By the Numbers: Bye Week Offense Review

Welcome to the bye week! For fans, the off week will present a challenge to avoid yanking every hair out of our heads. However, I think the timing favors the Wolverines considering Wisconsin is off to a 110-0 start, and Michigan…is not. Let’s use the extra time to look at the 2019 offense through two games and compare to two early season home games from 2018: Week 2 vs. WMU and Week 3 vs. SMU. Click here for more detail on the Five Factors (Explosiveness, Efficiency, Finish Drives, Field Position, TOs / Penalties).

2018 OFFENSE vs. 2019 OFFENSE

Overall Offense Five Factors
Passing Offense
Rushing Offense

POSITIVES

Despite the most pervasive feelings in the fan base ranging from nervous to apocalyptic, we have seen significant positive building blocks for the offense:

  1. Zach Charbonnet: a) ball security, b) pass protection, & c) zone running
  2. TE blocking improvement creates mismatches & TEs don’t tip Run or Pass
  3. Depth: a) TE, b) WR, c) OL, d) RB, e) QB
  4. Challenge for Defensive Coordinators to prepare for what is yet unseen

My list of positives so far in 2019 starts with the introduction of Zach Charbonnet.  Typically, early season breakout parties come from explosive plays and shiny stat lines that may or may not be sustainable throughout a whole season.  This feels different. The praise being heaped on Charbonnet centers around things freshmen running backs are typically very shaky on: ball security and pass protection.  We have seen the physical thump he brings both with the ball in his hand on the goal line vs. Army and in the face of pressure from blitzing linebackers vs. MTSU. I am confident that shiny stats and explosive plays are coming.

In 2018, Sean McKeon was challenged to become a key blocker as Michigan diversified their zone running scheme to include an Arc Read Option.  You may remember Shea Patterson’s surprise long run from the 2018 Wisconsin game. That was the introduction of the Arc Read series complementing the Split Zone play.  While this series was moderately successful, it was a lot to handle for McKeon. Fast forward to present day, and not only is McKeon improved in the blocking role, but he is joined by Nick Eubanks.  When the Arc Series is combined with the potential of either tight end threatening vertically in the passing game, we can see how Josh Gattis can create more space for the faster skill players in 2019.

Numbers 2 and 3 on the list are both a testament to year-over-year individual improvement and solid recruiting.  The depth at tight end is matched by the wide receivers. Michigan fans should be grateful that receiver, offensive line, and running back depth were strengths coming out of fall camp, because injuries have put that depth to use early in 2019.  Large portions of the fan base are focusing on the quarterback depth as a silver bullet solution to early season questions. In reality, the QB depth should help lighten the load on Shea Patterson as he recovers from an oblique injury, and reassure fans that the future of the program remains built on a strong foundation.

Finally, the element of surprise still may be another factor working in favor of the Wolverines.  Both national and local media have fully documented the lack of answers to off season questions for this offense.  The silver lining to that cloud is that defensive coordinators still have to ask themselves those questions while trying to prepare for Michigan, especially at Wisconsin and Rutgers.  This can pay dividends in two ways: 1) we may see the #SpeedInSpace scheme unleashed against under-prepared defensive units or 2) even if those defensive units are well prepared, they had to dedicate a boat load of man-hours and energy to preparing for many what-if scenarios and Gattis’ counterattacks.  That means other defensive fundamentals, or new exotic defensive schemes probably took a back seat for Michigan week.

PROBLEMS

OK, now we can discuss what has caused so much of our fan stress, and what I think needs to be corrected in order for this offense to tighten up their execution and take off.  After viewing the 2019 games and comparing the metrics, I bucketed known (observed) problems and potential (implied/assumed) problems. Here is the list, in order of severity:

KNOWN

  1. Fumbles: a) QB Security, b) Blitz Pickups
  2. Injuries: a) QB, b) OL, c) WR
  3. QB / WR Connection: a) timing, b) accuracy, c) drops

POTENTIAL

  1. Road Game Execution 
  2. Distribution of Passing Game Targets
  3. Zone Read: a) QB Run, b) Interior Push

First, let me admit that the TO issue is even worse than it looks in the numbers above.  I did not include Lavert Hill’s muffed punt in Week 1 as a turnover by the offense. Of course, it still affected the game outcome and the fans’ current state of mind.  Now, why the big uptick in fumbles lost? The largest factor in fumble stats is bad short term luck. An oblong football bounces in weird ways, and you never know what could happen.  However, other factors are more controllable, and must be addressed by the players and coaches in the bye week. Shea Patterson absolutely has to tighten his ball security, both in the pocket as a passer and as a runner.  Far too often, we can see images of Shea holding the ball one-handed and out away from his body. These fundamentals can be improved quickly through specific drills and coaching reinforcement. Additionally, any running back that enters the game must be able to pick up protection calls. Michigan cannot allow free shots on the quarterback.  Charbonnet and Tru Wilson have shown their reliability. Christian Turner and Hassan Haskins both need to improve their pass protection to earn more snaps. 

The next issue challenging the offense has been a rash of injuries in the early season.  Coming out of fall camp, only the Andrew Stueber injury and Ambry Thomas illness were widely reported.  Since the end of camp the injury list has grown. Running back Tru Wilson missed a game and a half. Neither Donovan Peoples-Jones nor Jon Runyan has yet to play a snap.  Shea Patterson is reportedly battling an oblique injury. He has missed a few snaps, and appeared hampered on others. The depth we discussed in the positives section has been immediately tested on offense. Perhaps the early bye week is just what the doctor ordered for the Wolverines.

In a problem that seems to have carried over from 2018, Shea Patterson has still not established precise timing with his talented receiving threats.  Last year under Pep Hamilton, the vertical passing attack favored deep drops and slow developing routes. Many long throws, even the completions, ended with the wide receiver slowing down to jump and high point a contested ball against a defender.  I doubt this issue is related to any question about Patterson’s arm strength. I have maintained that he holds the ball for a split second too long before throwing to an area and allowing the receiver to run to it. In 2019 there is an added challenge of totally revamped reads for the quarterback.  It’s understandable to see more examples of missed timing (like the missed post route to Nico Collins in 2OT) than we see rhythmic pitch-and-catch (like the seam route TD to Sean McKeon vs. MTSU) early in the season. We should only be concerned if this issue persists into the middle and second half of the season.  I am a believer in Ben McDaniels and Jim Harbaugh as QB coaches, and in Josh Gattis as a receivers coach. The explosive plays are coming.

In addition to the issues we’ve seen so far in 2019, there are still lingering questions to be answered from Michigan’s recent performance history.  Top of my potential issues list is execution in road games. As I laid out in my season preview, Michigan’s 2018 average performance relative to SP+ projections decreased by 15+ points away from the Big House.  There is an unending list of possible variables that could contribute to this problem, so there is not a simple correction. Somehow, the coaching staff has to make mental preparation and solid first quarter starts a priority in road games.  Additionally, I think this challenge falls to the leaders in the Michigan locker room. Championship performances require mental toughness and diligent focus in the face of adversity, especially in a hostile environment. I think Michigan’s captains, seniors, and best players must first lead by example, as well as relentlessly elevate every teammate to match the championship intensity.  

The next challenge is trying to find balance in distributing touches between the various offensive weapons.  Gattis’ increased tempo resulted in 79 offensive snaps in Week1, and even managed 69 snaps in regulation versus the ball hogs of Army (equal to the 2018 average for Michigan).  More snaps per game should help to distribute the ball to more players. More importantly, eliminating the turnover bug would be even more beneficial. The #SpeedInSpace philosophy centers around putting the defense in conflict by forcing them to pick their poison: Charbonnet or McCaffrey?  Collins or McKeon? DPJ in space or Tarik Black deep? . To accomplish this, Michigan needs to get into a regular rhythm and needs to string successful plays together to knock the defense back onto their heels. Nothing disrupts an offense’s rhythm and reanimates a reeling defense like a turnover.   Consistent repetitions with all the healthy first stringers during the bye week will also be critical to solving this problem.

The final problem on offense to keep your eye on is the success of the read option rushing attack.  In the aftermath of the Army Scare, many conspiracy theories circulated on all forms of media. Can Shea Patterson run the ball despite an injury?  If not, why don’t the coaches trust Dylan McCaffrey? If he’s healthy, is he just misreading the option plays, or has Harbaugh grabbed the keys back from Gattis and demanded a return to vanilla inside zone hand offs?  I am here to tell you, all of these theories are white noise, and can be labeled “we’ll see”, then put onto the shelf. We confirmed Patterson’s not 100%, but Gattis was clear in his Monday interview that the called plays all required the quarterback to read the defense.  Fans observing video clips online began analyzing defensive scrape exchanges and open space on the edge, then began to formulate the various questions above.

Instead, there is actual evidence that Army pulled many of the correct levers for their defensive scheme vs. Michigan’s read option.  When Michigan adjusted to a shortage of remaining second half possessions against Army, they committed to the low risk read option play almost exclusively (three first half turnovers will do that to ya!).  Army correctly countered with corner blitzes, and linebacker scrape exchanges to force Patterson to hand the ball off (usually correctly, but not always). We can still wonder why Michigan didn’t call the “counter to the counter”, but the simpler run scheme was moving the ball.  Despite the fans’ frustration at the consecutive run plays, the Wolverines’ only punted one time last Saturday.  

All of this is a long-winded way to advocate for practicing just a bit more patience with the offense through its infancy.  The explosive plays are coming! I just hope they arrive in time to win the first key Big Ten match up in Madison next Saturday.

Michigan 24 Army 21 – Week 2 Recap

WEEK 2 PROJECTION vs. RESULTS

Final Score: 24-21 2OT, Michigan by 3 over Army
SP+ Projection: Michigan by 25.2 (-22.2)
CD Projection: Michigan by 20 (-17)

FIVE FACTORS

Click here for more description of the Five Factors from Week 1

WEEK 2 RECAP vs. Army

There was not much magic hidden beneath the surface of Michigan’s double overtime victory over the Army Black Knights.  Typically, the soldiers dominate time of possession. Today, Army only had a slight edge 31:35 to 28:25 for Michigan.  On the Five Factors table above, only the Explosiveness metric displayed a distinct advantage for one team. While the edge went to Michigan, there wasn’t a lopsided margin in YPP and IsoPPP that we expected from #SpeedInSpace.

The Wolverines were in serious trouble at the half.  Michigan was fortunate to only be down one score after two quarters. The Black Knights had cashed in on two short field opportunities for touchdowns.  Meanwhile, Michigan had only mustered one score as freshman Zach Charbonnet scored his first career touchdown as a Wolverine. After three turnovers and missing a long Quinn Nordin field goal attempt, Michigan averaged a paltry 1.75 points per first half scoring opportunity.

The uneasy feeling lingered into the second half. The referees called back a Giles Jackson kickoff return of 42 yards due to an illegal blindside block.  After Michigan went three and out, Army showed they had made some shrewd halftime adjustments and began to march. A 60 yard, 7:43 drive added to Michigan fans’ anxiety. However, once they reached the red zone, Army QB Kelvin Hopkins, Jr. was intercepted by corner back Lavert Hill.   5:19 later Charbonnet punched in his second touchdown of the day to tie the score. The interception by Hill was clearly a pivotal moment in this game, but not the final critical play.

The Michigan defense started the fourth quarter by forcing another three-and-out. Michigan’s offense took the momentum and drove back into Army territory with the score tied 14-14.  With the clock nearing 10:00 left in regulation, and facing 4th & 2 from the Army 19 yard line, Jim Harbaugh chose to keep the offense on the field. Shea Patterson handed off on a zone run to the right, but the Black Knights had called the perfect run blitz. Charbonnet was tackled immediately for a four yard loss. 

The decision to forego the 37 yard field goal attempt that could have broken the tie will be questioned for the next two weeks. The conservative play calls will also be a popular topic of discussion. Michigan chose to run the ball on 74% of their 4th quarter plays. A third confounding facet of this particular 4th down play is whether it was a called hand off to Charbonnet, or if it may have been a poor read by QB Shea Patterson.  Regardless, the ball went back to the Black Knights, and 110,000 Michigan heart rates increased rapidly.

A similar sequence followed: the Wolverines’ defense forced another Army punt, and again Jim Harbaugh kept the offense on the field for a failed 4th down conversion attempt, this time at the Army 42 yard line.  The Black Knights leveraged their one time out and marched into position for a potential 50 yard game-winning field goal. Somehow, Michigan fans were spared again as the kick fell short and wide right. Blood pressure continued to rise in the Greater Ann Arbor area as the teams prepared for overtime.

Both offenses converted in key spots to score touchdowns in the first over time period. Army used an unbalanced formation to outflank the Wolverines to score first.  Michigan answered with a clutch 3rd & 6 pass from Patterson to Ronnie Bell. After pass interference placed the ball at the 2 yard line, Charbonnet was able to burrow into the end zone for his third touchdown of the day.  

In the second overtime period, Michigan led off with three incomplete passes. Jake Moody provided some reliefe by converting a 43 yard field goal attempt to take their first lead of the game.  Again, Michigan called on their fatigued defense to at least hold Army to a field goal attempt. Defensive end Aiden Hutchinson answered the bell with a tackle for loss on 2nd down to force a 3rd & 11 from the 26 yard line.  As Army called just their fifth pass play of the game, Hutchinson was joined by Carlo Kemp in a huge inside pass rash to strip the ball from Hopkins. When Quity Paye fell on the fumble, he sealed Michigan’s second victory of the 2019 season.

I am sure this nail-biter may have been wildly entertaining for outside observers, but there was a deep and collectively frustrated sigh of relief from the Big House faithful after the Wolverines were finally able to move to 2-0. There will be no shortage of questions to answer during the upcoming first bye week.  Don Brown may have come up with some answers in Week 2. Let’s hope the offense can follow suit as Michigan preps for Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten.

By the Numbers: Week 2 vs. Army

LAST WEEK RECAP

Michigan showed significant change from the 2018 team on both sides of the ball vs. a C-USA opponent in MTSU. With change comes plenty of opportunity for improvement, especially on offense. For a glimpse of what the 2019 season could be, the 2nd quarter is worth re-watching as Michigan’s offense put their best foot forward: 4 play TD drive, 2 play TD drive, 12 play FG drive.

LAST WEEK PROJECTION vs. RESULTS

FIVE FACTORS

Click here for more description of the Five Factors from Week 1

NEXT UP: vs. Army: Overall -5.2, 90th

PREGAME SP+: Michigan by 25.2, Win Probability 93%
Even if you considered the Wolverines unimpressive in Week 1, the Black Knights were even less so in a 14-7 home victory over the Rice Owls (SP+ 129th).

Michigan Offense (33rd) vs. Army Defense (67th)
I’ll be looking for significant improvement in the sharpness of the Wolverines’ offensive execution. We’ve seen flashes of high-octane potential in both the passing and rushing attacks. We’ll see more physical mismatches to be exploited by Shea Patterson and the Michigan wide receivers and tight ends. Only one defensive back who registered a tackle in Week 1 for Army stands taller than 5’11”. The real key is to stay healthy going into Big Ten play. In addition to Patterson being dinged up, and Donovan Peoples-Jones in a walking boot, the offensive line depth is already being tapped as Jon Runyan and Steve Spanellis have joined Andrew Stueber on the injury report.

Michigan Defense (32nd) vs. Army Offense (91st)
The SP+ rating system underrates Army’s offense because they have no fear of using all four downs. Success Rate is built around trying to pick up first downs in three tries, typically. Michigan will have a significant size and talent advantage, but Army will be trying to force the Wolverines into missed assignments versus the Triple Option. I will start to get nervous if it feels like the clock is melting away, and the Black Knights are moving 3-7 yards at a time. The rushing attack is led by returning QB Kelvin Hopkins, Jr. He may be joined by Connor Slomka, Army’s 2nd leading returning rusher, who missed Week 1 with an injury.

PREDICTION: I am bullish on the offense, but I still expect to see a few awkward moments this Saturday. Even after some significant improvement, Michigan will be trying to walk a fine line between:
1) putting enough personnel groupings & concepts onto film to force Wisconsin to prepare for a wide variety of stuff
2) keeping enough counter punches off of film to unveil in Madison in two weeks.
The lack of interior defensive line depth will allow Army to march a little bit, and will be a concern until Michigan can hit on some big plays. This game may be closer than I had originally expected.
Michigan 33 Army 13 (PRESEASON: Michigan 45 Army 14)

MICHIGAN RESUME UPDATE (9/4/2019)

  • SP+ Overall: 14th (↓5), 17.6
    • SP+ Offense: 33rd (↓19), 42.0
    • SP+ Defense: 32nd (↓19), 24.4
  • AP Poll: 7th (same), 1126
  • Coaches’ Poll: 7th (same), 1155
  • CFP Rank: N/A

By the Numbers: 2019 Football Season Preview

Eyes on the prize!

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.
Full Explanation 

2018 Results

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

Michigan Football By the Numbers: Nebraska

That was a VERY satisfying way to take a 5-4-1 series lead over the Cornhuskers.  Onward to Evanston!

TABLE: FIVE FACTORS

OFFENSE

Raise your hand if you had Week 4 circled as the first “take ’em to the wood shed” performance from Michigan’s offensive line. Nobody?  Me either.  In my opinion, the raw statistics tell more of the story than the S&P Five Factors do, because I did not remove garbage time for my analysis.  And by garbage time, I mean the entire second half.  Michigan was able to take Shea Patterson out in the 3rd quarter after another solid performance, and again Dylan McCaffrey was strong in his mop up role.  For me, the most encouraging sign for the offense was the return of the explosive run play.  The offensive line not only achieved great initial push along the front, the big run plays imply that blocks are being maintained at the second level, including by the wide receivers.

DEFENSE

Nebraska managed to salvage a small edge in Finishing Drives because they cashed in on both of their scoring opportunities, while Michigan went 6-of-7 thanks to an interception thrown by the third string QB.  However, Nebraska did not cross Michigan’s 40-yard line until their sad, “no shutout” field goal in the 3rd quarter.  Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich did not play any longer into the 3rd quarter than Shea Patterson did.  Devin Bush is clearly a step (or two) faster than Nebraska’s best offensive weapons.  Again, the lopsided raw statistics are more indicative of the butt kickin’ in this game. Nebraska increased their Yards per Play above 3.0 by finding some room to breathe against the 2nd and 3rd string Wolverines.  It was the first truly dominant performance in 2018 from Don Brown’s guys. Let’s hope there is more where that came from!

S&P+ THROUGH WEEK 4

MICHIGAN S&P+
Overall: 25.1, 5th (up 5)
Offense: 37.7, 24th (up 14)
Defense: 12.9, 4th (up 3)

REGULAR SEASON PROJECTIONS vs. RESULTS

vs. Nebraska: UM 56 NEB 10
Pregame S&P+: UM by 8.6, 4-0
Pregame Clint: UM by 11, 3-1
MICH Cumulative 2ndO Wins: 3.6

vs. SMU: UM 45 SMU 20
Pregame S&P+: UM by 20.0, 3-0
Pregame Clint: UM by 39, 2-1
MICH Cumulative 2ndO Wins: 2.6

vs. Western Michigan: UM 49 WMU 3
Pregame S&P+: UM by 10.8, 2-0
Pregame Clint: UM by 25, 1-1
MICH Cumulative 2ndO Wins: 1.6

@ Notre Dame: ND 24 UM 17
Preseason S&P+: ND by 0.1, 1-0
Preseason Clint: UM by 4, 0-1
MICH Cumulative 2ndO Wins: 0.6

NEXT UP

@ Northwestern: Overall 3.1, 60th
M Offense 37.7 (24th) vs. O Defense 20.6 (24th), Midpoint: 29.15
M Defense 12.9 (4th) vs. O Offense 24.0 (96th), Midpoint: 18.45

PREGAME EDGE: Michigan
S&P+ gives a 10.7 point edge to Michigan. The Wildcats have not been impressive at all, but this Michigan team still needs to show it can be sharp on the road.

GAME WEEK UPDATE: The match-up to watch is Michigan’s offense versus Northwestern’s defense, as both are ranked #24 in the S&P+. Harbaugh will look to maintain balance between pass & run, while wearing down the Wildcats into the 3rd and 4th quarters.
Michigan 31 Northwestern 14 (PRESEASON: Michigan 17 Northwestern 14)

TL;DR SUMMARY

One team out-hit the other by a significant margin. The scoreboard reflects which is which. To his credit, Scott Frost did not try to spin any fictional moral victories during his 2018 post-game press conference.