NCAA Football: Western Michigan Broncos vs. Michigan Wolverines Preview, Prediction & Odds -- Sept. 4, 2021

by Big Al Staff

Game time: Noon ET, Sept. 4, 2021
Venue: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
Where to watch: ESPN

Opening Odds at USA Sportsbooks


DraftKings: Michigan -17; O/U 67; ML: Michigan -850, Western Michigan +575
BetMGM: Michigan -17; O/U 66.5; ML: Michigan -1000, Western Michigan NL
FanDuel: Michigan -16.5; O/U 67; ML: Michigan -1050, Western Michigan +630

2020 season record
Western Michigan: 4-2
Michigan: 2-4

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Western Michigan - Michigan preview and analysis


This could be Jim Harbaugh’s last hurrah at Michigan. 

And what a long wait it’s been to get to this point, a game week that could be the beginning of the end of an era for U-M.

The prodigal son’s welcome has worn off, and heading into his seventh season leading the Wolverines, Harbaugh has not led UM to the prominence like many hoped.

Eight straight losses to Ohio State. Only one appearance in a New Year’s Six Bowl. Only one bowl victory since being named head coach in 2015. The regular-season success is undeniable (three 10-win seasons, and at least nine wins in every season but 2020), but this is a make-or-break year for Michigan and if hardware and important victories don’t get it done, it might be the end for Harbaugh.

Year 7 of the Harbaugh regime will begin Saturday at Michigan Stadium when the Wolverines play host to the Western Michigan Broncos.

The matchup with Western Michigan begins what is, all in all, a favorable schedule for the Wolverines. The Western Michigan matchup is the first of four straight home games. Michigan’s opener on ESPN is a tune-up for next Saturday when it plays No. 20 Washington in primetime, followed by NIU on Sept. 18.

Michigan begins Big Ten play Sept. 25 against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

If there’s a time for the Wolverines to start fast and get things rolling, it would be with these four straight home games, and there’s no better way to get new starting quarterback Cade McNamara in a good place before the brutality of this Big Ten schedule.

McNamara, the junior from Reno, Nevada, appeared in four games during the shortened 2020 season and threw five touchdowns and zero interceptions. The upperclassman beat out J.J. McCarthy and Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman for the job.

“Constant improvement, he’s ratcheted it up, really, in a lot of different areas,” Harbaugh said. “The biggest one is consistency of doing his job, also call it a talent of really making everybody else around you better.”

McNamara’s goal is to bring some stability and talent to the quarterback position, something that hasn’t been the case in quite a while. Think of it like this: The last full-time Michigan starting quarterback to make it to the NFL would have to be Denard Robinson, and he wasn’t even a QB in his NFL stint. Before that, maybe Chad Henne? Speaking of better passing games in Michigan is a very tough task to do.

The pressure is now on McNamara to not only save Harbaugh’s behind, but to give Michigan Football a reliable quarterback they can believe in to win those big-time games. And of course we mean Nov. 27 against Ohio State, the only game that should really matter in Harbaugh’s eyes.

Michigan’s offense wasn’t necessarily a problem last year, averaging just over 28 points per game in six contests, but it was lackluster. Joe Milton was a subpar quarterback who completed less than 60 percent of his passes; Hassan Haskins averaged 6.1 yards per carry and averaged a touchdown per game, but Michigan didn’t utilize him enough. The senior tailback returns in an attempt to take the pressure of McNamara. Based off the talent and prestige alone, that’s why Michigan is favored by almost three touchdowns.

Is that enough to make it a dangerous enough offense? Time will tell.

But while the days of rowing the boat are long gone, Western Michigan still supplies a strong team that can remain competitive in the MAC. The Broncos played only six games last season, going 4-2 in the process. The two seasons prior to that saw them return to a bowl game after a one-year hiatus in 2017. It’s been a long way since reaching the Cotton Bowl in 2016.

But the Broncos have to feel good coming in to 2021, specifically with their own quarterback position. Sophomore signal caller Kaleb Eleby return after a stellar six-game stint last season, throwing 18 touchdowns to just two interceptions, as the Broncos started 4-0 before losing to Eastern Michigan and Ball State to end the year.

Eleby will have last year’s leading rusher La’Darius Jefferson (624 yards, 5 touchdowns) back for another year, and sophomore Skyy Moore and junior Jaylen Hall return to bolster the passing game. They’re tasked with replacing the production from D’Wayne Eskridge, the Broncos’ leading receiver who is now a Seattle Seahawk by the way of the second round of this year’s NFL Draft.

The Broncos will round out their non-conference schedule with their home opener next Saturday against Illinois State, a meeting at Pittsburgh on Sept. 18, and then San Jose State in the final week of September.

Prediction


Western Michigan’s offense put up 41.7 points in six conference games last year. Obviously, going to The Big House is a lot different than playing Ball State, but the Broncos should put up a tough fight offensively before Michigan ultimately pulls away. But Western Michigan will make this a close one, the Bronco D will give McNamara fits, and give Wolverines fans something to be concerned about. Michigan wins 38-28.

Betting trends


Michigan has won the last five meetings straight up. Three of the five have gone under.

The over is 8-0 in Western Michigan’s last eight games in which they’ve been a road underdog between 14.5 and 21 points.

Players to watch


Western Michigan: Anchoring the Broncos defense now is linebacker-turned-safety A.J. Thomas. The senior had 46 tackles and an interception last year. Now as the last line of defense, his role will be crucial in WMU’s play this season.

Michigan: Leading receiver Ronnie Bell returns for the Wolverines to aid in McNamara’s development. Bell led Michigan in receptions (26), yards (401), but only had one touchdown.

Statistical leaders from 2020


Western Michigan:
Passing: Kaleb Eleby -- 1,715 yards, 18 TD, 2 INT
Rushing: La’Darius Jefferson -- 624 yards, 5 TD
Receiving: D’Wayne Eskridge -- 784 yards, 8 TD
Defense: Treshaun Hayward -- 58 tackles

Michigan:
Passing: Joe Milton III -- 1,077 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT
Rushing: Hassan Haskins -- 375 yards, 6 TD
Receiving: Ronnie Bell -- 401 yards, 1 TD
Defense: Josh Ross -- 53 tackles, 1 sack

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All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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