clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Numerical: Michigan’s 2017 has gone pretty much as expected, so there’s probably no need to freak out

New, comments

We’re full of perspective and long-term vision in the offseason. We lose our minds in the present tense.

Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

In the offseason, we peer into the future. We see the big picture. If you’re going to field a young team, you know that there will be ups and downs, even if there’s a lot of talent. Toss in a couple of quarterback injuries, and things could get even more volatile in the short-term.

This past offseason, we knew what to expect from Michigan. The Wolverines’ two-deep had been set on fire, and even with great recruiting, the 2017 season would be about building for 2018.

It might be difficult for UM to progress in 2017. The Wolverines must replace their leading rusher, four of their top five receiving targets, three all-conference offensive linemen, their top three defensive linemen, their best linebacker, and their top five defensive backs, including nickel back and Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers.

S&P+ loves what Harbaugh has done but projects the Wolverines to fall to about 10th.

From a macro view, the rebuild is going well and leading to one hell of a 2018. From a narrative perspective, though, 2017 will be interesting.

Harbaugh has had an incredible career despite a list of almosts — almost took Stanford to the BCS title game, almost won the Super Bowl, almost got Michigan over the hump — and will likely win even bigger at UM, but that will probably have to wait another year.

S&P+ projected Michigan to win, on average, about 8.9 games in 2017. If I had taken returning starting quarterback Wilton Speight — lost for the season with injury back in September — out of the equation, their projected wins probably would have fallen to about 8.5.

They are currently 8-3 following a loss to Wisconsin, and they will probably be 8-4 after Ohio State leaves town this coming Saturday evening.

Oh, the horror. Oh, the crushing disappointment.

When I wrote, “From a narrative perspective, though, 2017 will be interesting,” this is almost exactly what I meant. When we peer into the future, we can stomach some disappointments in the name of long-term success. When we’re living through those disappointments in the present tense, however, it feels like the sky is falling.

The defense is performing almost exactly as projected; Michigan was projected fifth in Def. S&P+ and is eighth. The offense has been a bit worse than expected (projected 40th, currently 69th), and Speight’s injury hasn’t been the only cause. But it hasn’t helped, and it probably isn’t a coincidence that the Wolverines’ hopes of an upset in Madison ended virtually the moment that emerging QB Brandon Peters also went down.

As for 2018:

  • Running backs Karan Higdon (a junior) and Chris Evans (a sophomore) have rushed for 1,468 yards (5.8 a pop) and 16 touchdowns.
  • The top eight receiving targets are all projected to return in 2018, including emerging tight ends Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry and star freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones. (Another star freshman, Tarik Black, got hurt back in September.)
  • There are seven freshmen and sophomores among the top 12 tacklers on defense.
  • Peters looked good in his first three games behind center, and he had a couple of lovely drives against Wisconsin’s brilliant defense.

Here’s how my 2017 Michigan preview ended, by the way:

You can’t take a “wait ‘til next year” approach when you’re still projected as a top-10 team, but if Michigan does lose a couple of late games and keep the “Never better than third in the Big Ten East!” meme alive, you should get your laughs in while you can. Because this program is probably a year away from ignition.

We can proclaim this season a disappointment if we really want to. We can use a competitive road loss to one of the best Wisconsin teams of all time as proof that Jim Harbaugh can’t seem to win when it really counts, if we are dying to further that narrative.

But 2017 was always going to be about building for 2018, and this season has gone as planned, give or take a couple of QB knocks.

2. The most random 52-point blowout

Georgia State v Georgia Southern
Shai Werts
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

Did you catch that unicorn flying over Statesboro? On Saturday, Georgia Southern wiped the floor with South Alabama; quarterbacks Shai Werts and Kado Brown rushed 24 times for 160 yards and completed 11 passes for 227 as the Eagles scored four touchdowns in the first 18 minutes and cruised to a 52-0 win.

A couple of years ago, this wouldn’t have seemed out of the realm of possibility. GS was a nine-win team in 2014 and 2015, its first two years in FBS. But when Willie Fritz left to take the Tulane job, he took mojo with him. The Eagles fell to 5-7 in 2015 under Tyson Summers, who was run out of town after an 0-6 start in 2016.

Georgia Southern was 0-9 when South Alabama came to town. If the Eagles lose their final two games of the season — at UL-Lafayette and at Coastal Carolina — they’ll have one of the most unique distinctions ever: biggest lone win in recent history.

In the last 10 years, 25 teams won their lone game of the season against an FBS opponent (a few more took down an FCS foe to avoid a winless campaign), and only two won said game by more than 19 points: Baylor beat Kansas by 29 (38-9) earlier this season, and Southern Miss beat UAB by 35 (62-27) in 2013. Even including FCS foes, only one one-win team in that span managed to post a victory of 50-plus points — Akron beat FCS Morgan State 66-6 in 2012.

Usually if you beat an FBS foe by 50-plus, you’re capable of winning more than one game for the season. But if the Eagles do lose out, congrats to them on making their single win count more than any other team has in the last decade.

3. S&P+ can’t catch up to Mizzou

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt
Richaud Floyd scored twice in Missouri’s 45-17 win over Vanderbilt.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

My S&P+ ratings are full-year measures. I have tinkered with weights to make recent games count for more — a common method for predictive measures in other sports — but I’ve never found an approach that actually made my numbers better. Consider this yet another hazard of football’s small sample size.

Regardless, the current versions of quite a few teams don’t resemble their full-season impressions. Some get hot, and some don’t, and sometimes the shift occurs quickly enough that S&P+ can’t keep up.

Comparing how they were projected to perform to how they actually did perform, here are the teams that S&P+ has whiffed on the most over the last four weeks:

Actual performance vs. S&P+ projection (last 4 weeks), top 10

  1. Missouri (plus-25.0 points per game)
  2. Georgia Southern (plus-20.2)
  3. Boston College (plus-18.5)
  4. Northwestern (plus-18.3)
  5. Memphis (plus-17.9)
  6. North Carolina (plus-16.8)
  7. San Diego State (plus-15.9)
  8. Oklahoma (plus-14.0)
  9. Louisville (plus-13.4)
  10. Boise State (plus-12.6)

A team like Georgia Southern is on here primarily because of one game. But Mizzou has been strangely consistent. Over the last four weeks, Barry Odom’s Tigers were:

  • projected to beat UConn by 7 and won by 40.
  • projected to beat Florida by 8 and won by 29.
  • projected to beat Tennessee by 10 and won by 33.
  • projected to beat Vanderbilt by 6 and won by 28.

Granted, the Vandy win featured a couple of return scores. But for the most part, these margins were backed up by yardage margins and efficiency rates.

Once 1-5, Missouri has pulled off one of the most remarkable turnarounds you’ll ever see. They will return most of their two-deep in 2018, so they’ll have a chance to prove that they’re more Rice (started 2-6 in 2012, finished 5-0 and then won Conference USA in 2013) than Georgia State (started 2-6 in 2015, finished 6-7, then went 3-9 in 2016).

4. On the other end of the spectrum, a few teams appear to have packed it in.

Actual performance vs. S&P+ projection (last 4 weeks), bottom 10

  1. New Mexico (minus-23.8 points per game)
  2. San Jose State (minus-21.7)
  3. Ball State (minus-21.2)
  4. South Alabama (minus-19.5)
  5. Syracuse (minus-19.3)
  6. USF (minus-12.8)
  7. Kent State (minus-12.4)
  8. Cincinnati (minus-11.8)
  9. Michigan State (minus-11.3)
  10. Southern Miss (minus-11.2)

USF is maybe the most interesting name here. The Bulls face UCF for the AAC East title this weekend but haven’t really played like an AAC contender since mid-October. They have eked by Tulane and Tulsa and lost at home to a Houston team that lost to Tulane and Tulsa. A great performance against their rival will render this moot, but trends aren’t optimistic.

5. Big Play Watch

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Penn State Chris Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

After spending most of October as a Heisman favorite, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley rushed 35 times for just 107 yards in losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, then posted 35 yards in 14 carries against Rutgers. That finished off his Heisman-winning chances, but, well, he’s still fun as hell, and he had one last chance to prove it in State College against Nebraska.

Barkley was one of the primary reasons why I put in a weekly “Big Play Watch” feature in this season’s Numericals. Figured it was only appropriate to give him a tip of the cap before he goes pro.

6. Gunner of the Year Watch

Out of pure curiosity, I’ve been tracking special teams tackles this year. Maybe we’ll give a pretend award out to whoever has the most at the end. Winner of the award gets it named after him.

Here’s your fake award watch list through 11 weeks:

  • Your new special teams tackles leader: Kansas’ Kyron Johnson. He eked ahead of WMU’s Alex Grace and became the first to reach 12 tackles for the year. Granted, this is Kansas, so most of the tackles have centered around damage control — he’s participated in five punt return stops that have averaged 13 yards per return and nine kick return stops that have averaged 26.8. Still, there is some quality in quantity.
  • Grace remains a contender, having still recorded 11.5 ST tackles. He has participated in five punt return stops (7.4 average) and eight kick return stops (18.5).
  • Another watch list stalwart, South Alabama’s Deonta Moore, remains at 11 tackles, having involved himself in three punt return stops (8.0 average) and 10 kick return stops (18.8).
  • Rising quickly: Virginia’s Joey Blount. The freshman safety has 10.5 tackles, having taken part in four punt return stops (13.0 average) and nine kick return stops (a pretty poor 30.1 average). Hey, without him, those averages would be even bigger, right?
  • If quality is more your thing, then among the 13 players with at least 10 ST tackles, it’s hard to top EMU’s Mathew Sexton. The sophomore receiver has 10 tackles, having taken part in five punt return stops (2.2 average) and seven kick return stops (15.1)
  • Another riser on the quality side: BYU’s Dayan Ghanwoloku. The sophomore DB has only 9.5 tackles, but the four punt return stops he’s been involved in have averaged minus-1.3 yards each, and the seven kick returns have averaged 18.7. If BYU had a reason to kick off more, he might have a much better total.