading returning rusher Hassan Haskins and breakout candidate Blake Corum, who's been the star of the offseason for the Wolverines. Beyond the top two, incoming 5-star Donovan Edwards did not look out of place at all during fall practices and will have a spot in the backfield's rotation.
Wide receiver depth won't be an issue either with leading receiver Ronnie Bell returning, along with junior Cornelius Johnson and Jackson State transfer Daylen Baldwin, who is expected to be an impact player immediately.
This will not be the typical G5 pushover in the opening week for the Wolverines, as Western Michigan has the talent, particularly on offense, to give them everything they can handle on Saturday. It's on the defensive end for the Broncos where some issues could arise. Ten starters are back, but this was a group that finished no better than fifth in the MAC in any of the four major categories. The Wolverines’ strength at running back and bigger athletes in the trenches will help them eventually win out in the end, setting up a showdown in primetime next weekend vs. Washington.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Western Michigan 20
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— 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.