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Michigan’s defense has been historically great. Can the Wolverines keep it up this time?

Also, the Wolverines are expected to beat Michigan State by an uncomfortable margin, Oklahoma-Texas Tech looked like a different sport, and Western Michigan might really be happening.

Ilinois v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

0.8 adjusted points per game allowed

Let us begin talking about Michigan’s defense by talking about other teams’ offenses.

  • Hawaii has averaged 6.4 yards per play and 30.9 points per game. New head coach Nick Rolovich has done a fantastic job of turning that program into something competitive. Against Michigan, the Rainbow Warriors averaged 3.9 yards per play and scored three points.
  • UCF has averaged 5.3 yards per play and 32.1 points in Scott Frost’s first year. The Knights’ tempo has been an asset. Against Michigan, UCF scored on an 87-yard rush by Adrian Killins and a 34-yard run by Dontravious Wilson. They otherwise averaged 3.2 yards per play in a 51-14 loss.
  • Colorado has been one of the happiest stories of 2016. The Buffaloes are 6-2, having averaged 6.2 yards per play and 35.4 points. They bolted to a 21-7 lead against Michigan with help from a sack-and-strip touchdown. In the first quarter, they gained 195 yards in 21 snaps (9.3 per play) ... and in the remaining three quarters, gained 130 yards in 46 snaps (2.8). Michigan rolled, 45-28.
  • Penn State’s offense has rebounded, averaging 5.7 yards per play and 29.6 points. Against Michigan, it averaged 3.5 yards in a 49-10 loss. Quarterback Trace McSorley’s passer rating is 139.2 against defenses that aren’t Michigan’s; it was 101.7 in Ann Arbor. Only one other team has managed better than 89.9 against UM.
  • Wisconsin’s offense has been only OK, but the Badgers have averaged 5.3 yards per play and 24.3 points. Against Michigan: 3 yards per play, 7 points. The Badgers gained just 159 yards in a 14-7 loss.
  • Rutgers’ offense has been bad. No question. If you take out a 52-14 win over Howard, the Scarlet Knights have averaged just 4 yards per play and 13.7 points. Against Michigan, they gained 39 yards in 54 snaps (0.7 per play). Total passing yards: 5. That would be bad for a high school offense against a college defense.
  • Illinois has averaged 6 yards per play and 23.4 points. The Illini have been inefficient but explosive, and a trio of running backs has averaged 23 carries per game and 6.4 yards per carry. Against Michigan, Ke’Shawn Vaughn ripped off a 45-yard carry, and Jeff George Jr. and Malik Turner combined for a 43-yard touchdown. Illinois’ other 36 snaps gained 84 yards in a 41-8 loss.

Peruse Michigan’s statistical profile, and you’ll see quite a few 1s.

  • Michigan has allowed an 18.5 percent success rate in non-garbage time, best in the country. It is 17.6 percent against the run (best) and 19.3 percent against the pass (best), 22.9 percent on standard downs (best) and 13.2 percent on passing downs (best).
  • The Wolverines are giving up 2.7 points per scoring opportunity (and those are rare), best in the country.
  • Against the run, they are first in Rushing S&P+ and first in Adj. Line Yards.
  • Against the pass, they are first in Passing S&P+ and fourth in Adj. Sack Rate.
  • They are first in First Down S&P+ and first in Third Down S&P+.
  • They are first in havoc rate, recording either a tackle for loss, forced fumble, or pass defensed on 25.6 percent of snaps. Eight players have at least 4.5 tackles for loss, seven have at least 2.5 sacks, and seven have defensed at least two passes.

Def. S&P+ is presented in an adjusted points-per-game figure and is created from an opponent-adjusted mix of efficiency, explosiveness, finishing drives, turnover factors, and field position factors. Here are its top five defenses in the country:

5. Wisconsin (12.4 Adj. PPG)
4. Alabama (11.9)
3. Florida (11.3)
2. Clemson (11.0)
1. Michigan (0.8)


Yes, these numbers are adjusted for garbage time, so Jim Harbaugh’s general ruthlessness isn’t giving the Wolverines an added statistical advantage.

Yes, these numbers are adjusted for opponent, though while Michigan’s schedule was supposed to be awful, it really hasn’t been; among Wolverine victims, Wisconsin is 10th in overall S&P+, Penn State is 16th, and Colorado is 17th.

If you prefer more traditional stats, UM is allowing 207 yards per game (45 fewer than any other defense), 3.7 yards per play (0.5 fewer than anyone else), and 10 actual points per game (two fewer than anyone else).

I think Don Brown might have been a pretty good coordinator hire.

These levels are so good that they might not be sustainable. In fact, after eight weeks last season, Michigan was at 5.4 Adj. PPG and first in Def. S&P+, but a couple of injuries in the front seven led to some leakiness in run defense. The Wolverines finished at 13.6 Adj. PPG, second behind Alabama.

That said, the Wolverines are deeper and potentially more equipped to handle injuries. And between now and the Ohio State game, the Wolverines face offenses ranked 83rd (Michigan State), 72nd (Maryland), 66th (Iowa), and 70th (Indiana) in Off. S&P+. Even if there’s slippage, I’m not sure who can take advantage.

Michigan v Rutgers
Ben Gedeon
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

A 98 percent chance of beating Michigan State, huh?

On that statistical profile, you can also see that S&P+ gives Michigan a 98 percent chance of beating its rival in East Lansing on Saturday. The Spartans have lost five in a row and plummeted to 81st in S&P+.

Those odds seem high, but let’s put it this way: If we saw that Michigan had a 98 percent chance of beating EMU, we wouldn’t think twice. EMU currently ranks 79th in S&P+, two spots higher than Michigan State.

Of course, Michigan had a 99.8 percent chance of beating Michigan State in the closing seconds last year.

I doubt UM fans will feel completely comfortable until the odds are 100 percent with zero seconds remaining.

185 snaps, 1,708 yards, 125 points

If you watched Michigan-Illinois and then flipped on Oklahoma-Texas Tech, it was like you were watching a completely different sport. OU-TT had 46 percent more plays and 22 percent more possessions than UM-UI.

We have to be careful saying things like “They don’t play defense in the Big 12;” the tempo, added plays, and added possessions create an environment where more points and yards are a given, even if an elite defense is involved. But make no mistake: Texas Tech and Oklahoma played no defense. Oklahoma created a scoring opportunity on 12 of 14 possessions, and Tech did the same on 10 of 14. And both teams’ average field position was inside their 30. It was lengthy drive after lengthy drive.

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield averaged 15.1 yards per pass attempt, Dede Westbrook caught nine of 11 passes for 202 yards, and Joe Mixon both rushed 31 times for 263 yards and caught four of four passes for 114. That made Tech’s numbers look downright mediocre, but Patrick Mahomes II still averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt, and Keke Coutee and Jonathan Giles caught 20 of 28 passes for 339 yards. Mahomes attempted 89 passes (counting sacks as pass attempts) and still rushed 11 times for 87 yards.

I’m going to repeat that: Mahomes either ran or threw 100 times on Saturday.

One of the cruelest things ESPN ever did was ask former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman to call the 2011 Alamo Bowl between Baylor and Washington. The game featured 159 plays, 1,397 yards, and 123 points, and at times it sounded like the disgusted Spielman wanted to strap on pads and take the field himself.

This game turned me into Spielman. It made even Cal’s overtime win over Oregon (193 snaps, 1,080 yards, 101 points, with help from two overtime periods) seem quaint.

Perhaps the biggest upset was that the game only lasted 4:10. If it had been on CBS, it might have lasted six hours.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Tech
Dede Westbrook
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

A 249-yard advantage and a one-point win

The nuttiest game of the weekend took place on Thursday. Boise State survived BYU, 28-27.

BSU outgained BYU by 249 yards (571-322) and benefited from both one of the most misguided fake punts you’ll ever see ...

... and a late-game blocked field goal.

BYU also turned the ball over on downs at the BSU 31 and punted from the BSU 34 and 41. And yet, the Cougars still had a shot to win via last-second Hail Mary. How?

For starters, Boise State missed two field goals. The Broncos had a 32-yarder blocked in the first quarter and missed a 30-yarder in the second. Beyond that, this game was defined by turnovers. BSU fumbled five times and lost three of them, and BYU returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the second quarter.

At the time of the second pick-six, BYU led 17-14 despite having gained 94 yards to Boise’s 282. The better, more volatile team won. Barely.

A 46 percent chance of finishing 12-0 vs. a 45 percent chance

Boise State's narrow win kept the Broncos undefeated and gave them two wins over S&P+ top-50 teams (Washington State, BYU). S&P+ gives them at least a 75 percent chance of winning in each of their final five games and says they have a 46 percent chance of reaching the Mountain West title game at 12-0. There, at No. 18 in S&P+, they would have a slight advantage over San Diego State, which currently ranks 25th.

The race for the Group of 5's power bowl slot, then, is currently between Boise State and Western Michigan. WMU doesn’t have quite the same résumé, though the season-opening win at Northwestern is beginning to look better now that the Wildcats have suddenly discovered an offense and won four of five games.

One assumes Boise State is in the driver's seat, but if Bryan Harsin's Broncos slip up, P.J. Fleck’s could pounce. WMU is given a 45 percent chance of finishing undefeated, and the only reason the odds are that low is because Toledo, which visits Kalamazoo on Nov. 25, is quite good.

There won't be a team as good as San Diego State awaiting in the MAC title game. The most likely opponents are either Ohio (5-3 and 92nd in S&P+) or Akron (5-3 and 95th). If Boise State slips, we could see Fleck's boat rowers in one of college football's showcase games. What a time to be alive.

Western Michigan v Illinois
P.J. Fleck
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

19 rushes and receptions, 309 yards, three touchdowns

When LSU’s Leonard Fournette took the field against Ole Miss on Saturday, he hadn’t seen the field in nearly a month because of injury.

I don’t know; I think he might have had some pent-up aggression.

Fournette rushed for 284 yards and three scores and caught three passes for 25 yards and one decapitation. Welcome back, Leonard.