Showing the understandable effects of obsessively covering Michigan during a four-year period of barely mitigated suck, Brian Cook frets that my comparison of Florida and Penn State yields an unfortunate conclusion for Michigan:
This is my concern, dude. Everyone regards PSU as a fraud, and we're kind of the same team except our loss was more competitive and our conference wins against even weaker competition.
Kind of the same team? Not so much:
|Penn State||Florida||Michigan||Texas A&M|
|Pts Per Game||21.4||26.0||34.8||27.0|
|Pts Allowed Per Game||12.4||19.5||14.6||15.4|
|Yards Per Play Gained||5.1||5.6||7.0||6.4|
|Yards Per Play Allowed||4.2||4.5||5.4||5.4|
|Yards Per Play Margin||+0.9||+1.1||+1.6||+1.0|
Michigan would be a touchdown favorite over Penn State on a neutral field. The difference between the Wolverines and Nittany Lions is that Michigan has taken care of business against every weaker opponent. Whereas Penn State has struggled repeatedly as I listed in my original post, Michigan hasn’t had to win a single close game all year, with the exception of the Notre Dame game. Michigan has played in games that were close at halftime, but in just about every case, the contests were over by the fourth quarter. Another chart of Michigan’s wins for illustrative purposes:
|San Diego State||21-0||28-7|
Michigan has dominated weaker opponents this year, especially in the second half. Whether that is a reflection of depth, conditioning, or tactically adroit coaches is a separate question. If you play the comparative score game, Michigan has played three common opponents with Penn State and beaten all three by bigger margins. More importantly, Michigan does not have anything on its resume like a come-from-behind win over Temple. Michigan’s equivalent opponent was San Diego State, a team that the Wolverines beat comfortably.
I stuck Texas A&M into the chart to indulge Brian’s skepticism, as the Aggies are a good comparison to Michigan this year. Despite Michigan being ranked significantly higher in the human polls, the two teams’ numbers are very similar. A&M has played a much tougher schedule and have a weaker record. They have blown out most of the weaker teams on their slate and their losses have been close, so their ratings according to SRS and Sagarin are very close to those of Michigan.
There are two points to be made here. First, Michigan’s turnover margin is much better. Whether you believe that turnover margin is the result of luck, skill, or a combination thereof dictates whether you think that Michigan deserves its higher ranking. The Wolverines have recovered an obscene percentage of fumbles, so there’s little way to conclude that Michigan has not been lucky in this department. Conversely, A&M has been incredibly unlucky in this department. Given the conclusion from Football Outsiders that recovery of fumbles is completely random, it is quite plausible to say that the difference between Michigan’s 7-1 and A&M’s 5-3 has just been the random bounces of an oblong spheroid.
Second, A&M has played a tougher schedule and had therefore been in a number of close games. They have lost three of the four one-score games in which they have played. Michigan has played an easier schedule that has involved only two tight games,* which the Wolverines have split. Again, how do you view close games? If you view them as random, then luck explains why A&M’s record is two games worse. If you think that there is an endemic reason why Michigan has been so strong in the second halves of games while the Aggies have wilted repeatedly, then the teams have earned their records.
* – I am scoring the Michigan State game as a tight one even though the Spartans won by 14. Michigan had fourth and inches inside the Michigan State ten in the fourth quarter with the game at 21-14. If you include penalty yardage, the total yardage for the game was about even.