Michigan Vs. Virginia Tech, Sugar Bowl 2012: High Ceilings, Low Floors

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 26: Denard Robinson #16 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a second quarter touchdown with David Molk #50 while playing the Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Two offenses capable of explosions and implosions, two defenses capable of both stifling and enabling, and two teams with drastically different reasons for motivation (Michigan playing in its first BCS bowl in five years, Tech spending a month hearing it didn't belong in the BCS). The odds of a third straight exciting BCS bowl are high, though the "egg" potential is certainly higher in this one.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

Your move, Sugar Bowl. The first two BCS bowls were both high-scoring, down-to-the-wire thrillers. Michigan-Virginia Tech is evenly matched enough that we could be in for the same tonight. But both teams also played worse against better opponents and ranked high on the schizophrenia list, so another shootout isn't necessarily a given. (There have also been plenty of distractions.) Fingers crossed.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Michigan 10-2 13 12 11 24 59
Virginia Tech 11-2 17 19 23 22 66
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Michigan 77 12 52(t) 37
Virginia Tech 43 16 52(t) 10

On paper, this is yet another wonderfully even matchup. Michigan gets the nod because of slight advantages on offense and special teams, but they are even enough to fall into the "one big play sways the game either way" category. The level of quality may not be as high as yesterday's Rose and Fiesta Bowls, but the finish could be just as tight. As justifiably negative as the reaction was to Virginia Tech's selection for the Sugar Bowl over both Boise State and Kansas State, the matchups here are still intriguing.

When Michigan Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Michigan Offense 11 10 5 7 7 3 15
Virginia Tech Defense 22 14 32 9 23 43 8
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Michigan Offense 74.8% 7 40.8% 8
Virginia Tech Defense 60.7% 29 31.3% 4
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Heading into 2011, I was a bit concerned for Denard Robinson. Despite a late fade, Robinson had put together one of the most statistically unique seasons of all time in 2010, passing for almost 2,600 yards and rushing for 1,700. When new head coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges moved to Ann Arbor, I feared for the possibility of Robinson becoming a square peg in a more pro-style offense.

Regarding his desire to potentially become a professional quarterback, I said the following:

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.

Robinson toed the line between "pro-style" and "himself" about as well as could have been imagined in 2011. He in no way completed a high enough percentage of passes, and he completed a few too many to the other team, but his overall stat line was just effective enough: 2,056 yards, 56-percent completion rate, 8.7 yards per pass, 18 touchdowns, 14 interceptions. With big-play receiving threats in Junior Hemingway (636 yards, 62-percent catch rate, 12.2 yards per target), Jeremy Gallon (450, 73 percent, 11.0) and Roy Roundtree (345 yards, 40 percent, 7.7), Michigan's passing attack was both inefficient and explosive. And with two 1,000-yard rushers, they could afford a bit of inefficiency here. (Though if you remove Roundtree from the equation, Robinson's completion rate is actually pretty good.)

Michigan's was very much a run-first offense in 2011, but Robinson (1,250 pre-sack rushing yards, plus-29.1 Adj. POE) needed some assistance to avoid another late-season fade. Enter Fitzgerald Toussaint. Despite a name that more closely resembles that of a 1940s New Orleans jazz pianist, the sophomore from Youngstown (1,011 yards, plus-15.0 Adj. POE) left the improvisation to Robinson and provided a nice combination of between-the-tackles ability and second-level speed. His emergence over the final five games of the regular season (112 carries, 678 yards) breathed life into both Robinson and a Michigan offense coming off of a 14-point performance versus Michigan State.

The dual threat of Robinson and Toussaint has to have given Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster nightmares in recent weeks. One of the most celebrated defensive coordinators of the past couple of decades, his defenses adapted to control the spread offense as well as anybody in recent years. But his line got pushed around a bit too much this year; the Hokies ranked 42nd in Adj. Line Yards, 43rd in Rushing S&P+. They allowed a few too many big plays, as well; that isn't a good recipe for facing the Wolverines.

Tech can counter Michigan's speed with some of their own, and if they can leverage Robinson and company into passing downs, they can absolutely tee off (fourth in Adj. Sack Rate, fourth in Passing Downs S&P+). They racked up 85 tackles for loss and 38 sacks and will attack you from every direction. And I mean any direction; cornerback Kyle Fuller led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss, and he was one of four Hokies with 4.5 sacks -- end James Gayle had seven, end J.R. Collins six and Bruce Taylor (out with an injury) had five. That Fuller, Gayle, Collins and five other projected starters are either freshmen or sophomores speaks volumes about where this defense could be headed. But they are too inexperienced in certain places, especially up front. Passing downs may be Virginia Tech's friend, but leveraging the Wolverines into passing downs could be an issue.

When Virginia Tech Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Virginia Tech Offense 23 30 28 42 41 41 37
Michigan Defense 24 37 17 46 29 38 37
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Virginia Tech Offense 64.9% 48 39.6% 60
Michigan Defense 55.7% 25 33.5% 44
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

As good as Robinson and Toussaint were late in the season, there were periods of 2011 when the Virginia Tech backfield combination of running back David Wilson and quarterback Logan Thomas was even better. The problem was that Thomas was in no way consistent. With Wilson and a line loaded with seniors, big things were expected of Thomas. Players develop at different rates, however, and Thomas was simply not ready to be a constant big-time contributor as a redshirt sophomore.

But oh, did he have his moments. His performance versus Georgia Tech (70 tough rushing yards, 209 passing yards on just 13 attempts) was so good that frustrated Georgia Tech linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu laid a cheap shot on him at one point, even though the Yellow Jackets had the lead. He completed 23 of 25 passes for 310 yards and a 235.8 passer rating against Miami, and he produced a 140.0 rating or better six times. But for every step forward, there was a step backwards. He completed eight of 20 passes versus East Carolina, produced just 133 yards of offense versus Clemson (in their first meeting) and threw costly picks versus Duke (in a tighter-than-expected win) and Clemson (in the ACC title game). He resembled 2010 Cam Newton one moment, 2011 Stephen Garcia the next.

Thomas is the Sugar Bowl's biggest wildcard. While Michigan's defense has improved dramatically from last season's hopeless unit, it hasn't improved so much that it cannot be torched, especially by a dual-threat quarterback with Thomas' potential. In the final game of the regular season, Ohio State's Braxton Miller threw for 235 yards and rushed for 100 against the Wolverines. If Thomas is throwing well and plowing away at the Michigan interior, five yards at a time, then Tech will almost certainly burn the Wolverines with Wilson (1,625 yards, plus-16.5 Adj. POE) and receivers Jarrett Boykin (731 yards, 58-percent catch rate, 7.4 yards per target), Danny Coale (787 yards, 73 percent, 11.1) and/or Marcus Davis (499 yards, 58 percent, 10.0). Wilson will get his yards, but if he is the only one clicking, Michigan wins.

No matter what happens to them in New Orleans, however, one should marvel at the improvement Michigan's defense made in their first year under new coordinator Greg Mattison. Let's compare:

  • Michigan Defense (2010): 119th in Def. F/+, 93rd in PPP+, 90th in Passing S&P+, 110th in Passing Downs S&P+.
  • Michigan Defense (2011): 24th in Def. F/+, 29th in PPP+, 37th in Passing S&P+, 44th in Passing Downs S&P+.

They are not without their weaknesses, but unlike 2010, they actually have some strengths. Experienced has certainly helped -- at this point, they have three three-year starters (Craig Roh, Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin) on the defensive line, and with other upperclassmen like linebacker Kenny Demens (65.5 tackles, five tackles for loss), safety Jordan Kovacs (eight tackles for loss, four sacks) and corner J.T. Floyd (two interceptions, eight passes broken up), they have been able to account for both new coaching and new players (three starters, linebackers Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan and corner Blake Countess, are either true or redshirt freshmen). If they can pressure Thomas into overthinking and double-clutching, they could give their offense all the cushion it needs.

The Verdict

Michigan by 3.6.

With two athletic, active, and often mistake-prone quarterbacks, this game has both a high ceiling and a pretty low floor. Virginia Tech has spent most of the last month hearing how it doesn't deserve to be playing in this game, which could either be an extreme plus or extreme minus in the motivation department. The Hokies' A-game might be a little higher than Michigan's, and in playing their fourth BCS game in five years, they certainly have the big-game experience advantage; but the Wolverines are, to me, more likely to play their best, and I'm going to side with the numbers on this one.

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: 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.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this 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.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

In This Article

Teams
Players
X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.