as the new football season is about to start, THE KNOWLEDGE has returned to these very pages to review the 2014 season results
many is the number of people who have tried to predict Michigan's record. these have ranged from predictions based on great hope to predictions based on utter fear
but these people are speculators; they do not know what will actually happen
THE KNOWLEDGE, on the other hand, talks with clear and detailed information about the future and will thus reveal the season results in this review
with this post THE KNOWLEDGE also introduces the THE KNOWLEDGE CHALLENGE for 2014. unlike previous years, THE CHALLENGE will not run every week, but will run in segments
for the first edition, the readers are asked to name correctly the teams that will qualify for the playoffs. there is no need to predict the winner. at the end of the regular season, the reader that revealed the 4 teams correctly will be named CO-SOARER OF THE KNOWLEDGE
regular season result for Michigan: 11-1 (including a trip to the BTCG)
OOC result: 4-0
THE KNOWLEDGE will reveal the postseason results in a later post
I’ll begin with a confession and a qualification. I am admittedly a “youther” in that I think it’s legitimate to evaluate UM’s performance within the context of game-experience, program experience, eligibility, etc. That doesn’t get the coaches (in any regime) or players “off the hook” but it does provide context. In my world view this is a factor in determining past performance and future expectations.
My world view (as informed by MGoBlog) also holds that stars matter to set expectations of player performance up and down the roster in general. Thus Roster Make-up (“RM”) combines eligibility, game experience, and recruit ranking to provide a prism through which I view a team’s performance. It should be noted, I do not think there is an acceptable context for 3-win seasons, 27 for 27 or minus-48 vs. Sparty.
I thought I’d compare the MSU, OH, ND and UM 2-deeps. The qualification is that depth charts are often not worth the paper they’re printed on, and this snap shot will change over the course of the season. In general, I think the analysis is still relevant.
Hopefully, the Mathlete, his legion of fans (of which I’m one) and the other phenomenal statisticians/mathemagicians aren’t too disappointed in this clumsy and simple view…but a method should mirror its maker, yes?
The two-deeps are taken from a variety of sources and generally align with the most recent version I could find. UM’s does not fall in line with the App St. chart regarding Glasgow and Kalis. I used the 11W 2-deep from today, and Rivals for MSU and ND (both updated the 26th).
Regarding the rankings, I looked at the four main ranking sites and came up with these groups:
- 5*: Any site giving 5* rating (e.g. Peppers, Shane, Green)
- u4: (Unanimous) 4* from all 4 sites (e.g. Beyer, Cole, Countess)
- c4: (Consensus) 4* from a majority of the sites (e.g. Funchess)
- 4*: (Low) 4* 1 or 2 sites rated as a 4* (e.g. Taylor)
- h3: (high) 3* as a 5.7 and/or 88+ and/or 78+ (e.g. Braden)
- 3*: Any site giving 3* rating (e.g. Henry, JMFR)
- 2*: walk-on or actual 2* rating (e.g. Glasgows)
Note: UM’s “games played” numbers are based on player participation reports so UM’s numbers reflect positional experience. The other teams are derived from player bios and those do not often adequately separate special teams play vs. positional play unless it is “games started.” UM’s games played will seenm lower by comparison.
Michigan (1st string: 201 Gms Started/394 Gms Played…1st+2nd: 259 GS/600 GP)
Michigan’s 2-deep looks as one would expect (especially if one is an avid follower on this site). The roster is full of flaming redshirts (57%) is anchored by Hoke’s 2012 class (43%), and has a lot of highly rated guys (aka “talented”). As can be seen later, relative to UM’s rivals there’s a good balance of game experience, age (trending youthfully), and talent. I’m glad to note only 2 starters are 1st or 2nd year guys, and yes, this may move to 4 with Peppers and Lewis, but is still better than years’ past. This roster is trending the right way, looks better in 2015, and makes me feel cautiously optimistic.
Notre Dame (1st string: 141 GS/449 GP…1st+2nd: 171 GS/586 GP)
The suspensions (should they last) created a problem for ND. The 2-deep got much younger and much less experienced. With Russell, Williams, Daniels and Moore Kelly loses 38 GS. The good news for the Irish is that the 2-deep is still pretty highly rated (slightly higher than UM’s). ND burns more redshirts than UM, and by the looks of it will be doing so again this year. ND has a dearth of 4th/5th years similar to UM’s. By contrast, they make up for it with true sophs and not so much by Kelly’s 2012 class. That 18th ranked class was smallish (18) and lost top-2 Kiel and Neal to attrition and is without Russell (for now). Kelly is going to rely on the most 1st/2nd year guys of any of the rivals (by far). Talented, but young and inexperienced is this group’s hallmark.
Michigan State (1st string: 237 GS/532 GP…1st+2nd: 267 GS/840 GP)
MSU’s roster also looks as one would expect. What they’ve lost seems to be a recurring topic, but with the most game starts of these 4 teams, Dantonio’s system keeps rolling. His 2-deep loathes burning redshirts (11%), loves 4th/5th year guys (59%), and plays with a chip on its shoulder from not being highly rated (70% below 4*). MSU freshmen lay in the weeds, learn, and win scout team awards (unless they’re Malik McDowell or Brian Allen). 2nd year guys get little love here as well. Basically, talk to the hand until the 3rd year, and even then its mostly just to get seasoning (excepting the 2-3 guys who MSU beat UM/OSU/ND for). Likely this will be the RM throughout Dantonio’s regime. The ratings are trending higher, but Dantonio’s RM will look a lot like this until he retires. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?
Ohio State (1st string: 168 Gms Started/413 Gms Played…1st+2nd: 178 GS/533 GP)
At Ohio State they reload. Even with the loss of Miller, that seems true. Meyer will have significantly more 5* than UM and ND. He’ll field a 2-deep devoid of 3* or 2* guys. Only 3 “high 3s” blemish this constellation of 4 & 5 stars. Though nothing like MSU’s load of 4th/5th year guys, Meyer will field more than UM and ND. They’ll also field more 1st/2nd year guys than UM, but not close to ND’s nursery. Loaded with talent, lacking experience, and led by a decent number of 4/5 year guys, Ohio State looks the way they usually do. Still, this could be a “down” year. That was probably going to mean 1-2 losses with Miller. Without him, I think it may mean 2 – 3.
Who Needs Starz?
Michigan will start three 3* guys (JMFR, Henry, JClark) and the Glasgows are walk-ons. MSU will start 5 3* guys (Calhoun, Waynes, Drummond, Langford and Kieler) with 2 w/o (Gliechart and Conklin). ND only starts one 3* and 1 w/o, and Meyer has no idea what is being discussed in this paragraph. Both Michigan schools have a shot a putting a number of these lower-rated recruits on the all-B1G lists. Unsurprisingly, there are no 1st or 2nd year guys in anyone’s 2-deep from the 3*/2* groups.
Looking at the QBs
Gardner is the best on paper (5th yr, 5*, 21/37 GP/GS, though 16 GS at QB), then Cook (4th yr, h3, 13/17), Golson (4th yr, c4, 11/12), and finally Barrett (2nd yr, u4, 0/0). This should bode well for UM, though three of the four look pretty decent. Barrett’s gonna struggle some, but the question is how much.
It Goes Without Saying the Above Paragraph All Depends on…
It may be wishful thinking, but my starting UM OL is still Cole, Mags, Glasgow, Kalis and Braden. That is worth 28/43 GS/GP and 4 highly rated guys (with Glasgow maybe being the best guy right now). MSU counters with 59/100 but with that “underrated” chip referenced earlier. ND should challenge UM’s DL with “grizzled” vets 50/103 who are very “talented” and older. OH will have 23/82 and such “meh” talent that their 2nd string includes talented DLs who’ve switched over, but have no experience. On paper, UM’s line is about as questionable as OH…maybe a little less, but they’re both close, and both scary. If Kalis isn’t a starter…damn.
I went into this thinking UM was likely to finish with 9-10 wins and would take 1 of 3 vs. these teams. I don’t think that record changes, since this exercise really made me feel better about ND struggling (who I already thought was the most likely W). Still, UM’s RM is balanced and relatively good compared to these rivals. OH is the most “talented” by a decent amount, but less experienced. MSU is doing what they do, and will be tough. ND looks young, talented, inexperienced and vulnerable. UM’s OL is still relatively young and inexperienced, but so is OH’s. In all, if this season doesn’t go well, RM isn’t something that I’ll be factor into the post-mortem.
- UM has the 2nd lowest rated true frosh in Freddy (ND’s Daniel Cage), and the highest (Peppers)
- UM is tied with ND for most c4/u4/5* since the 2012 class with 23.
- In 2015 the 4/5 yr guys from these 2014 2-deeps = MSU 25, UM 22, ND & OH 15
- MSU has burned 7 redshirts. Four are 5/4 stars and three are high 3s
- ND’s only walk-on is starting at LB. Their only 3* is starting at S.
- UM’s D has the most game-starts by a wide margin…and is talented enough to make it count.
The season is just a few days away, which means it's time to deck out every inch of your life in Maize and Blue. Every year I like to make a few wallpapers for myself. Why should I keep them all to myself?
I'm a fan of minimal design, which I have used in all of these wallpapers. The first one is a 2D long shadow effect on the glorious Block M we all love. The second is sort of my thoughts right now. I'm sick of the analysis, the crying about App State, and all the predictions and rankings. Just win. The last one is a slight alteration to a student t-shirt design submission that didn't win last year.
Full Album: http://imgur.com/a/1t4ua#0
Update: What the heck, here is one more
Because the one thing we haven't done is talk about the OL enough this offseason, I would like to address some misconceptions about what OL recruting rankings actually mean and what it takes to play OL on the collegiate level.
First up on the mound, recruiting rankings. Recruiting sites rate offensive lineman on pro potential, not college readiness and "pro protential" for a high school lineman is bascally looking at your frame (aka height and arm length) and how well you move your feet. This is why a guy like LTT, who barely knows what he's doing can be a consensus 4*. Scouts saw long arms, wide hips, light feet and 6'7" and named him one of the top 10 high school tackles in the country and all he did to earn that ranking was grow, it had almost nothing to do with his play on the field. When sites say Kyle Kalis is "college ready," they mean he is 6'5" and has 300 lbs of good weight and that's about it. These guys are graded on the physical part of the game which is only about 10% of what it takes to be a good lineman. HOWEVER, it is important because it is the first 10% and if you can't hold up physically, it doesn't matter how good the rest of your game is because DL will just bench press you out of the way as seen here. Joey Burzynski(LG) is stiff armed by CJ Olaniyan and gets no movement. While it helps, having an NFL body is not required to be good in college and there are plenty of examples of players who dominate in college but struggle to make NFL rosters (see David Molk). What makes those guys special is the level of technique they play with and the ability to anticipate the defense.
Which brings us to the main point of this diary, OL play is basically football math. Think of every play as a math problem, and offensive lineman have to figure the solution to the problem in their heads presnap, while alsonknowing the problem may change as soon as the ball is snapped, meaning that they have to figure out the solution to the problem at hand and anticipate every way it can change and solve those problems as well, all in the space off the few seconds they have once the defense aligns. This is why a certain long haired blogger we all know and love screams at his television every fall Saturday for the offense to hurry to the line of scrimmage, so the line (and the QB) can have more time to solve the defensive equation. Every second not at the line of scrimmage solving the defense is a second wasted, and a win for the defense.
College OL play is like Calculus, and 95% of lineman come into college with a just basic understanding of simple arithmetic(Addition, subtraction, mulitplication and division) and some come in basically knowing how to count (LTT). This is because the vast majority of high school offensive line coaches have the equivelent of an 8th grade education in line concepts if they're lucky and the physical advantage a lot of these guys have in high school makes the equations they face pretty easy. At that stage, it is about 80-90% physical and 10-20% mental, because the DL that can challenge them physically are few and far between and overpowering guys doesn't take much brain power. Once they get to college, the physical advantage goes away and defensive equations get much more complicated and they have to realize that they have to learn real math, which can be shocking to some guys. It is the job of the offensive line coach to take these guys who are coming in at some level of elementary school math and get them up to speed. They have to learn the high school level concepts of algebra (run blocking), geometry(identifying who to block) and precalc (pass blocking) before they can even dream of doing calculus i.e. getting on the field. Every different play and protection scheme has its own set of techniques and they change for every different front the defense throws at you. Offensive line man have to know what foot to step with first, in what direction and how far, what their aiming point is, who they are supposed to block, how they are supposed to block them when they get there, where each hand goes, where their head goes, and where their eyes should be looking, all while remembering to play with good knee bend and pad level. All of this has been calculated down to inch level precision and each mistake opens you up to exploitiation by the defense so you have to be perfect, and even then there is no guarantee that the play is successful because everyone else has to do their job too. And they have to learn all that so well that they can do it in their heads so fast they barely think about it, because if every play is a Calc problem, you can't be struggling with the algebra because there is no way you can solve and execute the solution in time to make your block. This largley is what lineman are doing their first 2-3 years on campus, along with getting in the weight room, and why they shouldn't see the field on a good team. For most guys, things start to click in their 3rd year on campus, which explains why most players on the line who meets this criteria under Funk have at least put forth solid production.
Last year, Borges demanded that a line where the most experience guard (post GG to center) was a RS FR, the equivelent of about a High School Sophomore mathematically, to solve differential equations, limits, integrals and applied calculus. The young guys understandably got overwhelmed and didn't improve as much as they could have and when they didn't, they got taken out, further stalling said improvement. That is one the biggest reasons we have a new OC, because the responsiblity of a Coordinator is to put their players in the best possible position to succeed and Borges didn't do that nearly enough. What we don't is if Funk is a good Math teacher because this will be the first year the 2012 class (his first full class) should be expected to fully understand what they are doing. The only players Funk has had the oppurtunity to mold from scratch are Glasgow and Miller, Glasgow has worked out well and Miller didn't meet the requirements for the physical 10%, which is not on anybody but Miller. Whether they come in as a 5* (Kalis, Kugler), 4*(LTT, Bosch, Dawson, Mags, Cole) or even a 3* (Braden, Samuelson) they all must learn the mental part of the game to have any sort of positive production.
What we should be looking for this year if fot the RS Sophomores to be around where Glasgow and Schofield were in 2013 and 2011 respectively. By the Ohio game we should have a middling B1G OL, we won't be good, but we shouldn't be the tire fire of last year either. I think we had the possibility of being 10-1 heading to Columbus with a loss at MSU and competing for a title. If we see more of what we saw last year, it is probably time to start looking for a new OL coach.
EDIT: Space Coyote actually has two great write up on pass blocking techniques and schemes on Maize 'N' Brew:
Years ago, the University of Michigan's football team was in supposed turmoil. It had been years since Michigan won a national championship, and years since a Big Ten championship. The head coach was effectively a replacement for the legitimate guy, exiled in a media firestorm.
Coming into the season, Michigan seemed to be a distant third behind two conference juggernauts, and that embattled new coach was on the hot seat, to the point of the athletic director getting asked whether or not this guy was good enough, on a live pregame show. That AD defended the coach by saying he's set up to have a great year, and then we'll see.
That embattled coach, of course, was Lloyd Carr. That year was 1997. Michigan was coming off of some 4-loss seasons, and hadn't won a conference title in five years. Carr, who bcame the head coach after Gary Moeller's public meltdown, was seen to potentially be just a transitional guy.
I'm not joking. That clip is below.
At the 5:28 mark, Don Shane questions the future of Lloyd Carr as Michigan coach. At the 3:22 mark, Michigan State head coach Nick Saban spouts generic platitudes about systems and preparation while looking shifty. And at the 13:10 mark, Keith Jackson welcomes you to an afternoon at Michigan Stadium, mentioning Michigan's star defender Charles Woodson, and officially beginning The Greatest Season In Recent Michigan History.
This year, the atmosphere is the same. Michigan is in chaos, according to most of the die-hards. Last year was the worst offense ever, and the team is taking a step back! Devin Gardner had a bad year, and he's the starter again! The offensive line! Michigan State is legitimately good now! It's been X long since Michigan won this thing, or did that thing! Records! Everything off the field! We'll be fine. In fact, we'll be better than fine. Michigan will be good this season. For that matter, Michigan will be borderline great this season. Michigan will do the things that will bring all the national critics around, only this time, they'll be back with a team built upon a foundation.
Michigan football has not been the most fun, record-wise, since 2005 or so. Individual years can be debated, and some games were legitimately exciting. But for what seems to be the tenth season now, Michigan football isn't what we thought it was.
Here's the thing, though: all the pieces are there for Michigan to have a great year. All of the on-field pieces are there for Michigan to be a great team. All of the attrition and injuries to our rivals are there for Michigan to have a great year. Everything within the schedule sets up for Michigan to have a great year.
Michigan returns Devin Gardner, a senior quarterback who was incredibly injured for most of last season, a season that basically ended when this one player was beaten down to the point of not being able to go. Michigan returns a defense that held the team in games last year, and continues to improve. Across the board, Michigan's roster is improving with the maturity of existing players and an incoming recruiting class that includes one star playmaker and a ton of depth. And, the two most glaring problems of last season are gone, personnel-wise. Everything sets up nicely. The pieces are there to have a great team.
Which brings all of us to the upcoming schedule. Appalachian State, Miami, Utah, Maryland, Indiana, Rutgers - all wins. Six wins. Northwestern just lost their top player, win #7. Michigan blew out Minnesota last year, that's win #8 this year.
Is Notre Dame winnable? Absolutely. The Fighting Irish just lost a notable number of starters in an academic scandal, their quarterback situation is worse than ours, and they are always worse than expected. Win #9.
Is Penn State winnable? Of course. Penn State has a new coach who is talking a big game, but that roster still has more structural problems than Michigan's. Penn State will end up coming down a notch from the hype, they will struggle a little over the course of the season, and that will be win #10.
Can Michigan win in Columbus? Sure. This isn't the Rich Rod years, where Ohio State would come out and simply outscore an overmatched Michigan squad. This isn't another game where Michigan will lose in Columbus, because that's just how things are now. MIchigan beat Ohio State in 2011, lost in 2012 due to field-goal kicking and a bad offensive half, and was a two-point conversion away from winning in 2013. Now, Braxton Miller is out for Ohio State, and things are looking grim in Columbus. Is this win #11?
Can Michigan win in East Lansing? Sure. Michigan State had a great defense propel them to a conference title last year, but they've lost some playmakers. Can Michigan's defense rise up to reduce the defensive advantage? Maybe. On the other side of the ball, can a Nussmeier/Gardner offense outduel Connor Cook? Probably. Look, this game isn't a likely win. But it's not hopeless to the point of the Rich Rod years or anything. It could be win #11, win #12, or simply a close-fought loss. All of those options are in play.
It's an optimistic look at the season, but it's not unrealistic. All of those things stand a better chance at happening than a repeat of 2013, where the offense was built around a strong offensive lineman and quarterback, the lineman was an ass, leading to the quarterback getting injured and the offensive coordinator's utter hopelessness. This isn't that. This won't be that.
Right now, our biggest problem seems to be that the general attitude towards the whole team is that of a dismissively negative one. Once a closer look is taken, all of the pieces seem to be potentially great, with everything coming together. Just going by realistic on-field expectations, Michigan will go, barring chaos, at least 10-2, with those two losses being close. That biggest problem is simply the scars of the recent past.
And to reference recent history, the worst case scenario is 2011 with more optimism for next year. Optimism in guys like Morris and Peppers, optimism in having all of our rivals at home, optimism for what is to come.
Here's where the negativity comes in. The only two things against Michigan having a great year is idiotic off-field moves and a steady stream of national pessimism that leads to a third thing: local dread. All of these things are easily removed, and will be removed as time passes.
Once football kicks off, everything else will be forgotten. That means you, Dave Brandon, proverbially standing on a highway off-ramp into Ann Arbor, hoping that the incoming traffic will roll their windows down to buy tickets. That means you, memories of 2013, those of the infinite stream of rushes into the middle of an unblocking line. That means you, Arizona bowl game that literally doesn't exist anymore. All of you, gone once actual football starts up.
The reason why these kinds of things become spectres that haunt places like this, is that the college football season is so brief, and the summers so long, that these kinds of things become bigger than they are. There's literally nothing going on, but the appetite for Michigan discussion (or any team, for that matter) never goes away. When easy discussion bait comes up, like Dave Brandon, everyone hops to get it on it, because we're starving to talk about something. Once the game starts, we'll all move on.
It's the same as the sputtering end to 2013. Last season, from the Penn State game on, was almost entirely terrible. Terrible in every possible way, leading to a whole summer with that taste in our mouths. Once the games begin, and we see what the 2014 Michigan team can do, that 2013 team will fade. It will fade into a rough collage of barely beating Ohio State, that field goal against Northwestern, and that horrendous Nebraska home game.
(Playing the games will also cause another unfortunate discussion topic to fade away - Michigan's terrible home schedule. Yeah, we all agree, there are no standout games at home this year. Penn State is not Michigan State, on many levels. No big names are coming in as random highlights on the non-conference schedule. Everyone understands. But once the games begin...that home schedule will be somewhat of an afterthought.)
This leads to the second mark against Michigan, that stream of national pessimism that comes over the course of the summer, cresting in an August of overreaction. The two preseason polls came out, Michigan was unranked in both. The rest of the country, which casually looks at Ann Arbor and sees the faintest glimpse of a rebuilding project, tosses some votes for us sparingly. Which leads to worry and panic, because Michigan isn't ranked.
That ranking, with wins, will come. As someone who tracks the polls more than most, I'd say Michigan gets an official ranking after a win against Notre Dame at the earliest. Michigan is 37th in the AP poll, and 32nd in the coaches' poll, and will inevitably rise with wins and opposing attrition.
Once that happens, of course, everyone will be in town to write/speak/yell about how Michigan Is Back. Michigan's undefeated through their first six games, and Penn State comes to town this week! Michigan just beat Penn State, they're 7-0! Doug Nussmeier is the real deal, so is Brady Hoke! Devin Gardner for Heisman! This team could go to the playoffs! Anyone reading this can see these headlines coming. It happened from 2009-2011. Denard was gonna win the Heisman, remember?
In case you doubt this will happen, look at Notre Dame. Notre Dame flailed their way to an undefeated season in 2012, and everyone was stumbling to write a paean to Notre Dame's return to greatness. Despite a team that wasn't actually that good, the story of the 2012 college football season was ND, from November until January.
If Michigan starts undefeated, that national tide of positivity will come our way. All the momentum of the old days will be back again, as Michigan will be back in the eyes of the national media. It's an easy story, one that would be covered extensively, especially in the Big Ten with Ohio State going down in Miller's injury. Someone will be the media darling towards the end of the season, and it will be the winner of the Michigan-Michigan State game. However, if Michigan is the winner...we'd be the story of the year going into the Ohio State game.
Once all of that starts to happen, and it will, the pessimism of the Michigan fanbase will go away. It will go away until some sort of collapse, pop back up again, and disappear. Michigan football might not have the same offseason aura as the '90s, but it will certainly feel like the summer of 2012, when anything seemed possible after a season that restarted everything.
That leads to the best case scenario for this time next year. We all know what the worst case scenario that is, in whatever little permutation that would be. The best case scenario is a full winter and fall of positive energy coming out of Ann Arbor, with a solid season going into a stacked schedule towards next season.
The last thing that a great season will dismiss is the dread. The fear of another season of getting proverbially kicked in the ribs, of dealing with another offseason of low self-esteem brought on by bad memories. If Michigan has a great year, 2015 will begin in optimism. A high ranking to start the season. A schedule that features two rivalry games at home, a transition out of mid-majors in the preseason, and the return of true/high expectations. All will be well. We just have to get there first.
So I, er, lost my nearly completed draft of Reading the Tea Leaves 2014, and now I’m rewriting it from a barely-worth-the-name-of-DSL connection under threat of dengue–carrying mosquitos in an equatorial megalopolis. Outside there are people with megaphones, leading either an opposition rally or aerobic exercises—both of which have taken place on previous mornings before 7 AM. I am tired, I am sweaty and yet I want to talk to you about our prospects in 2014!
The Big Questions
- Is our defense elite or just good?
- To what degree can tempo and scheme upgrades mitigate the loss of two tackles to the NFL and continued uncertainty everywhere else on the OL?
- What is a realistic goal for our program in 2014?
On #1, I’ll split the difference between Michigan 2013 and MSU 2013. Returning nearly everyone means a moderate upgrade at nearly every position. Also trading an undersized Jibril Black and underutilized Quinton Washington for rehabbing Ondre Pipkins* plus Willie Henry is, at worst, a wash. I expect Frank Clark, Jake Ryan and—yes—Jabril Peppers to remind us of (the exciting part of) the good ol’ days. Strong safety is the big question mark, and without an answer, we might get burned here and there. But overall I like our personnel and I like the aggressive new direction—we were too soft in 2013. I’m quietly confident that our defense will take people by surprise and end up the best of the Greg Mattison era.
On #2, it depends on what part of the season you’re talking about. Early on our OL should be pretty bad. The question then becomes: what can Doug Nussmeier call to take pressure off of it—especially considering the loss of both starting tackles to the NFL? I’ve waxed eloquent on the virtues of Inside Zone, and Nussmeier’s Inside Zone-based offense at Alabama, which was predicated on the startling premise that teams should run hard and inside for positive rather than negative yardage. I imagine Nuss will add “pass quickly, horizontally and into space” in order to take advantage of our deep receiving corps, get LBs to back off and thus force opposing defenses to beat our young OL with their DL. And as questionable as our OL looks, there aren’t many high-quality DLs in the Big 10.
Nussmeier’s tenure at Washington involved a lot more spread concepts than at Alabama. Given our quarterback and his skills as a runner, we may even get back into the “run the QB; run the QB; QB oh noes” business. But don’t expect anything to be pretty until the OL starts to click (and even in the rosiest scenarios, that will take a few games). I firmly believe that by repping Inside Zone to insanity, we’ll finally see consistent improvement in the run game over the course of the season. How much? Unclear. But I expect we’ll finish the season feeling like the OL and run game are, at least, trending in the right direction. Before that, it’s Tresselball time, baby.
Question #3 asks us to consider both #1 and #2, as well as our schedule. Before looking at the schedule, though, let’s consider a best-case scenario for combining a dominating defense with a work-in-progress offense:
MSU 2013 (11-1).
…and a worst-case scenario:
MSU 2012 (6-6)
Both MSU teams married a dominating defense to a questionable offense. A big difference between MSU 2013 and 2012? Schedule. In 2012 they played us and Wisconsin away, as well as soon-to-be-undefeated Ohio and a Notre Dame team en route to the National Championship Game. Add in tough Iowa and Nebraska games and there you have it. In 2013, by contrast, they played a worse ND (though they lost**), a worse us at home and, crucially, no Wisconsin and no Ohio (during the regular season at least). The difference isn't just reducible to schedule (in 2013 they beat Iowa and Nebraska on the road, whereas in 2012 they failed to beat either at home), but MSU developed into a superior team in part because a weak schedule gave an initially bad offense room to grow into an offense confident enough in its abilities to not lose and occasionally even win games. Incidentally, this is exactly what we need to happen to our offense this year.
So is our schedule likely to facilitate such a transformation, or will it more likely lead to the black-end flameouts we experienced in 2009, 2010 and 2013? As others have mentioned, we have exactly 3 games scheduled against teams that had more wins than us in 2013, and all are away. Prior to recent developments, many pundits had us losing all 3—and with good reason. I had us just below the tossup threshold for ND and Ohio, and MSU a likely loss (don’t shoot the messenger). But now an already shaky Notre Dame squad has lost an additional 3 defensive starters; meanwhile, Ohio—already missing Hyde and 4 starting OL—has lost Miller for the season. That doesn’t make either game a likely win, but it does move them into tossup or even “tossup plus” territory.
But what about the other kind of potential loss—you know, the ones you are *supposed* to win but flub, look past or otherwise underestimate, like PSU or Nebraska 2013 (or, more worryingly, like Akron 2013***, Toledo 2008 or Appalachian State 2007)? Utah could be one, and Penn State another. Maryland maybe, but probably not. Outside that, well, Rutgers are terrible, Minnesota can’t beat us and Northwestern lost its two dangerous offensive players (Kain Colter and Venric Mark) on an offense we haven’t had that much trouble containing. There’s Appalachian State, which frightens me in all kinds of existential ways, but really shouldn’t pose much of a problem (emphasis on “shouldn’t”). I do expect us to drop one somewhere, but overall I see our schedule tilting closer to MSU 2013 than MSU 2012. In other words, we have a rock solid case for 8 wins, a realistic shot at 9 and a theoretical roadmap to 10+.
APPALACHIAN STATE (.80) – They are not App State 2007, but neither are we Michigan 2007 (arguably the most talented squad of the Carr era). Still, this is one we should win and by a comfortable margin—even with the early season problems. The uncertainty reflects respect for the team that gave us THE HORROR and memories of last year’s hiccups against Akron and UCONN.
At NOTRE DAME (.55) – You’d think all the dismissals, our recent victories and the graduation of Tommy Rees (who was fairly effective against us over his career) would make this more likely than “tossup plus,” but it’s away and I expect a hostile crowd to bring out the growing pains on our OL—even with all the missing starters on ND’s defense.
MIAMI (NTM) (1.00) – Our only MACrifice and our first “guaranteed win.”****
UTAH (.67) – Utah were
horrible up-and-down last year, but are expected to be significantly better this year. May give us some trouble, but we should still win in the end.
MINNESOTA (.90) – On paper, the Gophers are decent; in reality, they can’t beat us in Ann Arbor (or anywhere). Minimal uncertainty, as usual.
At RUTGERS (1.00) – The second “guaranteed win.”****
PSU (.60) – This is the “should win” game I’m most concerned about. It’s not that I think PSU is all that good, but rather I’m afraid we’ll look past them (to MSU). On the other hand, while James Franklin should be an upgrade for their program in many ways, I don’t think he’s as good of an in-game coach as Bill O’Brien, so a repeat of last year’s 4th quarter outcoaching seems unlikely.
At MSU (.33) – Dantonio’s program does have its off-years, and they are also losing a lot of key personnel. On the other hand, they’ve got a system that keeps replacing disciplined redshirt seniors with disciplined redshirt juniors, and we haven’t won in East Lansing since 2007. We have a better shot than we did last year, true, but the worm hasn’t turned in our relationship yet.
INDIANA (.80) – Explosive offense, meet defense designed to mitigate you; inept defense, meet offense that *might* be clicking by this point (relatively speaking). A game that could get annoying, especially if there’s a Sparty hangover, but we really shouldn’t lose this one.
At NORTHWESTERN (.75) – Some close calls recently, but they won’t have the guys who usually give us fits (Colter and Mark). Also not away, but “away.”
MARYLAND – (.75) – Good skill players on offense, a decent enough starting lineup on defense and positioned right before The Game. If this was on the road, I’d be concerned.
At OHIO (.50) – This game has been close each of the last 3 years, even though in each of those years one team was considered to be significantly better than the other. I expect another close one in 2014. But whereas with Miller I had this as .40, now it’s hard to see how a team breaking in 4 new OL, new RBs and replacing a potential Heisman candidate/genuine dual-threat QB with a redshirt freshman (or underwhelming sophomore) is going to get enough yards against our defense. On the other hand, their DL is pretty much guaranteed to own our OL, even with the predicted improvement over the course of the season. And it’s in Columbus, where we haven’t won since 2000 (sad face). It’s hard, given past history, to say we are favored, but I do think we have an excellent chance of ending that streak.
2(1.00) + .90 + .80 + 2(.75) + .67 + .60 + .55 + .50 + .33 = 8.70 wins
Breaking it down, I favor us in 10/12 games and strongly favor us in 8/12. We really should win 8 games this year. A predicted win count of 8.83 also suggests we are significantly more likely to win 9 or more than 7 or fewer. You never know, but I’d say a season in which we beat ND, lose to MSU, lose one dropped one egg and coin-flip against Ohio seems like a good bet. That would put us at 9/10 wins, depending on the outcome of that last game. (We might also drop more than one egg, but a better defense, schematic upgrade on offense and easier schedule should limit the number.)
Getting past 9 wins, though, would probably require the balance of intangibles to really go our way: not only talent, execution and the right balance of aggression and caution in play-calling, but also a positive balance on fortuitous turnovers, a lack of devastating injuries and fewer soul-crushing penalties going our way than theirs. This does happen (2011!) but sometimes it doesn’t (2012!). Never forget that a few bad calls or throws can turn a 10 win season into an 8er.
Alas, we kinda sorta need 9 wins to keep the program moving forward. 8 might be enough to buy Hoke another year, but less than that and the pitchforks come out. Even 8 would keep us in a bad kind of limbo. On the other hand, 9+ would show progress, shore up recruiting and illuminate a path for 2015, when nearly all of the personnel pieces—painstakingly cobbled together after the recruiting/attrition disasters of 2010 and 2011—look to be in order. Whether this truth breeds hunger or desperation is one of the million dollar questions of our upcoming season.
In past years I’ve asked: what Star Wars movie or Song of Ice and Fire book will our season resemble. The answers: Attack of the Clones (2012) and A Dance with Dragons (2013). Did you like A Dance with Dragons? I did not.
This year our theme will be the Aliens movies. I’m using another list from the same site as template, though omitting the Predator and AVP films in order to simplifying it to 5 categories (even though, as any comic nerd of the early 1990s knows, they exist in the same universe). I also switched around the rankings of Prometheus and Alien3 because, well, s/he was wrong.
Metaphor: Alien is unquestionably the best entry in the series and arguably the best sci-fi/horror movie of the color film era. We’re back to being the Gold Standard, baby!
Scenario: 12-0 or 11-1. We chart a similar path to MSU 2013: our defense is elite, our offensive is good enough, the playcalling is better on both sides of the ball and fortune is with us. In all likelihood, this means we’ve made it to the Big 10 Championship Game and beaten at least 2/3 of our rivals.
Probability: .10. Not likely at all—but not unimaginable either. Check it: our defense will probably be one of the 2 or 3 best in the conference and there are no elite offenses on our schedule. On the other side, the new offensive scheme and philosophy will hopefully keep opposing defenses from stacking the box, meaning they’ll have to beat our not-good OL with their DL. That might not mean much but for the fact that there are really only 2 good DLs on our schedule. A 1/10 chance isn’t very big, but it’s something.
Record and Metaphor: Aliens may not be quite as good as Alien, but it is still really good—one of the best action films of the 1980s. Full of memorable scenes, characters, and (prophetically, I hope) ends with a badass beatdown of the ultimate villain.
Scenario: 10-2. Essentially, we are almost as good as in the first scenario, but lack the consistency and singularity of vision. In other words, something goes wrong somewhere, like it did against Iowa in 2011 and in nearly every year under Carr. But the ship rights itself. And we are totally actiontastic.
Probability: .20. Now we’re talking plausible! As I mentioned above, this is where we end up if things consistently roll the right way, like they did in 2011 and didn’t in 2012. After all, I’ve got us favored in 10/12 games. However, that doesn’t mean I expect us to win 10 games—this type of model doesn’t work like that. There’s still too much uncertainty for me to really get behind a 10-win season. But there are two plausible roads to 10 wins: take 2/3 rivalry games on the road and drop one elsewhere or take 1/3 rivalry games and not drop one anywhere. I don’t think either is super likely, but ND making the National Championship Game in 2012 wasn’t super likely either.
Record and Metaphor: 9-3. While David Fincher’s entry is by no means bad, it isn’t great either. Put another way, it’s the kind of movie you don’t turn off if it happens to be on HBO, and enjoy it enough to watch again the next time that happens. But you never love it, and after some time it ends up lumped together with all the other movies that fit the same description. That was the deal for every ho-hum 9-3 season of the Carr era. Only now we haven’t actually had any 9-3 seasons for a really long time. In fact, we’ve only had 1 season in the past 7 where we had more than 8 wins. So maybe ol’ ho-hum Alien3 ain’t lookin’ so ho-hum anymore.
Scenario: A 9-3 team is the embodiment of “good enough, but not that good,” and that’s what the sum total of our on paper strengths and weaknesses, set against the sum total of our schedule, most strongly imply we will be. As such, I see 9-3 as the most likely outcome if the balance of intangibles comes out roughly even. After all, we do play all our rivals on the road and have a massive question mark at OL to go along with the depth and talent on defense and relatively easy home schedule.
Probability: .35. The most likely scenario according to THE MATH, and the one I suspect (along with many of you) will be the final outcome of our season. The version most pundits picking 9-3 is: lose to ND, MSU and Ohio and beat everyone else. I don’t think that’s the likeliest scenario, especially given roster issues at ND and Ohio (as well as recent history in our rivalry with ND), but also considering the now oft-mentioned propensity of our team to drop at least one egg—usually but not exclusively on the road. Going 1/3 against our rivals and losing to someone like PSU or Utah feels more “right” to me.
Metaphor: A film you were all geared up for but largely disappointed by. It does feature some dazzling moments and exceptional individual performances, but on balance it just isn’t very good. The narrative is confused and full of inconsistencies, while some of the characters keep doing incredibly stupid things. Put that helmet back on!
Scenario: 8-4. We lose all 3 rivalry games plus one more, or we go 1-2 in the rivalry games and drop 2 more. Blech.
Probability: .30. Pundits who don’t predict 9-3 tend to settle on 8-4, and there’s good reason for that: we’ve thrown away games in each of the last two seasons, so why expect that to change now? You might counter argue with: “major changes in offensive and defensive philosophy, that’s why.” But we still don’t know how quickly the shift from Borges to Nussmeier will pay the expected dividends. And it’s important to note that teams with great defenses and struggling offenses don’t always go to the Rose Bowl. MSU 2012 is instructive, as are Michigan’s 1995 and 1996 teams.
5. Alien Resurrection
Metaphor: Directed by the supremely talented Jean-Pierre Jeunot and featuring a screenplay by Joss Whedon—what could possibly go wrong? Nearly everything, that’s what. As Whedon later said: “"It wasn't a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines...mostly...but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They… just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”
Scenario: 7-5 or worse. Our defense is not as good as expected and/or our offense is as bad or worse than last year. Coach: meet hot seat. Athletic Director: meet pitchforks.
Probability: .15. Not outside the realm of possibility, but I’m also just not seeing this as very plausible either.
In sum, this model predicts there is an:
- 85% chance we win 8-10 games.
- 65% chance we win 8-9 games.
- 35% chance we win 9 games
- 30% chance we win 8 games
- 20% chance we win 10 games
- 15% chance we win 7 or fewer games
- 10% chance we win 11 or more games.
Rhetorical Question: wait, should recent turmoil at Notre Dame and Braxton Miller’s injury upgrade our chances? Didn’t you say yourself that there’s a clear roadmap to 10 wins?
I did and they certainly do—but not as much as you’d think. ND has roster depth on defense and our OL is almost guaranteed to struggle in that early game. As for Ohio, yes, Miller did pose a major problem for us—far greater than any posed by his backups. But there are other issues for us in that matchup that you just can’t ignore. Like us, they face turnover on the OL. But like us, they also have an offensive scheme that should produce improvement over the course of the season. And on defense, they have one of the only DLs that can shut down run lanes and pressure quarterbacks without help.
Of course, this “uncertainty model” makes certain baseline assumptions: that our defense will be better than last year; that our OL will struggle early but show improvement over the course of the season; that we are upgrading, schematically, on both sides of the ball; that our opponents will perform largely as advertised; and that the balance of intangibles will be roughly even. If any of these assumptions proves incorrect, or if I under/overestimates their effect, the level of uncertainty will shift in one direction or another, as it has in past years.
I’m somewhat concerned that most of these assumptions tilt in our favor, but our defense and schedule alone should provide some insulation from the worst-case (under 6 wins) and near-worst (6-7 wins) scenarios. It really does seem like a choice between 8 or 9 wins, with a solid chance of 10 if things consistently roll the right way. They typically do not, but occasionally they do, so there’s that. I’m a cautious optimist by nature, and the model does say 9 is more likely than 8, so I think that’s the most likely outcome. Daring choice? Hardly, but it does feel right to me.
The implications of a 9-3 season are relatively clear: increased job security for the coaching staff and, for fans, a sense that things are moving in the right direction. On the other hand, 9-3 isn’t quite good enough to end the speculation either. At some point, Hoke and company are going to have to win that Big 10 Championship they’ve been talking about since coming to Ann Arbor. We may still be a year early for that, but we at least need to see that a path to that is clear.
ADDENDUM: Retro Movie Designations
We’ve learned that 2012 was Attack of the Clones and 2013 was A Dance with Dragons. Since we’re going back to a science fiction film theme, I figured I might as well bestow retro film designations to each season since Carr retired. Here they are:
2008 (3-9): Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace – a film you had high hopes for even though you knew it could never live up to your expectations. But you never expected the heavy dose of Jar-Jar and that kid. Five minutes of Darth Maul aside, a cultural atrocity.
2009 (5-7): Wolverine: Origins – a film that had a few cool scenes near the beginning but fell apart midway and just kept getting worse as it went along.
2010 (7-5): A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – a film based on a cool premise that felt like it was moving in the right direction until it ended with 30 minutes of unforgivable garbage.
2011 (10-2): Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a film you assumed would be mediocre but ended up being surprisingly good.
2012 (8-4): Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones – a film that had its moments, but unfortunately also had its Jar-Jar moments.
2013 (7-5): Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – a film directed by William Shatner.
*I also read the presser in which Hoke says Glasgow would start over Pipkins and I am as mystified by it as you are. Assume it either means Pipkins isn't quite healthy yet or it's a motivational tactic.
**Transitive property FAIL: we keep beating ND and ND keeps beating MSU in an era when MSU keeps beating us.
***Technically a win, but portended ominous things that mostly came to fruition.
****Guarantee not recognized in any US state, territory or foreign polity.