Thursday, November 11, 2010

I Can’t Help it if I’m (un)Lucky, Michigan Edition

Following on my post arguing that Georgia is better than their record, I thought that I would do the same analysis for Michigan. This has been a strange year for Michigan fans to grasp. The offense and defense are both record-setting ($) in their own special ways. The team is hard to evaluate, especially in the context of deciding whether the future under Rich Rodriguez is promising enough to retain him as opposed to placing a call to Palo Alto. It’s strengths are so pronounced, as are its weaknesses. But is 6-3 a fair reflection of Michigan’s merit. On the one hand, Michigan is 4-0 in games decided by one score, so the record flatters them. On the other hand, Michigan yardage numbers are good, so maybe this team has been undone by sometimes fluky factors like turnovers, red zone performance, and special teams. To the chart we go!

YPP Off.YPP Def.YPP Mar.SagarinSRS
Ohio State6.14.2+1.988.2215.36
Mich. State6.05.2+.879.5612.16
Penn State5.55.9-.473.845.02

(Note: the yardage numbers come only from games against BCS conference opponents. This includes games against Notre Dame.)

The “Michigan has been unlucky” case is more of a mixed bag than the same case for Georgia. If you rely on yards per play margin, then Michigan is better than their record. By that measure, the Wolverines are in the conference’s second tier with Michigan State and Wisconsin, behind Ohio State and Iowa. Additionally, Michigan has only played one team in the bottom tier of the league (Indiana), so they should be even better in yards per play normalized for schedule. (Naturally, Michigan doesn’t play Northwestern and Minnesota, so the Big Ten’s schedule rotation has the Wolverines avoiding half of the bottom tier. If you want to know whether a Big Ten team is going to have a bad year, check to see if they are playing Michigan.) On the other hand, if you look at the computer ratings, which focus on points and strength of schedule, then Michigan and Penn State represent the proletariat of the conference, beneath Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Coming back to the one team from the Big Ten’s lower class that does appear on Michigan’s schedule, the Wolverines beat Indiana on a touchdown in the final minute despite outgaining the Hoosiers by a significant margin on a per-play basis. Yardage dominance did not translate into dominance on the scoreboard.

This gets back to an issue that vexed me on the morning after the “it’s not you, it’s me” loss to Penn State: Michigan’s poor special teams (namely their kickoff returns, kickoff coverage, and field goal kicking) and turnovers (namely the bad defense’s inability to force a turnover) meant that Michigan was not converting yardage into points:

Michigan lost by ten last night, despite virtual parity in total yards and an advantage in yards per play. Likewise, Michigan outgained Iowa by 139 yards and lost by ten in its previous game. Michigan lost the Iowa game by turning the ball over four times, but the Wolverines didn’t have a single turnover last night. How does a team outgain its opponent on a per play basis, not the ball over, and still lose by double-digits? A massive disparity in field position is a good place to start. Penn State started three drives in Michigan territory; Michigan didn’t start a single drive in Penn State territory. The same was true in the Iowa game. How’s this for your stat of the day: in four Big Ten games, Michigan has started a drive in its opponent’s territory once. Part of this is because the defense doesn’t force turnovers, but it’s also because Michigan is terrible on special teams. Is it possible that Rich Rodriguez sealed his fate by his decision not to bring back Bryan Wright, a disappointing scholarship kicker who could do one thing well: kick the ball high and deep on kickoffs. If so, that would be a fitting coda on Rodriguez’s tenure: a short-sighted decision that didn’t put proper value on a small, but important part of the game. It’s not enough that Michigan fans are tortured by Jim Tressel’s record against the Wolverines; we now have to watch our head coach’s tenure wither on the vine because Michigan gives away a truckload of hidden yards as a result of insufficient attention to special teams.

As you can gather from this paragraph, Rich Rodriguez can’t say that it’s purely a matter of luck that Michigan loses to teams that it outgains. The special teams problems should be fixable going forward. It’s not surprising that a team that has to start a bevy of underclassmen on defense would struggle on special teams, since those underclassmen would normally be focusing on special teams tasks. Likewise, a better coaching staff on defense, combined with natural maturation of young defenders, should improve the turnover numbers. For the purposes of this season, there are non-luck explanations for why Michigan’s points and record slot the team a tier below where their yardage says they belong.

The Wisconsin game becomes very important for Michigan. Assuming that Michigan doesn’t spit the bit this weekend in West Lafayette, Rich Rodriguez will have reached the seven wins that most people think will get him a fourth year in Ann Arbor. If Michigan can beat one-loss, top ten Wisconsin in the home finale, then the season will move from inconclusive to a success. (I know it’s dumb to put so much on any one game; I’m talking about the way that Michigan fans will feel emotionally about the season.) If you look at the team’s yardage margins, then Michigan is slightly better than Wisconsin and with homefield advantage, should be a slight favorite in the game. If you look at the computer ratings, then Michigan should be a 2-3 point underdog, which still gives the Wolverines a good chance in the game. Michigan-Wisconsin is not unlike Georgia-LSU; one team has had a much better season, but the yardage numbers reflect that they are quite close in terms of total merit. The problem is that Michigan has already played two teams like Wisconsin this year – Michigan State and Iowa – and lost by a combined total of 27 points. We’ve been here before.

Other thoughts from the numbers:

  • Ohio State and Iowa are the class of the conference. The game between those two teams should decide the conference title. Ohio State is a little better by every measure (although the yards per play number flatters them because they have played the three worst teams in the conference), but Iowa is at home. That should be a fun game. Also, it’s interesting that Iowa’s offense was their albatross last year, but it’s second in the Big Ten in yards per play this year.
  • The SEC is a little better than the Big Ten this year, but not by that much. The differences are that the SEC has three elite teams – Alabama, Auburn, and Arkansas – while the Big Ten has two, and the Big Ten has three terrible teams – Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota – while the SEC has only one that truly meets that definition. That said, the middle classes of the two conferences look fairly similar.
  • I’ll say the same thing about Michigan that I said about Florida and LSU: they’re a coordinator from being elite. If Michigan had the defenses of either Illinois or Michigan State, then their yards per play margin would put them up with Iowa and Ohio State at the top of the conference. Michigan’s defense probably has as much talent as those of the Illini and Spartans, although UM is definitely younger. I’m going to shill for Rodriguez yet again, but if he could just find a defensive staff to make the defense average, then his teams would contend for the Big Ten title.
  • The yards-per-play numbers don’t correlate with the computer rankings as tightly in the Big Ten as they did in the SEC.
  • If Michigan State and Wisconsin win out, they will be the worst 11-1 teams since … 2006 Wisconsin?

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