Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh will send his team out to begin their 2021 NCAAF season in the coming weeks, with Michigan looking to rebuild and regain confidence following a dismal 2020 campaign which saw them post a listless 2-4 record. Such a disappointing performance understandably led to a sizeable internal shake-up of personnel, but do the leading college football magazines believe that will be enough to turn the tide in 2021?
Athlon Sports magazine believes that the Wolverines can conclude the 2021 regular season with a positive 7-5 overall record, with a 5-4 record in the Big Ten. That’s a record that would place Michigan fourth behind Ohio State, Penn State, and Indiana. All of whom are hotly tipped by Athlon to make bold bids for success in 2021. According to the views of OddsChecker’s handicappers that provide free college football picks, Clemson Tigers are once again the outright favorites to win the College Football Championship Game ahead of Ohio State and Alabama.
Athlon’s writers believe that the Wolverines will enter the start of the 2021 season with "more questions than answers". Granted, that is probably a fair assessment of the state of play in Michigan, given the restructure of head coach Harbaugh’s staff. Athlon believe 2021 to be a "critical season" for coach Harbaugh’s Wolverines reign. The 57-year-old has been with Michigan since 2015 but has thus far failed to deliver the results expected. He became the first coach to go 0-5 in the series in 2019 and in 2020 the Wolverines failed to win a single game at home.
Despite the increased pressure, it would appear the college’s hierarchy is pleased to have Harbaugh on board. Michigan negotiated a new four-year contract extension to Harbaugh’s existing deal earlier this year, keeping him in the role until the 2025 season. The extension at least brought to an end the intensifying media speculation that Harbaugh was embarking on his "last stand" with Michigan. Athlon believe the likelihood of Harbaugh lasting the full length of his new contract rests on the success of the Wolverines’ "new defensive scheme", overseen by Mike Macdonald – more on him shortly.
With a new defensive scheme, Athlon believes Michigan will be able to secure its inaugural Music City Bowl appearance up against Tennessee. Although that doesn’t represent outright success, it is a measurable improvement after Michigan failed to secure a bowl invite following the condensed 2020 season.
Lindy’s have been equally scathing about Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines reign to date. They’ve put him right at the top of the list of its "hot-seat coaches" i.e. coaches under huge pressure to perform from game one in 2021. Lindy’s said that in six seasons Harbaugh "hasn’t been able to solve the simple math of today’s game: If you’ve got a quarterback, you’ve got a chance". Harbaugh has insisted he will "die trying" to get Michigan back on track.
Like Athlon, Lindy’s Sports believe that Michigan can finish fourth in the Big Ten East. In addition, it believes two of Michigan’s starting prospects have the potential to be listed as part of the All-Big Ten first team – Aidan Hutchinson and Daxton Hill. Unlike Athlon, Lindy’s don’t believe the Wolverines have what it takes to reach the Music City Bowl in 2021.
Many Wolverines fans were holding their collective breath before reading Phil Steele’s 2021 season preview. In 2020, Steele predicted that Michigan would finish last as part of its FBS experience chart. They will have been pleased to find that Steele was rather more bullish on Michigan’s prospects in 2021, due largely to the 17 returning starters in the Wolverines’ roster.
Steele described Michigan’s 2020 season as "miserable" but the roster still contains "plenty of talent" given that seven of their positions rank within Steele’s "Top Units". Steele said that the Wolverines could be a "prime candidate" to make the cut as one of his "Most Improved list". Steele agrees with Athlon that Michigan could "be getting back to a bowl in 2021" if they can fulfil their undoubted potential.
Top prospect Andrew Stueber waxes lyrical about new defensive and offensive coordinators
The Wolverines’ senior offensive lineman Andrew Stueber has spoken in glowing terms about the work of new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who was appointed in place of the departing Don Brown after a five-year spell. Stueber admitted he heard "calls [he’d] never heard before" during Michigan’s spring practice. He described the sessions as "much more game-like" because they "simulated a game". Stueber says the feeling in the locker room is "fresh" and that the team consequently has a "new edge".
There is positivity when it comes to the Wolverines’ offense too. Former Oklahoma offensive lineman Sherrone Moore has moved to Michigan as the new co-offensive coordinator, as well as offensive line coach. Moore was appointed as Ed Warinner’s replacement, who is being aided by long-time NFL veteran and analyst Kyle DeVan. Stueber spoke of Moore’s "approachable" nature and "how similar" he is to the group, with the 35-year-old already becoming a big voice on the practice field.
Stueber is one of three players that coach Harbaugh has confirmed will be starting in Michigan’s opening game of the season. During the Big Ten Media Days, Harbaugh revealed Stueber was part of a trio of offensive linemen locked down for starting berths, with Zak Zinter and Ryan Hayes the other two players deemed "solid". Harbaugh has revealed there is "real competition" for the other starting places, with Trevor Keegan standing out in spring practice and Chuck Filiaga also keeping himself in the frame after posting the "best offseason".
In addition, Andrew Vastardis is now fully recovered from his injury sustained last term. Vastardis featured at center on four occasions in 2020 but is already behind Zak Zinter in the pecking order in 2021.
As for Andrew Stueber, 2021 appears to be a make-or-break season for his NFL prospects. He began the 2020 season at right guard but was forced to fill in admirably at right tackle due to injuries elsewhere in the roster. He proved to be a highly effective blocker in Michigan’s power run play, and he has plenty of room to grow this season too.