By the Numbers: Comparing Harbaugh’s First 5 Seasons

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.

METHOD

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.comF+, 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)

RESULTS

ANALYSIS

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.

Michigan 27 Ohio State 56 – Week 14 Recap

WEEK 14 PROJECTION vs. RESULTS

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)

FIVE FACTORS

Week 14 Five Factors box score

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.

By the Numbers: Week 14 vs. Ohio State

LAST WEEK RECAP

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)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE (11/26/19), 9-2

  • SP+ Overall: 10th (same), 22.7
    • SP+ Offense: 26th (↑8), 35.0
    • SP+ Defense: 5th (same), 12.7
    • SP+ Special Teams 52nd (↓3) 0.3
  • CFP Rank: 13th (same)
  • AP Poll: 10th (↑2), 913
  • Coaches’ Poll: 11th (↑1), 893
Week 14 Resume vs. Ohio State

Michigan 39 Indiana 14 – Week 13 Recap

WEEK 13 PROJECTION vs. RESULTS

Final Score: 39-14, Michigan by 25 over Indiana
SP+ Projection: Michigan by 2.4 (+22.6)
CD Projection: Michigan by 14 (+11)

FIVE FACTORS

Week 13 Five Factors box score @ Indiana

WEEK 13 RECAP @ Indiana

Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines maintained focus through the week.  Many folks had this game circled on the schedule because it was: 1) on the road 2) against an Indiana team who gives Michigan trouble annually and 3) squeezed in between two rivalry games versus Michigan State and Ohio State.  Kudos to the coaching staff for keeping the players on task. The players really executed at a high level in varying weather conditions on the road against the Hoosiers.

Finally, Nico Collins had his day.  The junior wide receiver hauled in 6 passes for 165 yards and 3 touchdowns.  When the ball went in Collins’ direction and he didn’t catch it, there was likely a pass interference call on the defender.  He is a dominant weapon for Josh Gattis, and it seems like everyone has finally discovered that fact. Shea Patterson followed up his first 300+ yard passing game with a second one a week later.  Patterson had 366 yards and 5 touchdowns to Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Ronnie Bell. Michigan’s 7.8 yards per play is their most explosive mark of 2019, and the most since Week 2 of 2018 vs. WMU.   

The Indiana Hoosiers have continually given Michigan problems, and their 2018 game plan was the kindling for Ohio State’s bonfire in The Game last season.  The 2019 game in Bloomington started in the same mold with Indiana scoring touchdowns on 2 of their first 3 drives. Then, the defensive staff made their adjustments and forced 5 consecutive punts and forced a fumble over the next 6 drives.  During garbage time, the Hoosiers were able to eclipse 300 total yards, and also managed 4.8 yards per play on the day. There may be a few issues to work out in the defensive film room this week, but it feels like there are plenty of tricks left in Don Brown’s bag for the Buckeyes next week.

Ohio State clinched the Big Ten East with their 28-17 victory over Penn State in Columbus earlier today.  On Tuesday night, the Bucks may be consensus #1 in the country in the AP poll, the Coaches’ poll, and the College Football Playoff rankings.  Ryan Day will lead OSU to Indianapolis to compete for a Big Ten title regardless of what happens in Ann Arbor. Jim Harbaugh has led an impressive bounce back after an awful start to the Big Ten season.  In terms of Big Ten titles, this team’s slow building improvement is too little too late. However, in terms of 2019 season success and Harbaugh era legacy, the Wolverines have everything to play for. The 2019 version of The Game will come down to which team’s players will rise to the occasion and show they want it more.  Big time players make the critical plays in the biggest games. #BeatOhio


By the Numbers: Week 13 @ Indiana

LAST WEEK RECAP

A totally satisfying 44-10 pounding of the MSU Spartans highlighted the different trajectories of the two programs.

NEXT UP: @Indiana: 20th, 17.5

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 2.4, Michigan Win Probability 55%
In an interesting coincidence, Bill Connelly’s SP+ model produced the same prediction (28-25 Michigan) that I came up with in my Season Preview in August.  Another comparison for the Indiana game is Week 9 vs. Notre Dame.  The Irish also ranked 20th overall in SP+, with the 13th Offense, and the 35th Defense.

SP+ Picks are made weekly via Twitter by ESPN’s Bill Connelly

Michigan Offense (34th) vs. Indiana Defense (34th) 
Michigan comes off perhaps their most impressive offensive outing.  The Wolverines have improved 38 spots, up from 72nd after the loss to Wisconsin.  In three road games after Wisconsin, Michigan averages a 45% success rate and 5.9 yards per play.  In 2018, the Wolverines managed a 47% success rate and 6.7 yards per play. This contest with Indiana presents the final regular season road challenge for Josh Gattis and the offense.  Based on the matching SP+ rankings for Michigan’s offense and Indiana’s defense, Saturday’s matchup will likely come down to who can execute more cleanly. If the Wolverines can avoid major mistakes, especially turnovers, I expect them to move the ball and score consistently.

Michigan Defense (5th) vs. Indiana Offense (13th)
In last year’s 31-20 victory, the Michigan defense generated significant angst among the fan base.  Even worse, the Hoosiers’ success versus man coverage can be pointed to as a blueprint for the Buckeyes 62-point domination the following week.  We know these events triggered Don Brown’s 2019 evolution, making the test against Indiana particularly interesting. After dealing with the cost of significant change early in the season, the Wolverines’ defense is back into the top 5 nationally, including 5th in SP+.  The 2019 game shifts to Bloomington and opposing offensive units have had some success in road games since Wisconsin. The Wolverines allowed a 35% success rate and 4.3 yards per play at Illinois, at Penn State, and at Maryland. Also, because of the game waiting in Week 14, the prep for this game may be a delicate balance between executing vs. the Hoosiers without tipping your hand to the Buckeyes again.

PREDICTION: I made a big deal out of the 2018 trend in home versus road performance.  Michigan was +7.9 to the SP+ projections at home, and -7.1 on the road. That 15 point swing was particularly startling for me.  So far In 2019 the Wolverines are +7.2 at home, and a much more reasonable +0.8 on the road. I think Michigan will continue to show their growth on the road and will improve that +0.8 number.
Michigan 31 Indiana 17  (PRESEASON Michigan 28 Indiana 25)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE (11/19/2019), 8-2

  • SP+ Overall: 10th (↑5), 22.4
    • SP+ Offense:34th (↑9), 33.8
    • SP+ Defense: 5th (↓1), 12.0
    • SP+ Special Teams 49th (↑21) 0.5
  • CFP Rank: 13th (↑2) 
  • AP Poll: 12th (↑2), 829
  • Coaches’ Poll: 12th (↑2), 851
Week 13 Resume