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Ranking Michigan State’s 2021 Football Schedule: No. 6 Michigan Wolverines

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Michigan State v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The series has reached the home stretch with today’s ranking, as we reach the top half of the schedule. For whatever faults the 2020 football season had for Spartan fans, today’s opponent was a bright spot on that season. You all know well the fact that Michigan State followed up a home opening loss to Rutgers with a smorgasbord of deep balls that eviscerated Michigan’s secondary. The combination of Rocky Lombardi deep balls and game officials that actually called Michigan secondary’s holding we’ve been watching for years in the Don Brown defense was so devastating, Apple decided to use footage from the game in advertising their new Apple TV 4K sports section.

Seriously, though, hats off to the officials for finally calling the holding for a change. One former MSU quarterback sure took note of that:

Okay, enough about that 2020 win. Looking ahead to the 2021 season, the Michigan Wolverines have retained Jim Harbaugh at the helm for yet another year. However, his buyout and pay took a significant dip heading into his seventh season, as his record against in-state rival Michigan State moved back to .500 at 3-3 overall. With staff changes, including a revolving door at defensive coordinator, and a shine that sure lost its luster years ago, the Wolverines check in at No. 6 in the rankings.

2020 Record: 2-4

The Wolverines pummeled Minnesota, 49-24, in the team’s season opener before falling 27-24 to the Spartans. That started three-straight losses for the Wolverines before UM got its final win of the season in triple-overtime at Rutgers. A 27-17 loss at Penn State would mark the premature end to the season for Michigan due to COVID-19 issues.

Michigan finished up the season in sixth place in the East Division, thanks in part to the final three games of the season being canceled for the Wolverines. I detest when fans claim a team intentionally ducked the games during COVID-19, but I do think we can easily conclude losses at Ohio State and at Iowa would have been the result and potentially put the Wolverines in seventh place behind the Spartans.

Series History

The overall series is obviously tilted toward Michigan, 71-37-5. Since the Spartans joined the Big Ten, the series is a more competitive 38-28-2, and is 10-10 since 2001 and 9-4 in the Spartans’ favor since 2008. Mel Tucker is 1-0 as head coach against Michigan, while Jim Harbaugh is, as mentioned above, 3-3 against Michigan State. Tucker’s upset win last season makes him the first MSU head coach to beat Michigan in his first try since Nick Saban in 1995, and just the third coach in the past 75 years of either program to win on his first attempt. Bennie Oosterbaan was the last Michigan coach to do so in that timeframe in a 13-7 win in 1948.

2021 Offensive Outlook

Since the next Cam Newton decided to take his linebacker spotting talents to Tennessee for 2021, junior Cade McNamara looks to be the starting quarterback for the Wolverines next season. McNamara went 43-for-71 on pass attempts last season for 425 yards, throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions. He saw limited action against Minnesota and Wisconsin after the games had clearly been decided, did not play against the Spartans, and saw heavy action against Rutgers and that earned him the starting job against Penn State. Against the Nittany Lions, McNamara managed just 91 yards passing on 12 completions with no touchdowns or interceptions. He left the game at one point in the first half to have his shoulder looked at by medical staff, however. Overall, McNamara could be a significant step up over Milton and looks to be the starter next season.

Hassan Haskins returns for his senior year at running back. He had just eight attempts against MSU last season, but gashed the Spartans on them for 56 total yards, good for an average of seven yards per carry, and notching one touchdown as well. Overall he led the Wolverines in rushing with 375 yards total last season on 61 carries — 212 of those yards coming against Penn State and Rutgers — and six touchdowns. His six scores were double the next highest total among Wolverines. Hopefully the MSU coaching staff show the defense his postgame remarks to amp them up for this one and shut him down.

Also back will be senior Ronnie Bell at wide receiver. Bell led Michigan in receptions (26) and yards (401). Also returning is junior Cornelius Johnson who was second in receptions (16) and yards (254). Johnson’s average receiving yards (15.9) had a slight edge over Bell’s (15.4), and he had more touchdowns (three) than Bell (one).

Michigan’s offense, despite all of its woes discovered with Joe Milton at the helm, still ranked fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 28.3 points per game. The Wolverines only played six games, so the total touchdown ranking is somewhat skewed as a result compared to others in the league, but Michigan tied with Wisconsin for No. 8 with just 23 total touchdowns. The components are there to be a threat, but it still needs figured out against top competition.

2021 Defensive Outlook

The departure of Don Brown has ended up leaving a bit of a revolving door at the coordinator role. Co-defensive coordinator Maurice Linguist was hired in January after working as the defensive backs coach with the Dallas Cowboys last season. He was later hired away as the new head coach at Buffalo earlier this month. Mike McDonald was also hired a few days prior to Linguist after working with the Baltimore Ravens and remains on staff as the defensive coordinator.

Back for Michigan on the field will be fifth year senior Josh Ross. The linebacker was far and away the leading tackler on the team last year with 53 total tackles, though he was narrowly edged in solo tackles (28) by safety Daxton Hill (29). Hill also returns this season and was second in total tacked (44). Ross also notched 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

The line will be a different look this upcoming season from years past as Michigan transitions to a new 3-4 style defense. Gone is NFL first-round draft pick defensive end Kwity Paye, but that is off a line that ranked 93rd in line yards, 123rd in stuff rate, and 121st in sack rate. Senior Aiden Hutchinson returns after a 2020 season that saw 13 total tackles, including nine solo, and one pass defended. Junior defensive tackle Christopher Hinton also returns, and had the same stat line as Hutchison in total and solo tackles, but had two passes defended. Also joining Michigan’s defense this year will be Oregon State nose tackle Jordan Whittley. His size matches well with Michigan’s new defensive scheme and he totaled 13 tackles in 2019, six solo and three for loss.

Overall, the defense needs to figure out in 2021, as the Wolverines ranked 12th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up 34.5 points per game, in 2020. While the defense did rank seventh in touchdowns allowed, the teams that gave up more played more games, while Purdue played the same number as Michigan and gave up four fewer total.

The secondary was a glaring deficit against Michigan State, but the Wolverine’s rushing defense ranked No. 10 in the league as well, allowing 178.8 average rushing yards. MSU gave up 157.3 yards per game as a comparison, good for eighth in the league. Passing was far worse with an average of 255.5 yards per game, 13th in the league. The secondary also gave up big yards on passes, averaging 7.6 yards per catch, good for sixth most in the Big Ten. All in all, Michigan’s defense has a lot of question marks to solve for 2021.

Why No. 6?

The Wolverines from top to bottom have more talent than the Spartans overall at this point. They have also won the last two meetings at Spartan Stadium by an average of 11.5 points, However, the Michigan State coaching staff have shown they take this rivalry seriously and can rally the team for a “big game” setting.

Not only that, but the Wolverines visit East Lansing following a bye week for Michigan State and Purdue awaiting the Spartans the following week. Whereas the Wolverines come into this one after a visit from Northwestern and games against Indiana and at Penn State after. All told, while Michigan is a clear toss-up game with the Wolverines almost guaranteed to be favored heading into the matchup, the teams ahead of Michigan for the Spartans pose bigger challenges.

Prediction

The Spartans fight like hell to keep Paul Bunyan where he belongs. This game may be close, but no way to be sure who wins. Regardless, the likelihood of anyone having trouble with the snap, quarterbacks not being aware of which linebacker to account for on the defense, or anyone acting like a petulant child to undeserving grass is probably low. Unbelievable you say? We find out Oct. 30, 2021.

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