Last week we took a look at how Penn State compares to Ohio State, and not a single person complained about my verdict. So we move on to the next big (ish) dog in the B1G, Michigan!
Quarterbacks - Advantage PSU
Unlike OSU, Michigan does not have anyone near the caliber of Justin Fields on their roster. As it stands right now, Dylan McCaffrey is set to take over the QB position, and he is inexperienced to say the least. A redshirt junior, McCaffrey has attempted just 35 passes in his career, connecting on 51.4% of them, for three touchdowns. The full time gig will look a lot different than mop up duty, so I’ll give the nod to Sean Clifford between the two starters.
As far as backups go, Joe Milton is a redshirt sophomore who could well push for the starting gig. He has yet to attempt a pass in college, but has proven himself an apt runner. That being said, when it comes to run-first backup quarterbacks, Will Levis has already proven himself capable against Ohio State and Rutgers. Nod to the Lions at both levels.
Running Backs - Advantage PSU
Let’s start with the known knowns for PSU: the running back room is stupid good. Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, and Caziah Holmes are perhaps the best running back room in college football, and I’m honestly not being hyperbolic when I say that. Not only are all four backs capable of being the #1 guy if needed, but they all complement each other. If 2-back sets aren’t a prominent feature of the 2020 offense, I will write a strongly-worded letter to Kirk Ciarrocca.
Michigan has a two-headed monster of their own at running back in Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins. Charbonnet went for 726 yards and 11 TDs as a freshman, while Haskins added in 622 yards and four more TDs. Both of them get used as passing options as well. The primary backup is senior Chris Evans who contributed a combined 571 yards in 2018, but didn’t see the field in 2019 due to some off the field issues. Overall the Michigan running backs are a strong group, but PSU goes at least one player deeper, and the rushing game will be the calling card for PSU in 2020.
Receivers - Push
Penn State has Pat Freiermuth, and frankly that’s all you need to know. Never mind that Zack Kuntz, Brenton Strange, and Theo Johnson are all ready to roll to spell Moose a bit. The Michigan tight end room, chiefly comprised Nick Eubanks and Erick All, combined for 13 catches and four TDs last year. PSU at tight end all the way.
Unfortunately, the wide receivers are another story. Penn State brings back Jahan Dotson, and that’s pretty much it in reliable catching ability. Then it’s a slew of question marks, and while it stands to reason that some players will improve, especially under new OC Ciarrocca, Michigan is just more talented. Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell, and Giles Jackson are one of the more athletic receiving rooms in the conference. Between the three, they combined for 85 receptions, 1,487 yards, and 8 touchdowns in 2019. Michigan takes the receivers, PSU takes the tight ends, and we have a push.
Offensive Line - Advantage PSU
This time last year, I would have said advantage Michigan. They had an experienced, skilled line in 2019, while PSU had talent, but was still a bit inexperienced. Well, in 2020 the Lions bring back four out of five starters, and have one of the most talented left tackles in the country.
On the flip side, Michigan lost four offensive linemen, all of which will be playing on Sundays. The players coming up behind them are talented, but probably won’t be quite up to the level of 2019 Michigan. Penn State takes the OL!
Defensive Line - Push
For PSU, it’s a combination of some returning starters, and then hoping that a few good players take the next step to great. Shaka Toney and Antonio Shelton return, but PJ Mustipher and Jayson Oweh step up as starters for the first time. Are they good? Very. But the pass rush was meh last year, and losing Yetur Gross-Matos and Robert Windsor will mean some big shoes to fill. Add in the loss of Sean Spencer at coach, and this group is a question mark.
Michigan is also experiencing some turnover on the DL. Two starters are gone, including Michael Danna to the NFL. There’s plenty of talent, including DEs Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, plus Chris Hinton and Carlo Kemp on the interior. If I’m repeating myself, I apologize, but once again it looks like the 2020 version of the Michigan DL will be a touch worse than the 2019 version. Overall, though, it’s hard to hand out a victory to two units in flux, so we’ll call it a draw.
Linebackers - Advantage PSU
Micah Parsons. Brandon Smith. Lance Dixon. Jesse Luketa. The list goes on, and the skill and experience this group has is mind boggling. Remember just a few years back when PSU couldn’t recruit a LB to save its life? Yeah, those days are long gone. Parsons could well play himself into a top 10 pick, and Smith will probably be just a year behind him in the draft. The LB talent is absurd, and will help pick up any shortcomings of the DL.
Michigan on the other hand, lost three of its best LBs to the NFL in Josh Uche, Khaleke Hudson, and Jordan Glasgow. Cam McGrone returns, and will continue to be a pain for the Lions, but Mike Barrett and Josh Ross on the outsides are good, if not other worldly. While the gap between the DLs is nonexistent, the gap between the LBs is staggering.
Secondary - Advantage Michigan
Penn State lost John Reid and Garrett Taylor., and will look to replace them with Donovan Johnson and Jaquan Brisker. Ideally the secondary will be helped by pass rush improvements along the DL and at LB, but I’m not going to hold my breath. The secondary is officially in “prove it” mode as far as I’m concerned.
Michigan meanwhile lost Josh Metellus and Lavert Hill from their own secondary, but they bring in a pair of solid players in Ambry Thomas and Dax Hill. Other than KJ Hamler (and even him for all but a couple plays), Michigan shut down Penn State’s passing game in 2019. At worst I see them being about the same, which would mean the Wolverine secondary is better than Penn State’s.
Special Teams - Advantage Michigan
First, Jordan Stout is going to keep on booming balls, whether they leave a tee, the turf, or are just floating in midair before he boots them. He’ll keep doing his thing on kickoffs and long field goals, but I’m going to wait and see how punting goes. Can he boom it? Yep. Can he place it like Blake Gillikin? Time will tell. Will Hart for Michigan averages 44.5 yards per punt, so edge to Michigan in the punting game. The two field goal kickers were similar with Jake Pinegar going 11/12, while Quinn Nordin is back for one last year, having gone 10/13 in 2019. Edge to Penn State in place kicking.
The big difference is in the return game, where PSU won’t have anyone near the caliber of KJ Hamler returning the ball this year. Michigan brings back a fun kick returner in Giles Jackson, who averaged 25.9 yards per return and one touchdown in 2019. The flip side is Donovan Peoples-Jones is gone as punt returner. Still, I’ll give Michigan the nod at returner, and thus at special teams overall.
Coaching - Advantage PSU
I said it last week and I’ll say it again. James Franklin is a good game day coach. He’s not perfect, but his ability to keep his cool and stick to his guns is admirable. He’s gotten better at timeouts, and running the ball to close out a game. Pretty much everything people complained about has gotten better for CJF.
And then there’s Jim Harbaugh. First, he’s a quarterback whisperer who can’t develop his own quarterbacks. Second, he’s prone to hysterics if anything doesn’t go his way. Third, he’ll jump all over blaming the refs when his team loses. Fourth, despite having a roster that’s as talented, if not more so, than Penn State’s, he has never beaten Ohio State, and has never finished better than second in the B1G East. Fifth, he picks his nose. Franklin is the better coach, hands down.
Overall - Advantage PSU
Out of the nine categories we just discussed, I’ve got PSU with five nods, Michigan with two, and two pushes. PSU has the edge at QB, RB, OL, LB, and coaching. Michigan has the edge at secondary, and special teams. The two teams are even at receiver and defensive line.
Again, this is all conjecture on my part. How much better is Clifford than McCaffrey? Will Penn State finally figure out how to catch the ball? Some of these gaps are narrow, some not as much. On a neutral site, I’d say this game is 65/35 Penn State, while on the road at Michigan I’ll leave it more or less at 50/50. Depending on how many fans may be in the stands, this seems to be as good a chance to win for the Lions as they’ve had in some time, but again I don’t think I can flat out predict a Penn State victory just yet. But by no means would a road win at Ann Arbor surprise me.