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.

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

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

By the Numbers: Week 12 vs. MSU

LAST WEEK RECAP

During the Week 11 Bye, we looked at 2018 & 2019 through 9 games, and we kept an eye on what to expect in the final 3 games.

NEXT UP: vs. Michigan State: 35th, 9.8

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 12.7, Michigan Win Probability 77%
Bill Connelly’s metric system is now dialed in with eleven weeks worth of data.  With that said, the SP+ spread has moved in Michigan’s direction by only 1.2 points, with a small 2-point bump in Win Probability.

Michigan Offense (43rd) vs. Michigan State Defense (11th) 
Michigan’s offense has not been quite as good as expected, but the Spartan defense hasn’t either.  When I have watched Michigan State games in 2019, it feels an awful lot like watching the Wolverines in 2017.  This defense is good, but they just cannot maintain a high level of play for a full 60 minutes. A lot of that is because the offense does not give them breaks in time of possession or field position.  But, the Michigan State defense is also prone to making mistakes that turn into explosive plays. Offensively, Michigan has shown that they can be effective against top defenses. The Wolverines have played three top 10 SP+ defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa, & Penn State), plus Notre Dame is 23rd.  The key will be whether Josh Gattis’ group comes out of the bye week sharp enough to exploit the inevitable MSU mistakes for big plays.

Michigan Defense (4th) vs. Michigan State Offense (84th)
The match up between Michigan’s defense and MSU’s offense will determine whether this game remains tight, or gets out of hand.  The Spartans will definitely want to turn this game into a rock fight by grinding out first downs and playing the field position game.  As Don Brown has transitioned to multiple fronts, and mixed in more zone coverage, Michigan has allowed some yardage but has tightened up on scoring opportunities.  In this game, MSU would gladly march between the 20 yard lines and milk the clock. The Wolverines must turn the rivalry game energy and emotion into a laser focus on run fits during standard downs.  Once they’ve forced Michigan State into passing downs, Michigan will be looking to create havoc.

PREDICTION: As bad as the Spartan offense has been, SP+ thinks their special teams are worse.  They are currently ranked 108th nationally. This doesn’t bode well for the field position rock fight strategy that I expect from Mark Dantonio.  I was happy to hear Jim Harbaugh using “High Alert” as the program mantra this week. This season was reduced to a one-game season in October. Potentially winning this game is the last shred of opportunity remaining the Spartans.  Dantonio will have them playing at their highest level, but that won’t be good enough. #LeaveNoDoubt
Michigan 24 Michigan State 7 (PRESEASON Michigan 17 MSU 13)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE (11/11/2019), 7-2

  • SP+ Overall: 15th (↓4), 19.9
    • SP+ Offense:43rd (↑3), 32.3
    • SP+ Defense: 4th (↓1), 12.3
    • SP+ Special Teams 70th (↓1) -0.1
  • CFP Rank: 15th (↓1)
  • AP Poll: 14th (same), 744
  • Coaches’ Poll: 14th (same), 731
Week 12 Resume

By the Numbers: Week 10 @ Maryland

LAST WEEK RECAP

The running game clicked on offense, and the defense swarmed as Michigan dominated Notre Dame 45-14.  The win will be remembered as Jim Harbaugh’s second over a top 10 team, but SP+ had Notre Dame ranked 19th going in.

NEXT UP: @ Maryland: 56th, 2.3

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 16.3, Michigan Win Probability 83%
Michigan’s defensive unit ranking continues to climb, currently up to #2 in SP+ rankings.  The offense, after an early season drop to #72, has clawed back to 41st against some solid defensive teams.  The special teams unit continues to drop, now down another fourteen spots to #80.

Michigan Offense (41st) vs. Maryland Defense (64th) 
My calls for patience regarding this offense are starting to look better.  If the Wolverines can put together another dominating offensive performance on the road versus an average defense, then I will officially feel vindicated.  In the preseason preview I mentioned that SP+ ranked Maryland defense exactly in the middle (65th). As the calendar turns to November the Terps defense is 64th, and gave up 42 points per game in their last three contests (@ Purdue, vs. Indiana, @ Minnesota).  I wonder if offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and Jim Harbaugh remember the Terrapins’ head coach making snide comments (“Josh who?”) at Big Ten Media Day regarding his former assistant at Alabama.

Michigan Defense (2nd) vs. Maryland Offense (58th)
In 2018, most of us (Michigan fans) were taken by surprise when Ohio State sprung an offensive assault on Don Brown’s defense.  The defense’s performance in late season games may have been sending us warning signs. After a tremendous week 8 performance last year in East Lansing, Michigan’s YTD success rate against was 33%.  At that point, the defense allowed an average of 3.9 yards per play (YPP), and IsoPPP (Points gained per successful play) was 0.84.  I compared those averages to what we saw in those metrics from games #9-12 in 2018 below. Going into Game #9 of the 2019 season, on the road versus an average opponent, the Michigan defense MUST maintain their high level of play and attention to detail.  The last thing the Wolverines need is another downward trend through November.

  • Michigan 2018 Defense Avg. through 8 Games
    • Efficiency: 33% Success Rate
    • Explosiveness: YPP 3.9 IsoPP 0.84
  • Game 9 vs. Penn State
    • Efficiency: 28% Success Rate
    • Explosiveness: YPP 4.0 IsoPP 0.95
  • Game 10 @ Rutgers
    • Efficiency: 25% Success Rate
    • Explosiveness: YPP 4.8 IsoPP 1.24
  • Game 11 vs. Indiana
    • Efficiency: 35% Success Rate
    • Explosiveness: YPP 5.1 IsoPP 1.01
  • Game 12 @ Ohio State
    • Efficiency: 51% Success rate
    • Explosiveness: YPP 8.8 IsoPP 1.24

PREDICTION: Michigan’s dominance over Notre Dame made most of us feel better, and I am relieved for that.  I started to wonder where my own optimism was coming from after the heartbreak in Happy Valley.  Now, going into this road tilt in College Park, I think the pendulum may have swung the other way.  The fan base is back to expecting a total blowout, and I am more conservative. Until I see at least one complete performance away from the Big House, it will be tough for me to predict one.  I expect this game to feel similar to the Illinois game, with a handful of problems smearing our memory of a multi-score victory.
Michigan 30 Maryland 13 (PRESEASON Michigan 35 Maryland 7)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE (10/27/2019), 6-2

  • SP+ Overall: 11th (↑3), 21.1
    • SP+ Offense:41st (↑11), 32.6
    • SP+ Defense: 2nd (↑2), 11.4
    • SP+ Sp. Teams 80th (↓14) -0.1
  • AP Poll: 14th (↑5), 744
  • Coaches’ Poll: 15th (↑5), 652
  • CFP Rank: N/A
Week 10 Resume