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Western Michigan at Michigan Week 1 Preview: A new hope

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Jim Harbaugh gets perhaps one last shot to prove this program can compete.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Western Michigan at Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And so it begins. After Saturday, there will be no need to ever think back to the 2020 Michigan football season again. The Wolverines limped to a 2-4 record, missing many key pieces and clearly not capable of competing at an acceptable level. Jim Harbaugh did everything he could in the offseason to address that, swapping out many of his coaches and bringing in his third straight top-15 recruiting class. The page has been turned.

While most fans seem willing to wipe last season from memory, it does not mean that expectations for this season are high. In fact, Michigan enters 2021 with very modest acclaim, which could lead to a tough head coaching decision should the year play out as projected. That is a long four months away, however; the chance to forge a different path begins this weekend.

The Wolverines welcome Western Michigan to the Big House to open up the schedule. All eyes will be on Cade McNamara, who retains the starting quarterback job he earned partway through last season. The redshirt sophomore was very reliable and avoided mistakes, though it remains to be seen if he can unleash Michigan’s weapons in the passing game. The Broncos sit just 99th in S&P+ defensive rankings (72nd overall), so he should get a chance to ease into the season.

Western Michigan (0-0) vs. Michigan (0-0, 0-0)

Date: Saturday, September 4
Time: 12:00 pm ET
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
TV: ESPN

This will be the second time in four years that Western has come to Ann Arbor. The 2018 contest was a 49-3 drubbing by the home team, and a repeat would be welcomed by anyone in maize and blue. The challenge this season is Broncos quarterback Kaleb Eleby, who is a very legitimate threat. Last season he posted a 195.1 (!!) passer rating with 18 touchdowns and just two picks over six games, making him one of the most impressive quarterbacks in the country by any statistic.

He does lose his top receiver, D’Wayne Eskridge, who was selected in the second round this spring, but this could still get messy. Eleby is not the typical MAC quarterback, and while Western may not have the most impressive receiving corps, that certainly did not stop opposing passing games against Michigan last season. As mentioned before, the Western defense is nothing special and will probably struggle to match up against the Wolverines, so there is the potential for both teams to put up some points this weekend.

Matchup Highlights

Quarterback competitions always steal the headlines, but there are plenty of other questions regarding the Michigan offense. Against an overmatched Broncos defense, the new-look offensive line will have the opportunity to show what all the camp hype has been about. Expect both Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum to find the end zone as part of the two-pronged running back duo, with stud rookie Donovan Edwards getting some late touches as well. As much as fans will want to see how McNamara looks, the run game should be able to win this one for the Wolverines.

Meanwhile, the unit with the most to prove is the Michigan secondary, of course. This will not be the Wolverines’ toughest test of the season, but this is no walkthrough either. In some ways, it works out to face a threat like Eleby early on, as the Wolverines should be able to survive even if they have some rough downs against the pass. For this team to have any chance this season, the cornerbacks absolutely must show some improvement starting this week. Hopefully players like Gemon Green and D.J. Turner can provide some early optimism, and perhaps Dax Hill will give a taste of what his role will look like under Mike Macdonald.