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2021 Opponent Snapshot: Michigan Wolverines

Can the Nittany Lions make it three in a row over Michigan?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan
Is that a microphone under Jim Harbaugh’s mask, or is he just happy to see you?
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Quick 2020 Recap

Michigan started off the season on the right foot, waxing Minnesota 49-24. It was pretty much downhill from there though for the Wolverines, as they were upset by a Michigan State team that didn’t have a real offseason with their first-year head coach, lost to Indiana for the first time since hairspray, neon clothes, and wearing sunglasses indoors were fashionable, and suffered a 49-11 defeat to a Wisconsin team that was coming off a three-week COVID pause.

The Wolverines briefly quelled the bleeding with a win over Rutgers that required three overtimes before losing to previously 0-5 Penn State, which was followed by having their remaining three games against Maryland, Iowa, and Ohio State cancelled. That’s right folks, for the first time since 1917, Michigan and Ohio State did not meet up for a game of tackle football. For you history buffs reading this, the influenza pandemic was still a year away from occurring the last time this happened.

Offensive Player to Watch: WR Ronnie Bell

You may remember him for dropping the would-be game-tying touchdown late in the 2019 White Out win, but Bell has arguably been Michigan’s most reliable receiver. Last year, Bell caught a team-high 26 balls for 401 yards receiving and a touchdown, and will likely be targeted heavily by whoever is slinging the rock. He will need to step up even more in 2021 if the Wolverines want to have a shot at surprising their doubters.

Defensive Player to Watch: DE Aidan Hutchinson

Hutchinson is arguably Michigan’s best NFL prospect currently on the roster. Although he had a muted 2020 season with only 13 tackles and no sacks, having an actual offseason should allow him a chance to replicate his 2019 performance of 69 (nice) tackles, which included ten for a loss and 3.5 sacks.

Major Changes for 2021

On the player side of things, the quarterback room sure looks different with Joe Milton having transferred to Tennessee after losing the starting job to Cade McNamara. McNamara will have some competition though, as former Texas Tech QB Alan Bowman portaled in to Ann Arbor this Spring. Former five-star QB and current true freshman J.J. McCarthy also enrolled early and was able to get involved in Spring ball.

On the coaching side of things, Don Brown was dismissed as defensive coordinator and replaced by 33-year-old first-time coordinator Mike MacDonald, who previously coached linebackers for the Baltimore Ravens. There were numerous position coaching changes with the most notable being Mike Hart, the program’s all-time leading rusher, coming back to his alma mater to coach the running backs, while another former Michigan player in Ron Bellamy returned to coach his old playing position of wide receiver.

Additionally, Jim Harbaugh’s contract was renewed through the 2025 season, but with his yearly salary being cut in half from $8 million to $4 million with a buyout beginning at $2 million for 2021, dropping by $500,000 each subsequent year. Should Michigan decide to fire Harbaugh after this upcoming season, it would cost them $4 million to do so, but drops by $1 million each subsequent year.

Penn State Wins If

Michigan fails to find a consistent passing attack, much like in the 2020 edition of this matchup, where both Cade McNamara and Joe Milton were held to double digits in total passing yards, while PSU leads a balanced attack on the ground and through the air to stymie the Michigan defense.

Michigan Wins If

The Wolverines are able to find themselves some consistent quarterback play and possess a lethal passing attack to compensate a solid running game led by Hassan Haskins (and perhaps true freshman and former blue-chipper Donovan Edwards). More importantly, the front seven is able to get some serious pressure on Sean Clifford and force him into making mistakes, which he has been prone to do.