By the Numbers: Game 15 CFP Final vs. Washington

LAST WEEK RECAP

The Wolverines came back to force overtime on the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Then Blake Corum and the Michigan defense put the finishing touches on an epic 27-20 victory in the Rose Bowl to qualify for the CFP National Championship game.

NEXT UP: vs. Washington: SP+ 12th, 18.8

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 12.2, Michigan Win Probability 76%

The post-bowl SP+ rankings show why Bill Connelly is constantly tweaking the algorithm, especially as college football changes over time.  Michigan slid to #2 overall in the rankings because Georgia won by 60 over Florida State.  There is currently no way for the model to adjust for significant injuries or opt-outs, so the dozen or so missing players for the Noles were not accounted for. 

Michigan Offense (12th) vs. Washington Defense (44th) 

A huge advantage for Michigan exists when they have possession against the Huskies’ defense.  It is not a bad defense, especially in high leverage moments.  However, the Wolverines played eight opponents with defensive units ranked higher than Washington’s.  I expect Sherrone Moore to do what he’s done best all season.  Michigan will look for run-pass balance early on, but will rely on Blake Corum and the running game to wear down the Huskies and keep Michael Penix Jr. on the Washington sideline.

Michigan Defense (1st) vs. Washington Offense (4th)

Both fan bases point to this strength-on-strength match up and warn the other side that they haven’t seen a unit like this in 2023.  While it’s true given the context of this season, I feel most comfortable with Michigan’s defense preparing for a Heisman contender at quarterback with All American wide receivers.  That’s because the entire defensive philosophy and scheme was designed to contain CJ Stroud, and the Ohio State wide receiver room.  Penix could very likely throw for over 300 yards again on Monday night.  In 2021, Stroud threw for 394 yards and two touchdowns himself.  The key will be whether Michigan can make key plays inside their own 40 yard line to force field goal attempts, or come up with 4th down stops.  

PREDICTION: The culmination of this amazing 2023 season has finally arrived.  The story started to build 12 full months ago when upperclassmen like Blake Corum, Michael Barrett, and Zak Zinter were considering their returns to Ann Arbor.  Immediately, the bar was set as high as possible when Corum declared to Crisler Arena in February that this team would win a National Championship.  Then, during the early season the Wolverines started rolling comfortably in each game.  The star players rarely played much in the second half of games, allowing depth players to get a significant number of snaps on both sides of the ball.  But then the tougher part of the schedule arrived, and something unexpected happened: the depth guys were still getting snaps at big moments of the big games!  

After reading, listening, talking (check out the preview podcast), and processing a lot of data about how this game could go, I think Michigan’s greatest edge might be their depth.  Wide receiver Tyler Morris just scored his first career touchdown to take the lead over Alabama in the Rose Bowl.  Safeties Quentin Johnson & Keon Sabb were both forced into duty by an untimely injury during the fourth quarter, and they both made huge plays late.  The Wolverines harassed Jalen Milroe all night while still rotating at least seven defensive linemen consistently (prayers up for Rayshaun Benny).  Michigan created game plans and managed their roster for an entire season to ensure they could be as close to full strength as possible in the College Football Playoff.  Now it’s time to go play the game, and earn not only the National Title, but the title of Greatest Michigan Team of All Time. 
Michigan 31 Washington 24

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE 01/02/24, 14-0

  • SP+ Overall: 2nd (↓1), 31.0
    • SP+ Offense: 12th (↓2), 36.5
    • SP+ Defense: 1st (same), 7.3
    • SP+ Special Teams: 7th (↓3), 1.8
  • AP Poll: 1st (same)
  • Coaches’ Poll: 1st (same)
  • CFP Rank: 1st (same)

By the Numbers: Game 14 CFP SF vs. Alabama @ Rose Bowl

LAST WEEK RECAP

Michigan shut out the Iowa Hawkeyes 26-0 in Indianapolis to secure their third straight B1G Ten Championship.  The offense didn’t put up flashy statistics, but the defense only allowed Iowa one scoring opportunity that ended with a fumble recovery for the Wolverines.

NEXT UP: vs. Alabama: SP+ 7th, 23.7

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 8.4, Michigan Win Probability 69%

Michigan maintained the #1 SP+ ranking, and added the top ranking in the CFP poll, AP poll, and Coaches’ poll.  According to SP+, the Wolverines would be favored over any of the other three playoff teams: Texas (6th, 24.6); Alabama (7th, 23.7); Washington (11th, 18.6)

Michigan Offense (10th) vs. Alabama Defense (9th) 

The Michigan offense and Crimson Tide defense square up pretty equally on paper.  However, the SP+ model cannot factor in the season ending injury to All-American guard Zak Zinter.  Since the injury in the second half of the Ohio State game, senior Karsen Barhart slid inside to guard to backfill Zinter, and Trente Jones entered at right tackle.  This configuration allowed four sacks to Iowa in the B1G Championship game, and only mustered 106 rushing yards.  The Wolverines need a huge bounce back performance from the offensive line group to keep Alabama edge rushers Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell off JJ McCarthy.

The strength of the Alabama defensive unit resides in the secondary.  Both corners Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold will play in the NFL soon.  In order to attack the Crimson Tide, Michigan will have to look for match up advantages in the middle of the field.  Center Drake Nugent and guard Trevor Keegan will need decisive wins on the interior to pave the way for Blake Corum between the tackles.  Then JJ McCarthy should be able to find Colston Loveland and Donovan Edwards covered by linebackers and safeties who first have to respect the interior run threat.  Running QB Alex Orji could also play a key role in creating a run game advantage by running option plays.

Michigan Defense (1st) vs. Alabama Offense (11th)

The Wolverines defense should have an advantage over the Alabama offense.  The strength of Michigan’s defensive line will create problems for Alabama’s blocking scheme.  I expect Bama to utilize double teams on the interior against DTs Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant.  The resulting single blocking on the edge must be exploited by Jaylen Harrell, Josiah Stewart, Derrick Moore, and Braden McGregor.  In my eyes, the edge rushers are the largest key for this game.  Alabama QB Jalen Milroe can make plays with his legs, and throws the deep ball very well.  However, he will also make a handful of big mistakes in each half, very similar to Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa.  The pass rush must be disciplined by staying in their rush lanes without providing an escape alley for Milroe.  The Wolverines can create big plays by making him read the downfield coverage from a collapsing pocket as often as possible.

The Crimson Tide are not as explosive in 2023 as they have been in years past.  After a string of Heisman winners on the offensive side of the ball, this year’s Alabama squad doesn’t have the same dominant superstar playmaker.  Wide receiver Jermaine Burton is the most dangerous threat in my opinion, averaging 22.2 yards per reception and pulling in 8 touchdowns on the season.  In the backfield, Bama had three players carry the ball over 100 times.  Running back Jase McClellan should be the secondary focus for stopping the running attack, after the QB Milroe.  We saw Alabama’s late-season opponents dedicate one, or sometimes two (!), players as spies to follow Milroe on the ground.  We can expect Jesse Minter to utilize a similar plan by keeping safeties over the top of Burton, and using linebackers Michael Barret and/or Junior Colson to chase the quarterback on scramble plays.

PREDICTION: These two blue-blood programs will meet in the Granddaddy of them All, the Rose Bowl, for the first time.  With the B1G Ten, SEC, and College Football Playoff all expanding in 2024, this may be one of the last hurrahs for nostalgia and tradition to bolster the high-stakes CFP atmosphere.  I expect this game to be dictated by both defensive units, and potentially a few special teams plays.  The scoreboard could stay tight for the entire duration, but in the 4th quarter I think the experience and poise of JJ McCarthy and the Wolverines will lead to a decisive play to clinch Michigan’s first CFP victory.
Michigan 27 Alabama 24

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE 12/17/23, 13-0

  • SP+ Overall: 1st (same), 32.1
    • SP+ Offense: 10th (↓1), 37.6
    • SP+ Defense: 1st (↑1), 7.4
    • SP+ Special Teams: 4th (↑1), 2.0
  • AP Poll: 1st (↑1), 1539
  • Coaches’ Poll: 1st (↑1), 1535
  • CFP Rank: 1st (↑1)

By the Numbers: Game 12 vs. Ohio State

LAST WEEK RECAP

Michigan was able to survive and advance in the annual pre-OSU trap game.  The Wolverines held on to beat the Maryland Terrapins 31-24 after shifting into cruise control far too early.

NEXT UP: vs. Ohio State: SP+ 3rd, 27.8

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 6.1, Michigan Win Probability 64%

Michigan stayed firm atop the SP+ rankings where they’ve been going back to Week 5.  But, the Wolverines regressed back to the pack during the Jim Harbaugh suspension.  Ohio State remains 3rd overall as well.  Surprisingly, the 1st ranked defense leads the Buckeyes SP+ rating strength, not the 19th ranked offense.

Michigan Offense (6th) vs. Ohio State Defense (1st) 

This matchup embodies the strength-on-strength clash in this rivalry game.  Ohio State clamped down on big plays in 2023 after explosives proved to be the achilles heel for coordinator Jim Knowles in 2022.  I expect the Buckeyes to deploy a more structurally sound defensive approach in The Game this year.  Keeping the Michigan ground attack under wraps will still be top priority, but I don’t think Ohio State believes they need to commit 9 or 10 players to the line of scrimmage to accomplish that.  Michigan fans can expect a rushing attack that looks much more like 2021 (5-6 yards a pop) than the 2022 explosion.

In my eyes, Saturday’s two most critical performances take place up front where Ladarius Henderson expects to return at left tackle, and Karsen Barnhart looks to bounce back in pass protection at right tackle.  Henderson & Barnhart will be the point of attack blockers on Michigan runs.  Most importantly, they must keep JJ McCarthy clean against JT Tuimoloau and the Buckeyes’ pass rush.  Ideally, JJ’s health is no longer a concern and we’ll see him escape the pocket to create down field opportunities.  At the minimum, the Michigan running backs should serve as quick outlet valves if Ohio State is bringing pressure.  

Michigan Defense (2nd) vs. Ohio State Offense (19th)

For the third consecutive year, the Wolverines’ defense will attempt to execute a game plan meant to minimize explosive pass plays.  In 2021 & 2022, impacting quarterback CJ Stroud posed the primary challenge.  Now the Buckeyes are led by Kyle McCord.  McCord is a good passer, but not on the same level as Stroud.  I expect Michigan to utilize extra safeties over the top of Heisman Trophy candidate Marvin Harrison Jr., while relying on the front four plus LB Mike Barrett to generate pressure.  If the Wolverines successfully contain Harrison with extra defenders, the wild card will be Mike Sainristil and Josh Wallace against #2 receiver Emeka Egbuka.

Verbally, this season represents a new commitment to running the ball for Ohio State.  TreVeyon Henderson and Chip Trayanum combine into a formidable challenge.  However, the Buckeyes’ offensive line still falters when trying to get to their second level blocks.  And, when Ohio State faces a high leverage situation, Ryan Day remains highly likely to turn away from his running backs and favor his wide receivers.  Jesse Minter will keep his coverage guys back, daring Ryan Day to run the ball consistently and repeatedly.  The most critical plays in the game will be 3rd down plays with 2-4 yards to go for Ohio State.  The Buckeye coaching staff will tell you that they want to run the ball in those spots, but Minter and the rest of the Wolverine faithful all know these are the times to tighten up outside in coverage.

PREDICTION: The SP+ model would favor Michigan over Ohio State by 3.6 points on a neutral field, and Bill Connely’s system adds 2.5 points for home field advantage, resulting in a 6.1 point tilt toward the Wolverines.  My preseason pick was Michigan by 6, and I am going to keep that same margin.  The teams will trade blows back-and-forth for the first 50-75% of the game.  Marvin Harrison Jr. and Blake Corum will each score early touchdowns.  But, this game boils down to which players step up in the fourth quarter once each team adjusts to the opponent’s game plan.  I think the Michigan defense will seal it late by pressuring McCord into a key mistake.
Michigan 34 Ohio State 28 (PRESEASON Michigan 39 Ohio State 33)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE 11/21/23, 11-0

  • SP+ Overall: 1st (same), 31.4
    • SP+ Offense: 6th (↑1), 38.5
    • SP+ Defense: 2nd (↓1), 9.0
    • SP+ Special Teams: 7th (↓1), 1.9
  • AP Poll: 3rd (↓1), 1440
  • Coaches’ Poll: 3rd (↓1), 1458
  • CFP Rank: 3rd (same)

By the Numbers: Game 9 vs. Purdue

LAST WEEK RECAP

The Wolverines managed to continue increasing their level of dominance by steamrolling the Spartans in East Lansing 49-0.  That was followed by the least restful bye week in history as Michigan is embroiled in a massive media storm and investigation centered on the Connor Stalions’ scouting and recording scandal, nicknamed Signgate.

NEXT UP: vs. Purdue: SP+ 82nd, -4.4

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 36.1, Michigan Win Probability 98%

Michigan remained atop the SP+ rankings while idle.  Purdue is kicking off a rebuild after Jeff Brohm left for Louisville. Ryan Walters, the former defensive coordinator for Illinois, has taken over as head coach.  

Michigan Offense (7th) vs. Purdue Defense (65th) 

Walters has a defensive scheme that was highly effective for Illinois in his last job in Champaign.  The main challenge of installing the system during this rebuild at Purdue is the heavy reliance on man-to-man coverage by the secondary.  The Boilermakers think they have found talented players who can thrive on an island in coverage, but they are freshmen for this season.  I expect JJ McCarthy to have plenty of opportunities to exploit various 1-on-1 matchups for more big pass plays.

Perhaps the run game is more interesting as the calendar turns to November.  The Michian ground attack has been good with a 52% success rate so far this season. But, there is still untapped potential as the best defenses on the schedule are waiting this month.  Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards have yet to shake loose consistently once reaching the second level.  If we’re going to see the increased explosiveness in November, we should start to see a few more long runs this week against the Boilermakers.

Michigan Defense (2nd) vs. Purdue Offense (86th)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Michigan’s strength in the trenches lines up against a significant weakness for Purdue.  The Boilers have some injury problems on the offensive line.  The Wolverines will look to exploit those backups and create pressure that requires QB Hudson Card to make immediate decisions and quick throws.  

While the bye week brought many headaches for the program, the defensive unit needed the recovery time more than any other group.  We’ll see if Mason Graham is still wearing the club on his hand as he lines up at nose guard.  Also, we can get a better sense for who will be rotating into the secondary.  Reports are that Will Johnson and Rod Moore are much closer to fully healthy, but I am interested to see who gets early snaps at the other corner & safety positions.

PREDICTION: Football teams have to be able to bounce back and respond in the face of adversity.  We discuss this dynamic all the time, and the assumption is that the adversity presents itself on the field.  For the 2023 Michigan Wolverines, it seems that the primary challenge for the final stretch of the season will come from off the field.  The players have consistently modeled the right attitude and approach, summarized best by JJ McCarthy: they focus on “keeping the main thing the main thing”.  The Wolverines have to avoid trying to press and doing too much to answer critics and skeptics from outside the program. I think Michigan might face some early rhythm & timing issues coming out of the bye, but once they click we will see more of the same: dominance.
Michigan 40 Purdue 10 (PRESEASON Michigan 30 Purdue 17)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE 11/1/23, 8-0

  • SP+ Overall: 1st (same), 29.2
    • SP+ Offense: 7th (↓1), 39.5
    • SP+ Defense: 2nd (same), 10.6
    • SP+ Special Teams: 7th (↓1), 0.4
  • AP Poll: 2nd (same), 1494
  • Coaches’ Poll: 2nd (same), 1520
  • CFP Rank: 3rd

By the Numbers: Game 6 @ Minnesota

LAST WEEK RECAP

Michigan finally delivered a dominant performance in all phases.  This one came on the road in Lincoln as the Wolverines pounded Nebraska 45-7

NEXT UP: @ Minnesota: SP+ 46th, 4.0

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 18.5, Michigan Win Probability 86%

Michigan stayed #1 overall in the SP+ rankings, thanks to the offense jumping back up into the top ten unit rankings.  The Golden Gophers are 46th overall, led by their 28th ranked defense.

Michigan Offense (9th) vs. Minnesota Defense (28th) 

The Wolverines may have settled on a 5-man offensive line unit for the time being.  Ladarius Henderson got his first start at left tackle last week, and Karsen Barnhart shifted over to right tackle.  The run game execution looked a little cleaner to me.  Now we’ll be looking to see Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards make a man miss and create explosive runs. 

JJ McCarthy is back to his razor sharp form.  McCarthy continues to carve up zone coverages through the middle of the field.  He also presents a major headache when he moves out of the pocket.  It’s nearly impossible to stay tight in coverage on Michigan’s receivers for the extra three or four seconds when JJ is on the move.  I expect to see the Wolverines exploit the middle of Minnesota’s defense through the air, but maybe we will see more targets toward the tight ends today.  

Michigan Defense (2nd) vs. Minnesota Offense (77th)

Week six presents another lopsided mismatch for the Michigan defense.  Minnesota has an OK running attack when they are at full strength, but they have been missing their best running back recently.  Regardless of who is carrying the ball, defensive tackles Kris Jenkins and Mason Graham have been almost impossible to block.  We expect Graham to return for this game with a club on his hand.  I will be interested to see if he sheds blocks at the same rate without use of one hand.  

The Wolverines’ pass defense presents the best opportunity for growth and improvement in Minneapolis.  We still haven’t seen the outside corners challenge and press the opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.  Also, some of the zone coverages in the middle have yielded big windows for quarterbacks to hit slants, and those receivers have been able to run after the catch.  I will be looking for more aggressive coverage technique from the corners, expecting the ball to come out quickly.  The added aggression could yield multiple turnovers from Minnesota quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis.  

PREDICTION: The first half of the regular season will come to close at the completion of tonight’s game.  There was remarkable similarity between the first three opponents, and now the 4th-6th opponents are equally comparable.  I think we’ll see a performance very similar to those against Rutgers and Nebraska. 

The one concerning question is whether the prime time (7:30 PM EST) time slot creates issues for Michigan as it did in Week 3 versus Bowling Green.  If the Wolverines come out and can generate another hot start on the road like last week, we’ll see matching results.  But, if there is a lack of energy, or any sloppiness that leads to early turnovers, this Minnesota team and crowd will be ready throw everything they have, including the kitchen sink, toward an upset bid.
Michigan 33 Minnesota 6 (PRESEASON Michigan 31 Minnesota 14)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE 10/02/23, 5-0

  • SP+ Overall: 1st (same), 25.0
    • SP+ Offense: 9th (↑4), 37.4
    • SP+ Defense: 2nd (↓1), 12.8
    • SP+ Special Teams: 8th (↑8), 0.4
  • AP Poll: 2nd (same), 1436
  • Coaches’ Poll: 2nd (same), 1503
  • CFP Rank: N/A