Hello again! The dog days of summer have arrived in Michigan. The weather is unbearably hot, but the August thunderstorms also signal the return of UMGoBlue.com By the Numbers content. In our By the Numbers articles and podcasts, Phil and I will review data and metrics to analyze the football team’s performance, and try to prepare ourselves for what may lie ahead. I’ll kickoff with my 2019 Michigan Football Season Preview!
The foundation for most of our analysis comes from the SP+ college football analytics model. While the system was meant to be predictive for beating the odds against Vegas, study of the Five Factors is extremely useful for picking out what a team needs to do to win football games.
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.
In 2018, the SP+ preseason predictions correctly selected the winner in 11 out of 12 regular season Michigan games (picked MSU to win). The SP+ weekly preview was correct in 11 out of 13 games (picked Michigan over OSU & Florida).
Full disclosure: in my 2018 preseason preview article I correctly picked 9 out of 12 games (picked Wisconsin, and Michigan over Notre Dame & OSU) . In the weekly previews, I corrected the Wisconsin pick and moved to 10 out of 12.
Michigan S&P+ Preseason Ranking
Overall – 9th
Offense – 14th
Defense – 13th
2019 Regular Season Schedule
vs. Middle Tennessee State: 104th Overall, 113th Offense, 86th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 33.4, Win Probability 97% – MTSU is a comfortable opening opponent for new defensive personnel, and a new offensive system.
PREDICTION: Let’s hope another Week 1 night game doesn’t throw the players out of whack. Adrenaline coursing through athletes who are caged all day can significantly drain one’s energy. Don’t forget the cramp epidemic for Michigan last season in South Bend. That also needs to be solved. With all that said, Michigan is too talented on both sides of the ball for MTSU. There may be some hiccups, but there will be a lot of cheering echoing from the Big House throughout the night.
Michigan 34 MTSU 3, 1-0
vs. Army: 80th Overall, 55th Offense, 94th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 25.4, Win Probability 93% – Army’s triple-option offense befuddles the SP+ metrics. Prepare for a lot of 4th down conversion attempts.
PREDICTION: Certain nightmarish performances of the past have taught us one thing for sure: if you catch Don Brown’s defense off guard, the problems can escalate quickly. However, the Army game has been on the schedule for a long time, and Don Brown showed he can effectively prepare for the service academy option attack. In 2017, the Wolverines were very solid against Air Force, despite returning just one starter from 2016. Also, look for the Michigan offense to take a step forward against Army’s bottom-half defense.
Michigan 45 Army 14, 2-0
@ Wisconsin: 11th Overall, 5th Offense, 33rd Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Wisconsin by 1.0, Win Probability 48% – Both teams come off a bye week. Both will likely be 2-0.
PREDICTION: This is not your typical B1G opener, and the Badgers will present an early season-defining challenge in Madison. At home in 2018, Michigan outperformed the SP+ projections by an average of 7.91 points. On the road, the Wolverines under-performed by -7.14 points on average. That’s a negative 15 point swing between home and road games! The only game to qualify as a plus differential away from the Big House in 2018 was versus MSU. Before seeing more consistent leadership, play making, or results on the road I can’t pick Michigan @ Camp Randall.
Michigan 24 Wisconsin 26, 2-1
vs. Rutgers: 108th Overall, 121st Offense, 87th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 36.4, Win Probability 98% – There is no better balm to soothe a team coming off a tough week than a home game versus Rutgers.
PREDICTION: The Scarlet Knights fall into an unfortunate spot (for them) on Michigan’s schedule. Either the Wolverines will be very angry coming back home from Madison with something to prove, or they will be starting to roll as the offense irons out the wrinkles and the defensive staff finds their best personnel packages. Both possible scenarios spell trouble for Rutgers.
Michigan 55 Rutgers 10, 3-1
vs. Iowa: 25th Overall, 48th Offense, 18th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 11.6, Win Probability 75% – I think SP+ is under-rating Iowa in the preseason. Nate Stanley and the offensive efficiency will push them into the top 25 by this point in the season.
PREDICTION: The Hawkeyes will represent the second major conference test for Michigan in 2019, this one coming at home. I personally think this may be a preview of an Indianapolis match up for the B1G Ten title. I am intrigued to see how the numbers have shifted going into October. Will the Wolverines’ offensive and/or defensive units have moved up from the mid-teens in SP+ ranking? My feeling is that the projected margin will be razor thin going into Iowa week, but Michigan will ride a special teams advantage to the win.
Michigan 30 Iowa 23, 4-1
@ Illinois: 91st Overall, 54th Offense, 106th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 22.8, Win Probability 91% – The numbers project a lopsided win for Michigan, but watch out for this major TRAP GAME on the road.
PREDICTION: In addition to Brandon Peters’ revenge game, the Illini fan base has much stronger animosity for the Wolverines than you’d think. I will be watching for major improvement in road game preparation when Michigan travels to Champagne for this game. Even if there is a slow start (think 2018 Northwestern), superior talent should be enough to carry the Wolverines. Also, this point in the season may reveal a surprise contributor in a breakout performance, or perhaps in an explosive highlight reel play (eyes on the Freshmen).
Michigan 27 Illinois 14, 5-1
@ Penn State: 14th Overall, 51st Offense, 4th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 0.7, Win Probability 52% – Easiest prediction for this game: it will be at night, in a white-out @ Beaver Stadium.
PREDICTION: As I see it in August, this sets up as the pivotal moment for the 2019 football season. The Wolverines will have to prove to themselves on a national stage, and prove to the fan base that they can prepare for and execute against a good team in a hostile environment. This certainly could be a nail biter, perhaps similar to the 2018 MSU game that was tied 7-7 near the end of third quarter. However, I think Harbaugh and his staff will sense the critical nature of the moment, and will rise to the occasion.
Michigan 31 Penn State 17, 6-1
vs. Notre Dame: 12th Overall, 29th Offense, 9th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 5.0, Win Probability 61% – These two defenses will probably both be Top 10 in SP+ unit rankings by the last week of October. This one could end under the lights if it’s a 3:30 kick, and very well may get scheduled to kick off in prime time.
PREDICTION: I see Michigan’s return to the Big House as a continuation of whatever momentum is created the previous week in Happy Valley. If the Wolverines are riding the emotional high of a pivotal league victory, that portends well for their chances versus the Irish. If their B1G Ten East title hopes took a serious blow from the Nittany Lions, this non-conference game isn’t going to do much to change the narrative spun by Harbaugh’s critics. Third possible outcome may be the most likely: I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Michigan 33 Notre Dame 13, 7-1
@ Maryland: 67th Overall, 69th Offense, 65th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 17.0, Win Probability 84% – There is almost no reliability in the preseason metrics regarding the Terps and how they will adjust to Mike Locksley and his new staff. Maybe that’s why S&P+ ranks both Maryland units in the dead center nationally.
PREDICTION: There will be very little doubt about who creates the game plans, and who calls the offensive plays in this match up. A slight risk of a November TRAP GAME may have existed when the 2019 schedule was released. However, Maryland will now have the full attention of Mr. Gattis & #SpeedInSpace in College Park.
Michigan 35 Maryland 7, 8-1
vs. MSU: 23rd Overall, 96th Offense, 3rd Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 11.5, Win Probability 75% – Seems like there MUST be a regression to the mean for the Spartan offensive unit. They can’t be THAT bad again, can they?
PREDICTION: Despite the battle for the Paul Bunyan trophy moving to November, Michigan State still has a ferocious October gauntlet of their own in 2019: @ Ohio State, @ Wisconsin, bye week, vs. Penn State. No matter what happens in those three games, we will MOSTLY know who the Spartans are by the time they reach Ann Arbor. The B1G Ten East could be on the line, or it could just be another opportunity to be “Defeated With Dignity”. I think this will have major implications for the race in the East, and Dantonio will have MSU ready to go. Look for another weather-affected defensive struggle to be way too close for comfort.
Michigan 17 MSU 13, 9-1
@ Indiana: 46th Overall, 40th Offense, 59th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Michigan by 12.7, Win Probability 77% – Michigan has won 23 consecutive meetings against the Hoosiers. Indiana has been quite a nuisance in nearly every match up, including engineering the offensive game plan that led to the debacle in Columbus.
PREDICTION: This game will be closer than Wolverines fans think it “should” be. Memorial Stadium sure gives off quite a Horseshoe vibe, doesn’t it. The crowd may be up to 50% maize and blue, but the crimson and cream uniforms will look a little too much like scarlet and grey. If I’m struggling in August to stop myself from looking past the Hoosiers and toward The Game, can Harbaugh and the boys avoid the same pitfall in November?
Michigan 28 Indiana 25, 10-1
vs. Ohio State: 7th Overall, 6th Offense, 14th Defense
PRESEASON SP+: Ohio State by 0.2, Win Probability 49% – The main reason there is significant reliability in preseason SP+ metrics for the Buckeyes under new head coach Ryan Day is because they continue to be absolutely loaded with blue chip talent at every position.
PREDICTION: The narrative will be about Harbaugh and his legacy. There will be a well verbalized count of days since November 2011 when interim coach Luke Fickell took a loss to Brady Hoke’s Wolverines. Urban Meyer may have already taken a leave of absence from his interim media position and moved to Los Angeles to start understanding life as a Trojan. None of that will matter. November 30th, 2019 will be about Jim Harbaugh and his staff delivering on a long broken promise to the Wolverine seniors: Those Who Stay Will be Champions.
Michigan 37 Ohio State 33, 11-1,
B1G Ten East Champions