By the Numbers: 2020 Michigan Football Season Preview

Young WRs like Mike Sainristil must step up for the Michigan offense during an uncertain 2020 season.

Every football offseason feels like it takes forever to end. In 2020, this particular football offseason dwarfs all the rest. After the cancellation of spring ball, and the postponement then revival of the 2020 fall season, I cannot wait to return to discussions about players, stats, and game results again. This week I will kickoff the return of By the Numbers content with a game-by-game preview of the 2020 Michigan Football season. In the By the Numbers articles and podcasts I will compile, review, and summarize data and metrics to look deeper into the football team’s performance, and try to provide a clearer picture of how the upcoming games may turn out.

The foundation for most of my analysis comes from the ESPN SP+ college football analytics model, created by Bill Connelly. While his system was meant to be predictive for beating the odds against Vegas, studying the Five Factors is useful for understanding what a team does, or needs to do, to win football games. Here are his B1G West & B1G East preseason preview articles.

What is SP+
SP+ is the tempo and opponent adjusted college football analytical model developed by Bill Connelly for Football Outsiders (he is now at ESPN). SP+ is based around the core concepts of the Five Factors of winning football: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers.  The resulting metric is expressed in adjusted points per game, as compared to the average CFB team.
Full Explanation 

Previous Results (2018-19)

Over the past two seasons, Connelly’s SP+ preseason predictions correctly selected the winner in 22 of 24 regular season Michigan games. The SP+ weekly projections were correct in 24 of 26 Michigan games, including a perfect 13-for-13 in 2019.

In my season preview posts in 2018 & 2019, I correctly picked the winner in 19 of 24 regular season Michigan games. In the weekly previews, I have been correct in 21 of 25 games.

Michigan 2020 SP+ Preseason Ranking

Overall – 17th, 14.0
Offense – 38th, 31.9
Defense – 14th, 17.8

2020 Regular Season Schedule

@ Minnesota: 16th Overall, 10th Offense, 44th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Minnesota by 0.3 – This matchup reminds me of how SP+ saw the week 1 toss up on the road versus Notre Dame in 2018.

PREDICTION: This will be the third consecutive season that Michigan starts with a night game in week 1. Because everything in 2020 is crazy, this one will be in front of almost no fans in the stands (families of the players only). ESPN College Gameday will also be in Minneapolis. I think the offense will be able to move the ball, but the key for Josh Gattis will be cashing in Michigan’s opportunities for touchdowns. Defensively, the Wolverines will be in trouble if they are unable to convert pressure into sacks against QB Tanner Morgan and WR Rashod Bateman.
Michigan 34 Minnesota 30, 1-0

vs. Michigan State: 51st Overall, 109th Offense, 13th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 10.0 – Before the games are played, the SP+ system relies on returning production and past recruiting. The metrics haven’t seen what Mel Tucker’s Spartans will bring in 2020, and neither have I.

PREDICTION: This game is in the Big House for the second consecutive year. The main difference between the Michigan football program and Michigan State football program since the Wolverines’ 44-10 mauling last November is the lack of time on task this past offseason will be an even larger challenge for Mel Tucker’s staff as they transition. I am sure they will play with a lot of passion, and rivalry games can be weird, but this will be lopsided by the end.
Michigan 31 Michigan State 14, 2-0

@ Indiana: 32nd Overall, 35th Offense, 30th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 4.1 – Tom Allen has instilled a tough attitude in Bloomington, and SP+ recognizes balance between the offense and defense that has not been common for the Hoosiers.

PREDICTION: I’ve heard this game identified as a potential trap game for Michigan coming off a rivalry game, and perhaps looking ahead to Wisconsin. While that is possible, I think the Hoosiers will have Michigan’s full attention. The Wolverines looked sharp last November on the road (the week before OSU). I expect Michigan will have some early season offensive hiccups corrected by week 3. This could become a shootout if QB Michael Penix is extending plays with his scrambling ability .
Michigan 35 Indiana 20, 3-0

vs. Wisconsin: 6th Overall, 19th Offense, 3rd Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Wisconsin by 7.7 – The Badgers’ brand of football includes efficient offense and stout defense each year. The SP+ system will consistently reward that efficiency.

PREDICTION: Wisconsin has to replace a star running back and their best wide receiver who both entered the NFL draft. The starting quarterback may still be sidelined for this game after suffering a foot injury that required surgery during fall camp. But the Badgers reload every year in the trenches on both sides of the ball, where it matters most. This will be the first top-tier defense that Joe Milton will see, and I expect a difficult outing for the offense. The Wolverines will also miss 111,000 fans and the home field advantage they typically provide in this one.
Michigan 17 Wisconsin 23, 3-1

@ Rutgers: 109th Overall, 119th Offense, 75th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 24.2 – Greg Schiano’s return to New Jersey comes in a tough year for new coaches. Rutgers will improve on defense throughout the year, though.

PREDICTION: I worry this mid-November trip to Piscataway will produce a pretty flat performance. The Wolverines will need to manufacture their own energy and adrenaline. While I think Michigan will have to navigate some rough patches of play, the talent gap between Michigan and Rutgers is too wide for me to be overly concerned.
Michigan 41 Rutgers 10, 4-1

vs. Penn State: 5th Overall, 8th Offense, 10th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Penn State by 8.3 – PSU welcomes back a lot of offensive production. Time will tell whether or not they can replace some major star power on defense.

PREDICTION: This game is the second of the 2020 season that Michigan will sorely miss the Big House atmosphere. Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan has outscored Penn State 91-17 in Ann Arbor. I believe Don Brown and the defense will correct some of the big play mistakes from last year in State College. With this game being played during Thanksgiving weekend (the normal OSU weekend), I’ll be looking at run game Success Rate as a key indicator of who has the inside track leading up to this game.
Michigan 27 Penn State 21, 5-1

vs. Maryland: 84th Overall, 98th Offense, 69th Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 18.2 – The first December football game at Michigan Stadium will be Senior Day. Maryland’s preseason rankings are below Power 5 average in all facets.

PREDICTION: The final home game for 2020 really highlights some of the folly of trying to predict the 2020 college football season. Right now in mid-October, on paper, I should tell you this will be an old school beat down. If (that is a BIG IF) all the key players are healthy and available, I believe that will be the case. On top of all that, you can add December weather forecasting in Michigan to the mix. The information we have available currently points to a fun day for Michigan fans.
Michigan 51 Maryland 6, 6-1

@ Ohio State: 1st Overall, 2nd Offense, 2nd Defense

PRESEASON SP+: Ohio State by 16.2 – Right now, SP+ would favor the Buckeyes over both 5-0 Clemson and over 4-0 Alabama by 1.7 points. It increases to 7.6 over Georgia, who is currently 4th and is coming off a 17-point loss to the Crimson Tide.

PREDICTION: I’ve used this space for two years to spout my optimism about Michigan’s return to level footing in the rivalry. I can still sell myself on the logic: The 2016 game was robbery. Harbaugh’s worst performing team in 2017 probably should have beaten the Buckeyes. Some very flawed teams from the Hoke era were within a play or two of beating Ohio State. However, Ohio State has somehow managed to improve as they navigated a coaching change and transitioned to a transfer quarterback. They are doing something different in Columbus. It will take a truly heroic effort from the Wolverines to win in the Horseshoe. The 2020 season will certainly continue to be crazy. Let’s hope Michigan puts an insane cap on it this December.
Michigan 24 Ohio State 37, 6-2
2nd Place in B1G Ten East

Cam McGrone will need to lead a herculean effort in Columbus to break the streak of losses to OSU.

About Clint Derringer

@clint_derringer on Twitter U-M B.A. Sport Management & Communications ‘05 U-M M.S. Program & Project Management ‘18