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Oskeim’s Free Pick Winner: Western Michigan at Michigan

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My math model only favors Michigan by 14.86 points in this game and the Broncos are one of the most experienced teams in the nation this season (29th, 85%).  Michigan has perpetually underperformed under head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines have not taken advantage of their home-field advantage.  In fact, Michigan is just 54.5% ATS at home since 2009 and 52.9% ATS since 2016.  The Wolverines failed to win a home game in 2020.

Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester enters his fifth year in Kalamazoo and he has done an excellent job with the football program.  The Broncos have made six bowl games in the last ten years and have not had a losing season since 2013.  Western Michigan has been bowl eligible for a school-record seven consecutive seasons and the Broncos are almost guaranteed to make it eight straight in 2021.

Western Michigan showed significant improvement last season, going from 90th to 62nd in SP+.  The Broncos lost the seventh-fewest number of players to the transfer portal (7) and welcome back nineteen starters.  In contrast, Michigan lost the 6th-most number of players to the transfer portal (21), which is bad news for a team that finished ranked 77th in the nation in total efficiency last season.

Even more alarming is the fact that the Wolverines’ defense regressed in 2020, finishing ranked 106th in total efficiency.  Michigan went from allowing 20.7 points per game to 34.5 points per game, leaving Harbaugh with no other choice but to fire defensive coordinator Don Brown.  Former Baltimore Ravens assistant Mike Macdonald takes over the defense and the lack of continuity will create additional problems for the Wolverines.

Michigan’s stop unit will struggle to contain one of the most explosive attacks in the nation led by quarterback Kaleb Eleby, who has started ten games over the last two seasons and posted an impressive 22-5 TD-INT ratio in that span.

Eleby finished ranked second in the country last season in adjusted net yards per pass attempt (12.1) among quarterbacks with a minimum of 150 dropbacks.  Mac Jones finished first (12.2), while Zach Wilson was third (11.9).  I expect similar production this season as the Broncos return two of their top three wide receivers, including Skyy Moore and Jaylen Hall, who together with D’Wayne Eskridge combined to catch 71 passes at 21.1 yards per catch.

Western Michigan returns its entire backfield, including dynamic running back La’Darius Jefferson (5.6 yards per carry in 2020).  Eleby will be operating behind a veteran offensive line that returns four starters (75 career starts), including 1st Team All-MAC left guard Mike Caliendo.  The Broncos ranked fourth in FBS in points per drive last season and should match that efficiency in 2021.

Finally, Michigan has won just 11 of its last 21 games overall and needs to integrate two new coordinators after losing a host of players to the transfer portal.  The point spread is inflated in this game and I would not be surprised if the Broncos give Michigan a legitimate scare in their season-opener.  Grab the points with Western Michigan as Oskeim’s Free Pick Winner for Saturday, September 4.