Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Michigan Difference: Taking Inventory After 5 Games Played

At this time last year, Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines were 2-3 after a devastating 25 point loss to Illinois in the Big House 20-45 on national television.

Today Michigan is a surprising 4-1. But if we're honest with ourselves, two of those four victories and the one loss to Michigan State were very close (less the 6 points) and probably could have gone either way. 4-1 yes, but 2-3 or 3-2 were also probable outcomes for Michigan after these first 5 games.

It might sting a little bit to hear this, but low margin victories and losses are not the sign of a championship football team. Decisive victories, however, are. I'm not talking blowouts necessarily. What I mean is winning football games handily by outscoring opponents by a convincing margin (14 pts or more) and utilizing strong enough defensive play to thwart any comebacks. The most powerful championship caliber football teams possess a combination of great defense and high-scoring, potent offenses. Not all championship teams have such characteristics. But the most powerful ones certainly do.

After observing 5 games, Michigan is simply not a championship caliber football team this year. Not yet anyway. This is not to say Michigan isn't any good, or isn't improving, or that the Wolverines aren't a competitive football team. By taking a quick inventory of Michigan's progress after 5 games, we can clearly see that Rodriguez's project to restructure and reformat the Michigan football team has yielded some very interesting results both offensively and defensively. I'll get to the details shortly below.

Performance, experience, talent and skill are still lacking at key positions for Michigan this fall, particularly on defense. This will have repercussions not only for the 2009 football season, but subsequent years as well. Linebacker, cornerback, safety and even defensive end must be shored up with higher-caliber players in the future to ensure productivity. These issues must be minimized as much as possible through consecutively strong recruiting outcomes by Rich Rodriguez and his staff over the next two to three years, particularly against the raging current of other top 10 college football programs recruiting with great success nationally (Florida, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Penn State, USC and LSU). This will be a major challenge.

For now, let's take a quick look at the 2009 football team after 5 games compared to the 2008 Michigan football team at the same interval of time. Of course, the schedules were different so the Wolverines' competition may have been higher or lower on offense and defense during these two years (and periods). We'll first look at a comparison of the Michigan offensive units followed by the defenses of these two years.

The most compelling statistics in my view are Michigan's yards per point as well as some of the individual statistical variances between 2009 and 2008.

The Michigan Difference: 2009 Offense vs. 2008 Offense - First 5 Games

Rushing Yds1040614426
Passing Yds90384558
Yards Per Point11.6915.02-3.33
Fumbles Lost 211-9
Avg Time of Poss.26:32:0026:23:000:09:00
Offensively, Michigan's 2009 football team has to travel 3 yards less than it did a year ago to score 1 point. This means that Michigan's offense is demonstrating greater effectiveness this fall than 2008. Gee, ya think!?

Michigan's offense is also doing other things rather nicely like, oh, I don't know, how about not giving away expensive Christmas presents to opponents months in advance (fumbles and interceptions), scoring way many more points per game, running more plays, gaining more yards per play, as well as becoming more versatile and balanced (rushing versus passing yardage), etc.?

The Michigan Difference: 2009 Defense vs. 2008 Defense - First 5 Games

Pts Allowed117136-19
Yards Per Point20.8717.912.96
Fumbles Recovered47-3
Avg Time of Poss.26:32:0026:23:000:09:00

Defensively, Michigan appears to have improved in the other direction, although recent performances against Notre Dame, Indiana and Michigan State might have us all wondering about the accuracy of "getting better".

In terms of yards per point, the 2009 Wolverine defense is clearly forcing opponents to gain 3 more yards for every point they wish to score. This means that while the Michigan defense might be giving up hectares of real estate to their opponents this year, that real estate is going down in value, i.e. they've been pretty stingy on the scoring side of things (so far). Michigan's defense is giving up 4 points fewer per game than last year.

If your stomach is doing somersaults whenever Michigan happens to be on defense, this is because Greg Robinson's defense is allowing 50 more total yards per game in 2009 than last year. It doesn't help that Michigan is also allowing offenses 9 more minutes of possession time than 2008. The Wolverines also appear to be content giving up higher yards per play than 2008 (5.47 versus 5.05). It might feel bad all around, but the results on the scoreboard so far have improved (19 fewer points surrendered over first 5 games).

Take some Pepto-Bismol and lie down. That's all I can tell you.

So What's The Right Question to Be Asking At This Stage?
Of Michigan remaining seven opponents: atIowa, Delaware State, at Illinois, Penn State, at Wisconsin, Ohio State, how many games will be "probable close wins or losses" versus "decisive victories"?

So far Michigan has beaten two very weak teams (WMU 2-3, EMU 0-4) by decisive margins. Michigan has beaten two mediocre opponents (ND 4-1, Indiana 3-2) by rather low margins (by about 3 points each) . The Wolverines have also lost to a mediocre MSU football team (2-3) by 6 points in OT.

It'd be different if Michigan had beaten Indiana in the same fashion that it had manhandled WMU and EMU. Yet, the fact that Michigan struggled with the Hoosiers all four quarters and had to pull a rabbit out of their hat to win, and almost repeated the feat the following weak against MSU suggests that the Wolverines are an unpredictable, shaky and terrifying football team to be playing right now. Personally, I simply cannot trust that we really know how good or bad Michigan really is. If there's any good news, it's that we don't have long to wait very much longer to find out the truth. We'll know more late Saturday night following Michigan's second road game against a pretty good Iowa football team.

If Michigan beats Iowa, then we're probably watching an 8 win football team this year.

If Michigan loses to Iowa on Saturday night, then I submit to you that we are probably looking at a 6-6 or 7-5 football team.

As of now, it looks to me as though Michigan should be able to defeat Delaware State, Illinois and Purdue in the weeks following the Iowa game. That would provide Michigan at least 7 wins on the year. Such an achievement would also serve as a nice stepping stone for Rich Rodriguez and staff from 3-9 a year ago to bowl eligibility and redemption.


susieandrew said...

Nice take on quantifying the differences between the 08 and 09 teams, particularly with the defense, which assuages my fears somewhat (bend more, break less). I agree that we're lacking talent on D. I think fixing the LB issues would go a long way toward ameliorating our defensive issues, as we do have some (VERY YOUNG) talent in the secondary and on the DL. Depth, of course, is the other major issue. How much of it do you think is recruiting vs. coaching? And speaking of coaching, any thoughts on the impact of having our 3rd DC in 3 years? I would have to think it negatively affects the players, but never having played football, I wouldn't know.

tater said...

UM lost to a team they should have beaten. As college football usually goes, they will probably beat at least one team they should lose to. I'm guessing this happens twice, and one of the instances is against OSU.

That will give UM nine wins going into its bowl.

Markus said...

Beating Ohio State in Ann Arbor this November would certainly be something.

Michigan's teams has some growing up to do. The road games against MSU, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin are going to be nice preparation for Ohio State in Ann Arbor.

UM is a shaky at 4-1 right now. OSU looked iffy at the start, but we can see that they're building more confidence each week.

OSU and UM both have huge games this weekend. Hopefully UM heads in the right direction by beating Iowa in a tough environment.