The Wolverine

2021 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 44 of 163

THE WOLVERINE 2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ■ 43 M ichigan football has not had much to cheer about the past year. The Wolverines are fresh off a demor- alizing 2-4 record in 2020. The second edi- tion of Josh Gattis' "speed in space" offense had little speed and little space once again. Michigan fired Don Brown after its defense disintegrated from a top-10 unit into one ranked 95th in scoring defense (34.5 points per game) and 54th in yards allowed per play (5.53). The Wolverines inexcusably allowed a miserable Michigan State outfit to reclaim Paul Bunyan in Year Zero of Mel Tucker and likely would have been clobbered by Ohio State yet again if the game had not been canceled due to U-M's COVID-19 out- break. The offseason has been a parade of poor publicity with unanticipated player and coaching attrition. No one is requiring that head coach Jim Harbaugh win a championship in 2021 to keep his job. Michigan is not expected to contend for one this season, and to have such a requirement would be unfair. There are too many gaps to fill and too many issues to fix in too many areas for Michigan to get there. But U-M and its fans need something to cheer about. The Wolverines need to see signs that last season was an aberration — an outlier due to the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic — and that it can be a program that competes with Ohio State on a consistent basis under Harbaugh's guid- ance. U-M needs to look like a program with future potential in 2021. And no position needs to display that fu- ture potential for Michigan more immedi- ately than quarterback. Quarterback has been one of the biggest missing pieces during Harbaugh's tenure. Other than the second half of 2015 by Jake Ru- dock and some games sprinkled here and there by Shea Patterson in 2018 and 2019, U-M has been let down by its play under center. There was a time when college football teams could survive mediocre quarterback play to win championships. However, the game has changed, and that is no longer the case. The rules have been tailored to favor the offense, and with the rapid implementation of spread passing attacks and run-pass options, quarterback stats are surging. The national record for passer rating has been reset in five consecutive seasons. Defenses are being put into tougher and tougher decisions each year, and they can no longer be relied upon to shut down explosive offenses week to week. See what Ohio State did to Michigan's defense in 2018 (62 points) and 2019 (56). If a program wants to be championship caliber, it has to have a quarterback that can post explosive numbers. In the last three sea- sons from 2018-20, 11 of the 12 teams that participated in the College Football Playoff (CFP) had a starting quarterback who was 17th or better in passer rating. The lone ex- ception was Notre Dame's Ian Book in 2020 (33rd). On the other hand, only five of the 12 teams that appeared in the CFP in the three seasons before that from 2015-17 had start- ing quarterbacks who were 17th or better in that stat. It is essentially a requirement to have a gamebreaker at quarterback to com- pete for titles now. Michigan has not had that quarterback though. Since Harbaugh took over the pro- gram, no Wolverine quarterback has been better than 22nd in passer rating (Patterson in 2018), and Michigan's quarterback per- formance has declined since then. Patterson regressed to 53rd in 2019, and Joe Milton was 81st in passer rating before he was benched for Cade McNamara. Those are the two worst rankings by a qualified Michigan starting quarterback under Harbaugh. Whether Harbaugh can develop an elite quarterback at Michigan is a well-founded concern, and it does not help that quarter- back is one of Michigan's biggest question marks this season. Both quarterbacks who competed for the starting gig last season — Milton and Dylan McCaffrey — have transferred. This season, the quarterback room will consist of McNamara, true freshman J.J. McCarthy, and Texas Tech graduate transfer Alan Bowman. McNamara showed moxie last season, but he may not have the physical tools to be a legitimate candidate to be elite. As a blue-chip recruit, McCarthy has all the physical tools, but he may not be ready for prime time yet. And Bowman did not dazzle at a Texas Tech program that usually inflates passing stats. But Michigan needs one of them to step up, to demonstrate that they can be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, to excite Michigan fans. If that happens, there will be optimism Harbaugh can rebuild this program into a championship one once and for all. ❏ INSIDE THE NUMBERS DREW HALLETT Michigan Needs Excitement At QB Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan ath- letics since 2013. Contact him at drew.c.hallett@ and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett. Redshirt freshman Cade McNamara showed flashes in limited action last season, but the most important position on the field is largely an unknown for the Wolverines going into the campaign. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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