You had to figure it wasn’t going to be easy. Michigan State had won seven of its last eight against Michigan and pulled off the most stunning win in the rivalry’s history only 12 months earlier.
Despite the Spartans’ drastic on-field troubles in 2016, and despite AP No. 2 Michigan’s absurd defensive play, it was fair to assume Michigan State would play its best game of the year and make the Wolverines sweat a bit.
Mission accomplished. State drove 75 yards in 12 plays to score a touchdown on its opening drive and worked inside Michigan territory on each of its next two drives as well. They blew three second-half scoring chances but still managed to score 23 points and gain 400 yards on a previously indomitable UM defense.
Michigan still won, 32-23 (and it would’ve been 30-24 if MSU had just kicked an extra point at the end instead of sending a “message”), but if nothing else, Sparty proved it’s possible to make the Wolverines look vulnerable for a while.
When the opening College Football Playoff rankings are released on Tuesday night, Michigan will likely be either No. 2 or No. 3, depending on how the committee weighs the Wolverines’ dominance against Clemson’s résumé wins (Auburn, Louisville, Florida State). Michigan’s résumé is pretty strong itself, thanks to 2016 surges by opponents like Wisconsin, Colorado, and Penn State, but Clemson’s slate has certainly been impressive.
After defeating FSU, #Clemson moved up to No. 1 in Strength of Record, which tends to correlate with the CFP committee ranks more than FPI. pic.twitter.com/wZWXnugstA— Sharon Katz (@skatz23) October 30, 2016
Regardless, UM is in excellent shape, having won most games by comfortable margins. The Wolverines have shown fewer cracks of late than rival Ohio State, and per S&P+, they have a 61 percent chance of finishing the regular season 12-0.
Still, there are some potential cracks.
1. The run game has improved but is still merely good.
It’s jarring how poor Michigan has been at running in recent years. The school of Tyrone Wheatley, Mike Hart, Rob Lytle, Anthony Thomas, Tim Biakabutuka, Tom Harmon, and Denard Robinson has had a miserable ground game for much of the 2010s. In 2012, leading running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Thomas Rawls combined to average 4 yards per carry. In 2013, Toussaint and Derrick Green averaged 3.4.
It got a little bit better in 2015, Jim Harbaugh’s first year, but De’Veon Smith, Drake Johnson, and Ty Isaac still averaged only 4.7 per carry, and Michigan still only ranked 43rd in Rushing S&P+.
The improvement has continued. Michigan currently ranks 21st in Rushing S&P+, and Smith, Issac, Chris Evans, and Karan Higdon have combined to average 33 carries per game and 6.2 yards per carry.
Still, against a Michigan State front that has struggled with injury and consistency in 2016 (the Spartans rank just 62nd in Rushing S&P+), Michigan’s ground game was less than impressive. Smith, Higdon, Evans, and Khalid Hill rushed 29 times for just 98 yards, and after taking a 30-10 lead early in the fourth quarter and moving into time-killer mode, Michigan managed just one first down and three punts in its final three drives.
This could have mattered a lot more had the passing game not been dominant. Wilton Speight not only completed 16 of 25 passes for 244 yards, he completed five of six for 93 on passing downs. Amara Darboh caught eight of nine passes for 165 yards.
Speight seems to be raising his game, just as Jake Rudock did in 2015. After managing just a 123.3 passer rating in his first three games against power conference competition (granted, it was three excellent defenses, in Colorado, Penn State, and Wisconsin), he is 40 for 61 for 597 yards, three touchdowns, and one pick in his last three games. Passer rating: 160.7. Michigan is up to ninth in Passing S&P+ and 12th on passing downs.
But it helps to be able to shift into your four- or six-minute offense and run out the clock with a lead. Alabama is majestic at that. Michigan might not be there yet.
2. As with Alabama, the big plays Michigan allows are really big.
Efficiency is college football’s bedrock, and Michigan has by far the most efficient defense in the country.
Success rate is a stat that determines how frequently an offense gains enough yards to keep a drive moving. That means gaining 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
The Wolverines are allowing a 24 percent success rate against the run (first in the country), 21 percent against the pass (first), 28 percent on standard downs (first), and 16 percent on passing downs (first).
When you are that good at both leveraging opponents into passing downs and then leveraging them off the field, giving up a big play or two doesn’t matter much.
It does matter a little bit, though, when the successful plays you’re allowing are 30-yarders instead of 15-yarders. Michigan ranks second in FBS, having allowed just 69 gains of 10-plus yards, but 15 of those went for 30-plus (34th), three of them by MSU on Saturday.
Ohio State’s offense is awfully efficient (fifth in Success Rate+), as are those of any opponent Michigan might face in a Playoff semifinal; Louisville is second in opponent-adjusted Success Rate+, Clemson third, Alabama 10th, Washington 11th.
And if the Wolverines come across an opponent that is able to steadily gain four or five yards as opposed to one or two (as Michigan State was able to do early and late), that could open up massive fissures downfield.
3. The secondary isn’t incredibly disruptive, other than when Jabrill Peppers plays in it.
As with No. 2, this is more of a potential problem than an actual one.
While the Michigan front seven has been devastating, the secondary has been merely very good.
Michigan ranks first in overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles, divided by total plays), but the DBs rank just 36th, and only 30 percent of Michigan opponents’ incompletions have been due to a defensed pass (89th in FBS).
(That’s counting Peppers as a linebacker, since his havoc plays are all tackles for loss and sacks, with no interceptions or pass breakups. If he’s counted totally as a DB, Michigan’s 25th in LB havoc and fourth in DB havoc. If he’s counted half and half, UM’s 14th and eighth.)
This doesn’t really matter if you’re stuffing the run and rushing the passer as well as Michigan does. But what if the pass protection holds up? Granted, Ohio State ranks 50th in Passing S&P+ and appears to be struggling more and more in that regard. But Washington ranks second, Clemson 10th, Louisville 19th, and Alabama 34th.
It’s funny to be looking at potential Michigan Playoff matchups before the CFP rankings are even released.
But the Wolverines are maybe the one team as attractive as Alabama on paper.
They aren’t likely to slip before Thanksgiving, and they’re now projected to beat faltering Ohio State as well.
If you’re looking for potential vulnerabilities in the weeks ahead, though, here are the biggest potential advantages their forthcoming opponents have:
- The pass rush could get to Speight (Maryland’s defense is 14th in passing downs sack rate, and Michigan’s offense is 51st).
- Michigan could struggle in short yardage (Maryland’s defense is 20th in power success rate, and Michigan’s offense is 34th).
- Maryland’s quick passing could stifle the Michigan pass rush (the Terps’ offense ranks first in Adj. Sack Rate, and Michigan’s defense ranks fourth).
- The pass rush could get to Speight (Iowa’s defense is 20th in passing downs sack rate, and Michigan’s offense is 51st).
- Michigan might not be able to tilt the field in its favor (Michigan is second in field position margin, but Iowa is fourth).
- The Hoosiers defense could hang on standard downs (Indiana is 15th in standard downs success rate, and Michigan’s defense is 23rd).
- If IU keeps it close, things could get interesting (Indiana ranks fifth in fourth-quarter S&P+, and Michigan ranks ninth).
- Michigan might be rendered one-dimensional (Ohio State’s defense ranks first in stuff rate and second in Adj. Line Yards, while Michigan’s offense ranks 51st and 42nd, respectively).
- Michigan might move backwards more than the Buckeyes (Ohio State’s offense also ranks second in stuff rate, while Michigan’s defense ranks fifth).