Born & raised in Warren, MI. Now in Grosse Pointe, MI with my wife Bethany and our three hilarious kids.
U-M B.A. Sport Management & Communications ‘05
U-M M.S. Program & Project Management ‘18
Final Score: 49-24, Michigan by 25 over Minnesota SP+ Projection: Minnesota by 3 (+28) CD Projection: Michigan by 4 (+21)
WEEK 1 RECAP @ Minnesota
Overall, this was Michigan’s best road performance since 2018 in East Lansing.
On offense Michigan flexed their muscle on the offensive line. The Wolverines are deep at running back. It looks like the back will be selected based on how and where Josh Gattis wants to attack. Tight end Erick All flashed some promise in the absence of Nick Eubanks, but dropped a touchdown down the middle.
The Michigan defense helped their own cause by scoring a 1st quarter touchdown as Donovan Jeter plucked Tanner Morgan’s fumble from mid-air and ran it in from 15 yards out. The fumble was forced by viper Michael Barrett on a edge blitz. Barrett was everywhere for the Wolverines. It took a while to get going, but Kwity Paye, Aiden Hutchinson, and Carlo Kemp finally got to the quarterback in the 2nd half.
There were some scary moments on special teams, including an opening blocked punt that set up Minnesota’s first score. Jake Moody also missed all three field goal attempts. However, Michael Barrett did explode for a huge 65-yard kickoff return setting up a Joe Milton touchdown pass to Ben Mason.
I think we all expected some rocky moments, and some hiccups. They were present, but I am personally very impressed with how Michigan showed poise and executed on the road, at night, on national TV.
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 UMGoBlue.com By the Numbers content with a game-by-game preview of the 2020 Michigan Football season. In the By the Numbersarticles 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.
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
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
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
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
Last January, Phil and I discussed a comparison of Jim Harbaugh’s 4-year coaching record to the last 4 years of Lloyd Carr’s coaching career (Harbaugh and Carr each had an advantage in 7 metrics, with 3 ties). My general feeling was that Harbaugh had returned Michigan to the level at which Lloyd had left it. In my eyes, that made the 2019 season pivotal for the Harbaugh era. Phil and I wondered whether the program would continue to rise, and I was certainly optimistic.
Now, in February of 2020, we have more information to process, and we can complete a 5-year analysis. After Michigan completed a frustrating 9-4 season in 2019, and the 2003 Big Ten Championship season (10-3) gets added to the Carr side of the ledger, the comparison swings in Lloyd Carr’s favor. Carr has an advantage on 7 metrics, Harbaugh in 4, with 2 ties. The advanced metrics were ignored for lack of 2003 & 2004 data, but Lloyd’s 3-year average would have been 3 more wins for him. This seemed like bad news for a Harbaugh optimist like myself. So, I wanted to extend the comparison to see how the Harbaugh era, as it stands right now, compares to some other notable college football coaches.
In addition to Lloyd Carr, I chose these coaches to compare to Harbaugh: Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio, Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Brian Kelly, James Franklin, & Chris Petersen. From the Carr comparison, my curiosity immediately jumped to Jim Tressel’s final five seasons at Ohio State. After completing that comparison, I wanted a better apples-to-apples comparison so I wanted to use the first five seasons (of their current tenure) for the rest of the coaches I selected. In addition to comparing the coaches’ records through their first five seasons, I also wanted to be able to use consistent metrics. The advanced statistical rankings didn’t exist back into the early 2000s, and recruiting has also changed significantly since then. Each metric was compared head-to-head with Harbaugh’s results to create an Advantage %. Records and stats came from Sports-Reference.com. Recruiting rankings came from 247sports.com. F+, FEI, & S&P+ rankings come from FootballOutsiders.com. Here are the 17 metrics that I compared:
Final Rankings in F+, FEI, & SP+ systems (SP+ now on ESPN in 2019)
Overall W-L record
Offensive Pass Yds / Game & Rush Yds / Game
Points Scored / Game
Defensive Pass Yds / Game & Rush Yds / Game allowed
Defense Points Allowed / Game
Big Ten W-L record (if applicable)
W-L Record vs. OSU (or record vs. Michigan for OSU coaches)
W-L Record vs. MSU (record vs. Michigan for Dantonio)
W-L Record vs. Notre Dame (record vs. Michigan for Kelly)
W-L Record in Bowl Games
Number of NFL Draftees
Recruiting Class Rank (cycle following the season)
The summary table above lists the coaches from least favorable comparison for Jim Harbaugh (Jim Tressel – final 5 seasons) to most favorable (James Franklin) sorting by ascending Harbaugh Advantage Percentage. Using this method, Jim Harbaugh falls between Lloyd Carr (final 5 seasons) and Chris Petersen’s 5-year tenure at Washington.
If we only look at the initial 5-year start for each coach (removing Tressel & Carr), it’s clear that Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are in a league of their own. Urb won a national title during the first playoff season in year 3, and made a return to the playoff in year 5. Saban won his 2nd national title at Alabama in year five, and went back-to-back in year six.
Once you move past those two historically successful coaches, there is a very tight grouping between Jim Harbaugh and the other 5 coaches I selected. Each coach averaged a 9-4 record through his first 5 seasons. I was surprised that using my Advantage Percentage, Harbaugh compares favorably to all 5 of those coaches, despite Brian Kelly reaching the BCS Championship game in year 3. I also included each coach’s Year 6 record for a possible glimpse into the future. Year 6 results range from unacceptable (7-6 for Dantonio) to achievable (11-2 in 2019 for Franklin).
One other interesting note on Big Ten record: If Harbaugh had managed one more B10 victory, his average record would have rounded up to 7-2, and it would have been +1 over Carr. Had he suffered one more loss, the average record would have rounded to 6-3 and been -1 to Carr. The program has clearly returned to the Carr level. I think we’re all very anxious to take the next step forward.
Final Score: 56-27, Ohio State by 29 over Michigan SP+ Projection: Ohio State by 11.0 (-18.0) CD Projection: Michigan by 3 (-32)
WEEK 14 RECAP vs. Ohio State
This became another version of The Game that looked a lot like Michigan-Ohio State games of this generation. The Wolverines came out strong and scored on their first drive. They stood toe-to-toe through the first quarter at 14-13. But, as the 2nd quarter and 3rd quarter wore on, Ohio State continued to execute and make big plays. Michigan ran out of steam and looked hapless as the Buckeyes pulled away.
The offensive game plan provided a solid foundation for Michigan on the day. However, the Buckeyes’ #1 defense gave the Wolverines a dose of their own medicine by choking them out after halftime. The Wolverines could only muster 111 total yards against the smothering OSU defense in the 3rd and 4th quarters combined. Plays were available to be made, especially in the 3rd quarter, but too many of Shea Patterson’s passes hit the wide receivers and then hit the turf. As the clock turned to the 4th quarter, Michigan had completed just one pass in the 3rd frame. While Michigan’s 39% success rate is only slightly below average, looking at it by quarter is more telling: 53% (1st) 47% (2nd) 29% (3rd) 30% (4th).
While Michigan sputtered in the second half, Ohio State kept rolling. The Buckeyes scored 14 points in each quarter by staying true to their identity. JK Dobbins was explosive running the ball, and Justin Fields repeatedly hit deep shots through the air. OSU matched Michigan’s hot start with a 57% success rate and 8.4 yards per play in the 1st quarter. Unlike the Wolverines offense, Ryan Day and his staff had the next round of answers for their opponents’ in game adjustments. The Buckeyes’ 7.5 yards per play will likely send Jim Harbaugh’s staff back to the drawing board. That is the most Michigan allowed per play all season, including the early season blow out in Madison (6.9 YPP).
This puts the final stamp onto a frustrating season for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines football program. With the experience and talent returning from 2018, this team had their eyes set on much loftier goals. The goals are the correct ones. To achieve those championship goals, this program needs to execute in big games. There is nothing to do at this point but get back to work.
Michigan finished up the road portion of their regular season schedule with an impressive 39-14 disassembly of the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington.
NEXT UP: vs. Ohio State: 1st, 36.2
PREGAME SP+: Ohio State by 11.0, Michigan Win Probability 26% The Buckeyes’ SP+ rating score (36.2) is 59% higher than #10 Michigan’s (22.7). On the other hand, Michigan has beaten the SP+ projected margin in 8 consecutive games. The Wolverines have outperformed the projected margin by an average of 14.5 points since Week 4 @ Wisconsin, and by an average of 21.4 since Week 8 @ Penn State.
Michigan Offense (26th) vs. Ohio State Defense (1st) With just under 5:00 remaining in the 3rd quarter, Ohio State’s Sevyn Banks returned a blocked punt for a touchdown to increase the 2018 Buckeyes’ lead over Michigan to 15 points 34-19. This is the moment the wind left the sails for the Wolverines and for the fan base. With 19+ minutes remaining in game time, I did not believe the Michigan offense would be able to change gears to the hurry-up passing attack necessary to come from behind. That need to be able to change gears on offense, I believe, led to the January 10th hiring of Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator. The early season transition costs were steeper than I predicted, and a Big Ten Championship berth is not possible. However, those transition costs were absorbed to buy the chance for success in this game vs. Ohio State. In that regard, Gattis and Jim Harbaugh have this unit peaking at the right time with added flexibility to exploit scoring opportunities against the Buckeyes.
Michigan Defense (5th) vs. Ohio State Offense (5th) Like Harbaugh and Gattis, Don Brown and his staff designed a sharp transition triggered by the 2018 Ohio State game. The defensive evolution also came with significant cost. Wisconsin exploited major mistakes in the run game in Week 4, and Penn State did so through the air in Week 8. But, as October turned into November the Michigan defense re-emerged as a top-tier unit. The Wolverines drowned Notre Dame in a first-half rain storm and the Irish could only muster 180 total yards. Indiana’s passing attack leads the Big Ten in 2019, but barely crept over 200 yards passing last week versus Michigan. Don Brown does not have to be perfect in this game, but he will have to utilize every tool in his belt to bottle up JK Dobbins and Justin Fields on standard downs. If Michigan can force the Buckeyes into passing downs (2nd & 8+ or 3rd/4th & 5+), the Wolverines’ speed personnel can attack Ohio State from all angles.
PREDICTION: The Wolverines and Buckeyes share 3 SP+ top-25 opponents: Wisconsin, Penn State, and Indiana. Michigan’s resume also includes victories over 2 more: Iowa and Notre Dame. I believe this particular version of The Game sets up much more evenly than most analysts. The Wolverines are averaging 26.8 points in 5 games against current SP+ top-25 defenses. The 4 top-25 offenses have scored an average of 22.8 points against Michigan’s defense. Ohio State is better than those other teams, but this isn’t the same Michigan team either. Michigan 30 Ohio State 27 (PRESEASON Michigan 37 Ohio State 33)