2011 Season Preview: The Michigan Wolverines And The Power Of Perception

In terms of schadenfreude, it's been a good offseason for Michigan fans as they have watched Jim Tressel's tenure at Ohio State fall apart. Will this fall be as enjoyable on the field? Will Denard Robinson take to Al Borges' offense? And what in the world can Greg Mattison do with this defense in just one year?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like the numbers, just skip to the words.

Expectations are a funny thing. Well, they're funny if you don't have a personal stock in the result. They completely and totally frame your perceptions of an event or series of events. They get one person labeled a failure and one a rousing success. When it comes to college football, this has never been more true than with Michigan football in recent history.

We're going to play the "Team A vs Team B" game for a moment. Below are two teams and their last four seasons of F/+ ratings. As you can see, their level of performance on the field and their ups and downs have been nearly identical.

Team A is in the midst of their most consistently successful run since the 1950s; their coach retired in 2009 and was deemed successful enough to basically name his successor. Team B, the ever-so-slightly more successful of the two, just fired their coach after a complete debacle of a tenure.

Team A is the subject of yesterday's profile, the Kentucky Wildcats. Team B is your very own Michigan Wolverines.

Because Michigan is Michigan, the winningest program in college football history, the team that, until 2008, went 41 years between losing seasons, this statistical profile is simply not acceptable. Not when there are 111,825 fans attending each home game, not when the spirit of Bo Schembechler and Tom Harmon fills the air. If we're counting down based on recent performance, Go Blue is not supposed to have their turn for another couple of months!

But here we are. Brady Hoke takes over for Rich Rodriguez after a disastrous tenure that may have been considered with more positive adjectives elsewhere. Hoke is a Ball State grad, but he is also a Michigan man by virtue of eight years of assistant coaching experience under Lloyd Carr. He took both Ball State and San Diego State to unrecognizable heights, but there are no unrecognizable heights in Ann Arbor. Hoke is a helluva coach, but now he's got quite a mountain to climb, and 111,000 fans to drag up the mountain behind him.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk**: 42
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Connecticut 30-10 W 44.1 - 28.2 W
11-Sep at Notre Dame 28-24 W 38.0 - 30.2 W
18-Sep Massachusetts 42-37 W 40.8 - 43.3 L
25-Sep Bowling Green 65-21 W 46.8 - 36.3 W
2-Oct at Indiana 42-35 W 49.7 - 33.4 W
9-Oct Michigan State 17-34 L 34.2 - 33.9 W
16-Oct Iowa 28-38 L 41.9 - 30.8 W
30-Oct at Penn State 31-41 L 34.3 - 35.7 L
6-Nov Illinois 67-65 W 43.9 - 35.1 W
13-Nov at Purdue 27-16 W 17.8 - 11.4 W
20-Nov Wisconsin 28-48 L 40.2 - 30.1 W
27-Nov at Ohio State 7-37 L 31.6 - 20.5 W
1-Jan vs Mississippi State 14-52 L 25.8 - 35.5 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 32.8 25 35.2 108
Adj. Points Per Game 37.6 9 31.1 94

If only Michigan had been able to play defense. Despite a slight fade as the season advanced, the Wolverines' offense was incredibly successful in 2010, posting huge point and yardage totals on a series of stellar defenses. Their Adj. Points tell the tale -- against a strong slate of defenses, the Wolverines produced at an incredibly high level for each of the first nine games of the season before a combination of injuries and fatigue (and, possibly, lack of faith in the defense) set in. Michigan still averaged 28.9 Adj. PPG over their final four games, with only two below-average performances against Purdue and Mississippi State.

Oh, but the defense. Greg "GERG" Robinson's unit produced at an above-average level (i.e. they allowed fewer than 27.1 Adj. Points) exactly twice: once against Purdue and once against Ohio State (in a game they still lost by 30).

Now ... I have no attachment whatsoever to Rich Rod, and it was difficult to feel too sorry for him when he was given the boot. But as it became clear that his time was just about up, I began to wonder if a sort of "Fire your defensive coordinator, and you can stay another year" offer had been made to him. Because while the results were still mediocre at best, the offense was mostly fabulous, ranking third in the country with a plus-17.2% Off F/+. Almost no coach in the country, including Hoke, can really improve on that, even if the pounding Denard Robinson received in the first couple of months took its toll. It was the defense, which ranked 115th with a minus-12.0% Def. F/+, that got Rodriguez fired. While we can wonder why in the hell Rodriguez hired Robinson in the first place (he left his Texas defensive coordinator position to take over the head coaching job at Syracuse; Texas' defense got better and Syracuse got much, much worse), we can also wonder if there would have been a benefit to keeping Rodriguez for one more year with at least one new key assistant in place. The Ron Zook Treatment™, if you will. Alas, Rodriguez had rubbed so many people the wrong way that he was not afforded that opportunity. He will likely get another decent coaching job soon, and he will likely do well there ... as long as he doesn't hire the same D.C.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 5 7 3
RUSHING 2 3 3 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 5 15 3 2
Standard Downs 3 5 3 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 13 27 11 8
Redzone 23 22 24
Q1 Rk 4 1st Down Rk 14
Q2 Rk 16 2nd Down Rk 2
Q3 Rk 14 3rd Down Rk 7
Q4 Rk 4

Again, Michigan's offense was really, really good in 2010. I know Denard Robinson faded, and I know it's hard to shake off the stink of the Wolverines' three-game, season-ending losing streak, but it is a complete joke to me that Dan Persa and Scott Tolzien received All-Big Ten honors over Robinson. He was punished for others' ineptitude. His stat line -- 2,570 passing yards (8.8 per pass, 63% completion rate, 18 TD, 11 INT) and 1,702 rushing yards (6.6 per carry, +12.1 Adj. POE, 14 TD) -- was once-in-a-lifetime good. Michigan was great on standard downs and good (and aggressive) on passing downs. Robinson was uniquely great, the running backs were solid, the receivers were solid, and the line was good-to-great, depending on how much you feel Robinson was responsible for their strong Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate totals.

But this doesn't matter. What does is how Brady Hoke will handle this personnel. Here's San Diego State's offensive footprint from 2010:

Using some West Coast principles, Hoke preferred to pass quite a bit more than Rodriguez. Despite an incredibly explosive freshman running back in Ronnie Hillman (who, unfortunately for Wolverine fans, did not follow Hoke to Ann Arbor), SDSU had a normal run-pass split on standard downs and went for it on passing downs. One could see them following a similar recipe at Michigan, only with a lot more quarterback runs -- of both the intentional and improvised variety -- on passing downs. The Aztecs played at a much slower pace and, like Michigan, varied the script quite a bit based on situation or field position. They will almost certainly hand to the running backs for a good portion of their standard downs rushing. We'll see if it pays off over the course of the season in the form of a healthier Robinson.

As a college football fan, it almost worries me reading some of new offensive coordinator Al Borges' quotes from the offseason.

Although Borges recognizes Robinson's incredible rushing skills, he has made it a priority to reduce the number of hits the quarterback takes. If Robinson wants to match his record-setting rushing yards total (1,702) from 2010, he'll need to do so in far fewer carries.

"We're going to challenge that group to respond," Borges said of the running backs. "For them, this is a golden opportunity. They get to do something a lot of them probably did in high school, run downhill and take the ball from under center."

Robinson also will be taking more snaps from under center, one of several adjustments for a guy who fit perfectly into Rich Rodriguez's spread offense.

"He’ll be fine because he has aspirations of playing next-level football and he’s not going to unless he learns how to do this, it’s that simple," Borges said.

As a Missouri fan who watched Brad Smith attempt to become an NFL-style quarterback in 2004 instead of just being the artist he was meant to be, these words are a bit disconcerting; but I certainly understand the desire for Robinson to absorb fewer hits over the course of the season. Just don't forget to be yourself, Denard.

Other tidbits:

  • Michigan's stable of running backs will see a brighter spotlight this year, and they might, might, be ready for it. Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith combined for 1,003 yards, a +3.0 Adj. POE and 14 touchdowns last year. Shaw's role was limited after suffering an injury against Bowling Green, but he carried the Adj. POE weight -- he managed a plus-9.1 Adj. POE, while Smith managed just a minus-6.1. They both struggled against strong defenses, but Shaw seemed to make more things happen with his opportunities. It also appears that Stephen Hopkins could also play a key role in the RB corps before all is said and done. And three starters return from what appears to have been a strong line; all-conference center David Molk and tackle Taylor Lewan might have the highest upside of the bunch.
  • Robinson's three most frequent targets -- Roy Roundtree (935 yards, 13.0 per catch, 67% catch, 7 TD), Darryl Stonum (633 yards, 12.9 per catch, 61% catch, 4 TD) and Junior Hemingway (593 yards, 185 per catch, 57% catch, 4 TD) -- combined for 67% of Michigan's targets in 2010, the ninth-most in the country for a hands trio. They likely benefited somewhat from the extreme paranoia Robinson caused for opposing safeties, but they were still a rather strong unit. All three return, along with an intriguing option in Martavious Odoms (241 yards, 15.1 per catch, 78% catch in seven games) and basically every single other player targeted with a pass in 2010.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 86 73 93
RUSHING 86 70 96 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 90 81 94 56
Standard Downs 70 57 74 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 110 88 116 70
Redzone 48 57 45
Q1 Rk 29 1st Down Rk 70
Q2 Rk 116 2nd Down Rk 64
Q3 Rk 82 3rd Down Rk 107
Q4 Rk 75

Honestly, it's hard to figure out what to say about Michigan's defense. It was as bad as Michigan's offense was good, and there is not a lot of projecting we can do here. Hoke's defensive coordinator, Rocky Long, stayed behind to take over the San Diego State job, so Hoke brought Greg Mattison aboard. Mattison was Hoke's immediate supervisor, and Michigan's defensive coordinator, in 1995-96, and he has held the coordinator position for Notre Dame, Florida and the Baltimore Ravens since then. He is a significant get for Hoke, but exactly how quickly can he be expected to properly sculpt this unit? With great experience, his 2006 Florida defense ranked first in the country in Def. Passing Downs S&P+; with little to no experience, they ranked 67th in the same category in 2007.

Relatively speaking, here are the "strengths" of the defense Mattison is inheriting:

1) The line wasn't awful. Two of their three main tackles -- Mike Martin (29.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, second-team all-conference) and Ryan Van Bergen (29.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks) -- are back, as is hybrid end Craig Roh (5.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF). Big things are expected of end Jibreel Black as well.

2) There are options at linebacker. We don't know how good the options are, but there are a lot of them. Kenny Demens (64.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks) was your requisite tackling machine, and Cameron Gordon (58.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FR, 4 PBU) really had a pretty decent year for a redshirt freshman.

Faint praise, really. And other than that? We'll see. The secondary was young and highly touted but lost a key piece when sophomore safety Ray Vinopal decided to transfer to Pittsburgh. Sophomore corner Courtney Avery could be strong, but we'll see.

Other tidbits:

  • The Michigan defense had plenty of issues last year, but the biggest one was the fact that they blitzed on basically every passing down ... and they were terrible at it. The Wolverines were a mediocre 70th in Standard Downs S&P+, but they were among the nation's worst on passing downs, giving up big play after big play after big play. Blitzes on passing downs are a tenet of Greg Robinson's defense ... he couldn't stop calling them, and the personnel couldn't make it work. Combine that with a young secondary, and ... yikes.
  • Former walk-on safety Jordan Kovacs (88.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT) does deserve his own bullet of praise. He compiled a diverse and interesting stat line, and the fact that he earned honorable mention all-conference on this pass defense says something.

Michigan's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little Jurassic 5 "End Up Like This"? Seems like as good a "wha ... what happened?" song as any.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 45
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 13
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -10 / -11.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 18 (9, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +2.1

Strong recruiting averages ... tons of returning starters ... an encouraging-for-2011 YPP margin ... the fact that our numbers don't like Nebraska nearly as much as everybody else ... you should just go ahead and get used to the idea now: when our Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections are officially finalized and released, there is a decent chance that Michigan will be projected at or near the top of the Legends Division. I'm not saying it's what I personally think will happen, but it's easy to see what the numbers might be seeing here. The Big Ten has a bit of a power void with Ohio State's issues and Wisconsin's losses, and with Michigan finishing the year with home games against Nebraska and Ohio State, there's a decent chance they could hold their title destiny in their hands.

Or, you know, not. Denard Robinson could take to a more "pro style" offense as well as Brad Smith did (he's already a better passer than Smith, though, so he's got that going for him), the offense could freeze up when Robinson attempts to go against his instincts, and Mattison might throw up his hands (and his lunch) in realizing that there's nothing he can do with this defense. But again, one can see what the numbers might like here. Great offense plus can't-be-any-worse defense plus power void? Count Michigan as a Big Ten sleeper, though you can feel free to ignore I said this if they go 5-7. The whole "Michigan as sleeper" thing is a bit off-putting, though; this is not a program that is supposed to be anything but a favorite. Good luck, Coach Hoke.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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