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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 1 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos @ Michigan Wolverines

The Broncos enter 2021 with aspirations of a conference championship. A victory in Ann Arbor would be quite the statement to open the season.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

GAME NOTES

  • Time and Date: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, MI
  • Spread/Total: Michigan -17, O/U 67.5
  • All-time series: Michigan leads, 7-0
  • Last Meeting: Michigan 49, Western Michigan 3 – September 18, 2018

Does anything say “college football is truly back” more than a Big Ten vs MAC match up in week one?

After a truncated, stop-and-start season in 2021, we’re all excited for a full year of football this fall. That excitement may be even more palpable in Kalamazoo, where Western Michigan returns 19 starters and have what may be one of the most talented teams in the conference.

WMU fans have been a bit disappointed by the Broncos’ trajectory since their magical 2016 season, which saw them finish 13-0 and earn a bid to the Cotton Bowl. As we enter coach Tim Lester’s fifth season at the helm, many close to the program feel that this may be the year the Broncos can break through, led by QB Kaleb Eleby, RB La’Darius Jefferson, and a veteran offensive line. Replacing D’Wayne Eskridge will not be easy, but talent abounds on this roster, and the Broncos will have the firepower on offense to score with anybody.

On the other sideline, Michigan enters year seven of the Jim Harbaugh era with a ton of question marks. Long time defensive coordinator Don Brown was let go this offseason, after the Wolverines usually stout defense allowed 34.5 points and 434.3 yards per game in 2020. On offense, the Wolverines will be breaking in a new starting QB, though the rest of last years starters return. Michigan certainly has the talent edge in this game, though the Broncos certainly have enough firepower to cause Jim Harbaughs’ squad some headaches.


When WMU Has the Ball

The expectations are high this offseason in Kalamazoo, mostly because of the talent on offense. Sophomore QB Kaleb Eleby is one of the most underappreciated players in the conference, and finished last year with a stellar 64.7 percent completion and 18:2 TD to INT ratio. He is joined in the backfield by veteran RB La’Darius Jefferson Jr., who was second team All-MAC last year and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. He will be running behind a veteran offensive line, where four starters with a combined 75 career starts return from last year. If this group can keep Eleby upright and allow the ground game to flourish, this will be a potent offense that is capable of scoring on anybody.

That offensive line will be dealing with a Michigan defense that is young but talented. SS Brad Hawkins is the only projected starter that is a senior, though many of the young talent has shown potential. DE Aidan Hutchinson has shown flashes of brilliance in his time in Ann Arbor. If he can bring a measure of consistency to his game, he could be one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten.

With that said, this Wolverines defense can be had. This group was 11th in the Big Ten last year in pass defense, allowing 255.5 yards per game, along with a 59.1 percent completion percentage. Kaleb Eleby and Skyy Moore can certainly take advantage of this secondary if the offensive line can hold up and give Eleby time to throw. There will be opportunities for the Broncos offense, it’s just going to be a matter of taking advantage of them.


When Michigan Has the Ball

Offense has been a struggle for Michigan since Jim Harbaugh took over the program prior to the 2015 season. More specifically, the Wolverines have been somewhat of a revolving door at quarterback. Jake Rudock begat Wilton Speight, who begat Brandon Peters, who begat John O’Korn, who begat Shea Patterson, etc. You get the picture. Joe Milton began the 2020 season as the starter, but was eventually replaced by Cade McNamara and transferred to Tennessee this offseason. McNamara will be the starter to begin 2021 after showing promise in limited action last year. He was technically only 1-1 as a starter, though that win saw him complete 27 of 36 passes for 260 yards and 4 TD’s versus Rutgers. His sample size is small, but Wolverine fans hope that he will be the answer under center (take a drink if you’ve heard that before).

Elsewhere on offense, there is talent. RB Hassan Haskins showed great burst last year, leading the team in rushing with 375 yards and six TD’s to go along with 6.1 yards per carry. Similar to the Broncos, the Wolverines have a big, veteran offensive line, led by senior C Andrew Vastardis and RG Zak Zinter, who claimed a starting role last year as a true freshman and proved to be ready for big time college football. The Broncos defensive line will need to show up if they want to have a chance in this game, as stopping the run is always the name of the game when matching up against a Big Ten foe. DT Ralph Holley and DE Ali Fayad are great talents, and the best defensive lineman the Broncos have. Depth is a concern though, and other members of the unit will have to step up if Western wants to have a chance in this game.

The Broncos pass defense was prone to big plays last year, and the match up with McNamara and the Wolverines wide receivers will be an intriguing one. McNamara should have time to throw, and Michigan does have capable receivers in Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson. How well Bricen Garner and the rest of the Broncos secondary match up with Michigan’s skill position talent could go a long way towards determining the outcome in this one.


Prediction

Michigan has traditionally dominated the directional Michigan schools, and beat the Broncos 49-3 the last time these two teams met in 2018. With that said, the Wolverines seem to have a ton of question marks right now. When you think of the brand of Michigan, it usually starts with a stout defense. That wasn’t the case last year. In comes new defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald, and a transition in the coaching staff always leads to questions leading into a new season. While the Wolverines undoubtedly have more talent that the Broncos, I can definitely see the high powered WMU offense giving this defense some issues.

I feel similarly on the other side of the ball. Michigan will be breaking in a new starting QB and have been inconsistent on offense for the past several season. While the Broncos roster, on both sides of the ball, is loaded with upperclassmen, the Wolverines two deep seems very heavy on freshman and sophomores.

I am a strong believer that football games are won in the trenches. Control the line of scrimmage, and often you will win the game. The match up’s along the lines will determine the outcome in this one. If the Broncos offensive line can keep Kaleb Eleby upright and open holes for La’Darius Jefferson, Western Michigan will have a chance. On the other side of the ball, Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley getting into the backfield could go a long way towards Broncos upset.

What will prevail in this matchup: the veteran experience of Western Michigan, or the talent of the Wolverines? I tend to think that the Wolverines talent will ultimately prevail, though I do not think this game will be a walk in the park. I expect a back and forth affair, with Michigan pulling out a close victory in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Michigan 30, Western Michigan 20