after a brief hiatus, back at it. as usual, let me know if there are any glaring errors.
I watched the game, incredulous as Washington State was somehow putting up a fight against my beloved Wolverines. I was nervous, fidgety, and screaming at the television. But the overwhelming feeling was one of expectation, almost entitlement. We WERE the better team. We SHOULD be the national champion (GTFO, Nebraska). I wasn't watching the game to just to see if we'd win, I was watching the game to confirm what I already knew: Michigan was the best team in the country.
Fast forward 19 years. When I watch Michigan, for the first time since 1997, I am watching not just to see the result, but to validate my belief that this is a transcendent team--one of the truly great Maize & Blue squads of all time.
The comparisons are natural. While some are manufactured, many are remarkably similar. Sure, modernity (more plays per game) changes the numbers and feel, but there are loads of apples to line up against apples here.
- QB - Brian Griese vs. Wilton Speight. While many fans remember Griese as the steady leader of our National Championship team, few recall that he was almost universally viewed as the weakpoint of the team. In fact, there was a QB controversy during fall camp--Griese barely beat out Tom Brady. Griese was a game manager (sound familiar?) not a game breaker, and fans wondered if he could be counted on to deliver if the defense ever faltered. His passing stats: 175/277 (63.2%), 2042 yds (7.4 YPA), 14 TDs, 5 INTs, 138.2 Rtg. Wilton Speight is viewed in a very similar light: many fans weren't sure he should be the starting QB, and he hasn't been a consistently great enough performer to inspire complete confidence in the offense. His stats so far: 114/182 (62.6%), 1447 yds (8.0 YPA), 13 TDs, 2 INTs, 150.80 Rtg.
- RBs - 1997 was definitely a "rush by committee" team. Chris Howard led the team with 180 carries, but freshman Anthony Thomas had 130 rushes. Two more Wolverines--Chris Floyd and Clarence Williams--each added nearly 60 carries and over 260 rushing yards. The 2016 version is even more balanced: Smith has 79 carries, Issac 63, Evans 49, Higdon 43. The big difference is that Howard mustered 868 yards at 4.8 YPC--the clear leader of the rushing attack--while no one else had 530 yards. This season, I'm not certain Smith will finish as our leading rusher (though he will be #1 in carries, barring injury) and we already have four players with over 330 rushing yards. The '97 squad also lacked game-breakers, with no RB averaging more than Howard's 4.8 YPC, while the '16 version has four players averaging over 5.2 YPC, and two players over 8.3 YPC.
- WRs/TEs - Wow. My memories of Tai Streets and Jeremy Tuman were way off. While the game was played differently and felt much different in 1997, I was shocked to see that our leading receiver was Chris Howard (35 catches). Streets had just 24, and Tuman and 27. Woodson added 11 more, but three RBs had over 20 receptions while only one WR (Streets) grabbed more than 20. In fact, the #2 WR--Russell Shaw--had just 19 catches. Streets had just 349 receiving yards and four TDs. Contrast that with Darboh, who has already caught 30 passes for 499 yards and 5 TDs. Chesson has 18 grabs for 275 yards and a score, and Butt has 26 receptions (310 yds, 4 TDs) to Tuman's 27 (404 yds, 4 TDs). Other than Woodson, Tuman was the big play threat in our passing game.
- OL - The 1997 Offensive Line was excellent. From left-to-right: Jeff Backus, Steve Hutchinson, Zach Adami, Chris Ziemann, and Jon Jansen. Only Adami would not play in the NFL, and he was All-Big Ten in '97. Of course, Hutchinson and Jansen would go on to become All Americans, and Backus would be a first round draft choice.
Verdict: I think QB is a push. While Speight's numbers are better, Griese seemed to have the "it" factor as a leader. While I am shocked to say this, I would take this year's group of RBs over the '97 squad. Howard was an underrated player and is better than Smith, but the supporting cast in '16 is way ahead of the '97 group. WR/TE is the easiest call on the team: the 2016 tandem is excellent in all phases of the game, and Butt is probably the best TE in school history. The 1997 OL gets my vote, but lets remember that Hutchinson and Backus were still freshmen. That said, Adami, Ziemann, and Jansen were excellent, and I just don't see the same talent level on our current line.
So who's better? I would pick the 2016 offense. The 1997 offense was 44th in YPG and PPG. The 2016 offense is currently 28th in YPG and third in PPG. Long way to go and our rankings may drop a bit, but it's hard to see Michigan falling out of the top 15 scoring and the top 40 in YPG.
Some other amazing offensive stats for the 2016 team:
- Our scoring average of 48.7 PPG is more than 15 points better than the 2011 team, which had the best numbers since 2006.
- Has a college team ever had four RBs with over 500 yards rushing? Can someone find this out? Barring injury, this team will do that easily.
- Including McDoom and Peppers, this team has four players (with at least 10 carries) averaging over 8.3 YPC.
- Khalid Hill (Hammering Panda) has 8 rushing TDs on just 15 carries. #2 in rushing TDs was a surprise to me--Karan Higdon has 6 TDs on just 43 carries.
- Just four players have double-digit receptions this year: Darboh, Butt, Chesson, and De'Veon Smith.
- If Speight can keep his QBR where it is (150.80), it will be the highest rating for a Michigan starter since Drew Henson posted a 152.7 in 2000. In 1991, Elvis Grbac had 161.7 rating, largely on the back of Desmond Howard's 19 TD catches.
We need some wallpaper for #HateWeek, right? Of course.
The MSU rivalry has always been the most important rivalry to me. I live in Lansing, so many of my friends and family members are Spartans. For the last decade, it has not been very fun to live amongst the Green and White.
However, this year has been great fun. The Sparty fans in my life have been unusually quiet. It's almost as if they are sitting quietly in a burning room. Just like the famous dog from the very popular comic. That's where the idea for this wallpaper came from.
And for all your trash talking needs, here it is in comic form.
Aaaand for good measure, here's a GIF.
— Joe Sports (@joefedewa) October 27, 2016
Week 8 Conference Wins Update
“Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy.”
- Miss Havisham (Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations)
At eight weeks and seven games in, the season has reached a point where most teams have had the benefit of a Bye (except LOLRutgerz & Iowa). It’s also a point where teams have had sufficient opportunity to meld new players and emerging talent into their systems, and take stock of who will be the key contributors from here on out. Teams who will contend in the end are those that have shown steady improvement and a competitive drive despite adverse circumstances. For Michigan, this week amounted to the second of two scrimmages sandwiched around its Bye week, ostensibly concluding a mid-season training camp of sorts. The focus turns now toward preparation for the visit to East Lansing coming up. For Michigan’s rivals, this week could not have gone much better from Michigan’s point of view. The Buckeyes, in its loss to Penn State, continued to exhibit weaknesses in its schemes, play calling, offensive and defensive lines, and then coupled all that with abject failures to execute in the clutch. Sparty, meanwhile, appears to be in the throes of a deathly downward tailspin that should auger in neatly come mid-afternoon on Saturday. If Sparty is merely performing some death-defying tricks to lull the Wolverines into a false sense of security, it’s an Emmy Award-worthy performance.
The impetus of this diary is the desire to characterize the competitive landscape of the Big Ten Conference through the synthesis of total win probability distributions for each of the teams. The distributions are derived from the relative expected points ratings from Bill Connelly (S&P+), ESPN (FPI), and occasionally Ed Feng (The Power Rank). The key is that the ratings are based on expected points, which are in turn translated into win probabilities. Each of these three ratings are generated from their respective advanced statistical analyses and metrics. In doing so, they achieve varied results ... some more pleasing than others depending on your point-of-view.
Anyway, here you will find further ruminations on said statistics into still more statistics as a means for enabling further discussion, jumping to conclusions, flying off of the handle or goading your rival. Also included is a fresh look at the all-important head-to-head win-differential probability distribution for the matchup between a select pair of contenders in the B1G East.
Schedules, Margins, Probabilities & Distributions
B1G East Schedules & Margins Rundown
The table of schedules below shows the overall schedules for all seven teams in the B1G East based on the Bill Connelly’s S&P+ weekly ratings. The last table simply shows a rank-ordering of the B1GE teams based on their expected in-conference win totals, it’s not a projection of divisional standings based on projected wins, losses, and tie-breakers.
First off, let’s be clear. Ohio State remains as competitive an opponent as they come, and it is well-known and documented that one loss does not break a season in the context of the B1G or National Championship picture, as these very same Buckeyes demonstrated in 2014. Unless of course, things end up tied with a winning opponent, which the Buckeyes also demonstrated in 2015. So all of a sudden the B1G East is set up nicely for a potential three-way tie scenario among Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State! More on that later.
Michigan, by virtue of a half-throttling of Illinois, continues as the #1 ranked team in all the land as per S&P+. U-M has doubled its lead now to four spots over OSU. Penn State, to its credit, managed to hang around with OSU into the fourth quarter, and found the proverbial “way to win” by cashing in on a single play that had an effective 10 point swing. The Nits thereby continue to move up the S&P+ ranks and now stand at #16 - good enough for 4th best in the B1G, and 3rd in the East.
Looking at the S&P+ probabilities, the Wolverines lead the B1GE with about 8.6 expected B1G wins, ahead of the now 2nd place Nittany Lions by a cool 1.4 expected wins. The Buckeyes trail the Nits by a narrow 0.2 wins. Michigan is the only team in the B1G at this point expected to exceed 8 wins. U-M and PSU are both favored in all of their remaining games. As such, OSU is no longer the favorite in The Game. Woe upon Northwestern who faces OSU next week, but beyond that, the OSU matchup versus the still-unbeaten Huskers may make or break the Buckeyes’ prospects heading into The Game.
Indiana, despite dropping its game with Northwestern, remains in the fourth spot, but at about 3.8 expected wins is now 3.2 wins behind PSU. However, the Hoosiers are underdogs in only two of its remaining games, which should make them bowl eligible. Meanwhile, Maryland reclaimed its place on the bowl-eligibility bubble by getting a critical win in knocking off Sparty in College Park. Only 0.3 expected wins behind Indiana, the matchup between the Terps and the Hoosiers next week - which stands at a 51/49 split - will be the key in determining which team will likely secure a bowl bid.
The FPI results differ slightly, the most notable difference that Michigan holds the #2 spot, followed by OSU still holding on at #4. In turn, M tops all teams in the B1GE with just over 8.3 expected wins, now ahead of OSU by a cool 1.3 expected wins. For the first time this season, FPI results now show U-M to be favored in all of its remaining games; the only game in which OSU is not favored is The Game. The margin, however, is only 1.8 points. Penn State, after its stunning upset of OSU, has separated from all others as the clear #3 in the B1GE at nearly 6.8 expected wins - less than 0.3 wins behind OSU - and is also favored in all of its remaining games. Maryland, with about 3.7 expected wins is an underdog in 4 more games; and Indiana, expecting about 3.2 wins is an underdog in 2 games. The Maryland-Indiana matchup may well reverse that balance, as FPI also sees this game as a 51/49 split. MSU, meanwhile, is favored in only one more game this season: LOLRutgerz. MSU is not favored on the road in Champaign. What would Sparty do without LOLRutgerz?
Here’s a link to a chart showing the results from the Power Rank-ings. The numbers here look...pretty good!
B1G East Expected Conference Wins Distributions
The bar plots below show the expected total overall wins distributions for teams in the B1G East, in alphabetical order. Noted above each bar is the probability for that number of wins (you may need to click & embiggen to read it). The bar with the highest value is the most likely outcome (the mode). Also flagged on each plot is the expected overall win total (the mean). The last line plot is just an overlay of the same data from the other seven bar plots.
The “big take-away” from this round of distributions is that Michigan stands apart from all other with the highest mode, and that mode, dear reader, is the mode of an undefeated 9 wins! Whats more, OSU and PSU both show modes of 7 wins - that’s right, a 2 win separation. Now granted, PSU’s distribution is skewed strongly toward 8 wins. OSU is more balanced around 7 wins, but still with a considerable likelihood of 8 wins (which can be interpreted in more than one way), but the point is this: a bit of a log jam has emerged at the 8-win mode. That is the aforementioned three-way tie atop the B1GE over which many of the pundits are getting their panties in bunch. A quick computation shows that the much ballyhooed three-way tie among Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State has a probability of about 8%, largely because as the overlay shows, it’s almost 5 times as likely that OSU and PSU will lose at least one more game and Michigan will win out. Nonetheless, by virtue of the new B1G tie-breaker rules, overall winning percentage eliminates PSU first from the three-way tie since they lost an OOC game to Pitt, and OSU can only move ahead by winning The Game.
Indiana now sits at 4 wins leaning a bit toward 3 wins, whereas Maryland sits at 3 wins leaning toward four. Their upcoming game will be a battle for potential bowl-eligibility. MSU has settled into the single win mode, but with a strong, hopeful lean toward 2 wins, while Rutgers will most likely go winless in the B1G. Clearly, with the Buckeyes’ backs to the wall, the B1GE divisional championship at this point is Michigan’s to lose. The likelihood of UM having an undefeated season at stands at 61.8% (up from the 18.8% before obliterating Rutgers) or about 3:2 odds in favor.
Once again, a similar looking logjam in the B1GE at the 8-win mode. FPI works out to a similar likelihood of the three-way tie as S&P+: 9%, largely because as the overlay suggests, it’s almost 4 times more likely that PSU and OSU lose at least one more game and UM wins out.
The FPI results differ somewhat from the S&P+ results above. UM registers a mode of 8 wins (and one loss), but skewed strongly toward an undefeated 9 wins. UM registers a 43.4% chance to win out. From there, a smaller separation of 1 win exists to the 7 win mode occupied by Ohio State and Penn State. OSU shows a slight lean toward 8 wins; PSU slightly toward 6 wins. From there, a 3 win gap separates the next closest teams, Maryland and Indiana, with modes of 4 wins and 3 wins, respectively. Sparty lags further behind, clinging desparately to a mode shaded slightly toward 2 wins, only one win ahead of LOLRutgerz. LOLRutgerz at MSU - the Slobber-Knocker of Self-Loathing - is shaping up to be an instant BTN Classic.
Here’s a link to a chart showing the results from the Power Rank-ings.
B1G West Schedules & Margins Rundown
The next table of schedules shows the overall schedules for the B1G West based on the Bill Connelly’s S&P+ weekly ratings. Again, the last table simply shows a rank-ordering of the B1GW teams based on their expected win totals - it’s not a projection of divisional conference standings per se.
The S&P+ results for the B1GW have coalesced around Nebraska and Wisconsin as the principal contenders, with about 6.6 and 6.2 expected wins, respectively. For Wisconsin, this weekend’s matchup with the Huskers will be critical in its bid to advance to the B1GCG. If the Badgers lose, they’re likely out of contention. Having traversed most of the gauntlet that was their early season schedule, however, the Badgers now sit in the catbird seat as the only team in the B1GW favored in all of its remaining games. If the Badgers secure the win coming in as an 8.5 point favorite, and provided they win out as they are favored to do, they will be a virtual lock for the B1GCG ... unless the Huskers can knock off the Buckeyes in Columbus on November 5 and finish with only one B1G loss.
Northwestern, Minnesota and Iowa have congealed into a second tier of likely bowl-eligibles. Northwestern, now expecting nearly 5.1 wins, has an edge of nearly 0.3 wins over Minnesota. From there, Iowa lags another 0.4 wins. The resurgent Wildcats are headed toward the buzzsaw of Buckeye team coming off a loss, so the Cats’ resurgence may take a hiatus this weekend, but still, the Cats can expect to be bowl-eligible. The Cats are still favored in 2 of their remaining games. Iowa appears to have reached its high-water mark, being a favorite in only 1 of its 4 remaining games (at Illinois). That one win however, may suffice to make the Hawkeyes bowl-eligible. Similarly, Illinois is favored in only one remaining game (Sparty). Lastly Purdue, after letting Darrell Hazell go, will be mailing in the rest of the season.
FPI results have Nebraska leading the B1GW with the same 6.55 expected wins as S&P+, with Wisconsin trailing by a slightly wider 0.6 win margin. Like S&P+, FPI has the Badgers favored in all its remaining games, with the Huskers underdogs in its next two games. Northwestern follows more closely in the FPI results at 5.3 wins, with Iowa in the 4-spot another 0.6 wins back. Wrapping up the likely bowl invitees is Minnesota at about 4.3 expected wins. who is as the teams in contention and expecting to have winning B1G records. As with S&P+, Nebraska and Minnesota are both underdogs in two of their remaining games. Northwestern is a 3-game dog, and Iowa is favored in only one of its five remaining games.
Here’s a link to a chart showing the results from the Power Rank-ings.
B1G West Expected Conference Wins Distributions
The bar plots below show the expected overall win distributions for the B1G West teams, in alphabetical order.
The story in the B1GW continues to be how close the race to Indy remains. Five teams have modes in the 4 to7 win range. Nebraska is currently the only team with a mode of 7 wins, while Wisconsin is at 6 wins, with both teams leaning toward the mode of the other team. Northwestern and Minnesota are both balanced on the 5 win mode. Iowa is now at the 4 win mode after its loss to Wisconsin, but is skewed toward 5 wins. The only team remaining without a loss of course is Nebraska, but has only a 1.5% likelihood of staying that way. The Huskers also have the best - and only - chance of a one-loss season in the B1GW at 14.1%.
The FPI results tell a similar story. Nebraska shows a 7 win mode, leaning toward 6 wins; Wisconsin is at the 6 win mode, leaning now toward 7 wins. Meanwhile, Northwestern is showing some separation from Iowa and Minnesota at the 5 win mode and leaning strongly toward 6 wins. Behind the Cats are the Hawkeyes, also at the 5 win mode but leaning toward 4 wins. Minnesota continues to lurk at the 4 win mode, with a skew toward 5 wins. As such, those five teams are at least hopeful bowl-game qualifiers. To the credit of Purdue and Illinois, they both look a game better than LOLRutgerz and Sparty at this point.
Here’s a link to a chart showing the results from the Power Rank-ings.
Michigan vs. Ohio State Big Ten Wins Differential
The win-differential distribution simply shows the likelihood of one team (say, Michigan) finishing with a conference record that is some number of games better or worse than another team (say, Ohio State). Keeping in mind that in the event of a tie, the winner of the head-to-head match up determines the tiebreaker … the probability of the teams having identical conference records (i.e. a win differential of zero) heading into the final head-to-head meeting is then pro-rated in proportion to the win probability of the head-to-head game. The same principle also applies to the probabilities of either team having a one-game lead going into the head-to-head (i.e. win differentials of +1 and -1). This is because a team trailing by one game would still clinch the tie-breaker by winning the final head-to-head game. Thus, the total likelihood of Michigan finishing ahead of Ohio State is the sum of all the maize-and-blue shaded bars (i.e. U-M wins two or more games than OSU), plus a proportional split of the -1, 0 and +1-differential bars. It’s worth noting that this total likelihood does not indicate the likelihood of making it to the B1G Championship, as it says nothing about how other teams in the B1G East do, or even how Michigan or Ohio State do in the absolute sense. For example, if both teams were to finish tied in the B1G at 7-2, which means that UM and OSU would be losing 2 games each, at which point another team (Penn State) may have a snowball’s chance.
Beginning as usual with the results of the S&P+ analysis, the chart below now shows that following the Buckeyes loss to Penn State, the most likely outcome (65.5% likelihood) is that U-M is one game up heading into Columbus. Nonetheless, The Game will still likely decide who will play for the B1G Championship. What’s more, looking at the head-to-head matchup, the win probability for Michigan has expanded to 67.4% (that’s a cool 7 point margin!), so UM collects a 44.1 point share of the 65.5 points for the likelihood of winning when coming in up one (and finishing ahead two games). OSU collects the remaining 21.3 points.
The second most likely scenario, now with a 25.2% likelihood, is that UM comes into Columbus two games ahead of OSU. Of this possible outcome, UM collects the entire 25.2 points, of course, because UM would still be assured of finishing one game ahead of OSU.
The third most likely scenarios that UM comes with the same record as OSU. This scenario has a 5.7% likelihood, of which UM collects a 3.8 point share for its likelihood of winning and finishing in one game ahead. OSU collects the remaining 1.9 points.
The fourth most likely scenario, with a likelihood of 3.3%, is that UM comes into Columbus three games ahead of OSU. All 3.3 points for UM in this case.
Two other vanishingly small scenarios register on the chart. Noodling through those is left as an exercise for the reader.
In total according to the S&P+ ratings, Michigan now has a 76.8% likelihood of finishing the season ahead of OSU - better than 3:1 in favor!
Painting a slightly less rosy picture, here is the same chart based on the FPI ratings following the week 8 results. This shows a slightly narrower margin for UM in the race against OSU to the B1GCG. However, as with S&P+, the most likely outcome is that UM heads into Columbus up one game on the Buckeyes. In the head-to-head matchup, UM is rated high enough to overcome OSU’s home-field advantage, giving Michigan a 54.6% likelihood (a 1.8 point margin) to win The Game. To sum it all up - according to FPI, UM now has a 68.3% likelihood of beating out OSU at season’s end, or a little better than 2:1 chance.
Here’s a link to the chart showing the results from the Power Rank-ings.
Bonus Section: Nebraska vs. Wisconsin Big Ten Wins Differential
It seems like a good time to take a closer look at the primary contenders in the B1GW since they will meet on the field this weekend, those contenders being Wisconsin and Nebraska.
So here are the S&P+ results after running the differential analysis rubbing the Nebraska distribution against Wisconsin. Very interesting indeed, and quite different from the UM-OSU rub. In this case, the most likely outcome is that Nebraska is ahead of Wisconsin for all games outside their head-to-head matchup. However, Wisconsin is favored by such a significant margin (8.5 points or 70.8% likelihood) in the head-to-head matchup that the balance of all probable outcomes tilt in Wisconsin’s favor.
And here are the FPI results for the Nebraska-Wisconsin differential distribution. The plot thickens as it were. In this case, the most likely outcome, similar to the S&P+ results, is that Nebraska is ahead of Wisconsin for all games outside their head-to-head matchup. Also, Wisconsin is favored in the head-to-head matchup, but by a slightly less significant margin (6.8 points or 66.9% likelihood) in the head-to-head matchup. The end result is that the balance of all probable outcomes tilts in favor of Nebraska, not Wisconsin. This is yet another illustration of how close this B1GW race is.
Here’s a link to the chart showing the results from the Power Rank-ings.
So there you have it. Evidence continues to mount that Ohio State is eminently beatable, particularly in consideration of the anticipated matchups in the trenches - a place where inexperience and a lack of bulk can have deleterious effects that cannot be overcome. Among the three opponents shared in common with OSU (Rutgers, Wisconsin and Penn State), Michigan is arguably more advanced schematically and more consistent in its ability to execute. Michigan obliterated Rutgers on the road even more thoroughly than OSU did at home. OSU’s OT win at Wisconsin yielded 23 points to the Badgers compared to UM’s 7 points allowed, and OSU’s 23 points in regulation matches UM’s touchdowns and field goals attempted. And then there’s Penn State, the same team that Michigan had pummeled into garbage time by the end of first quarter, OSU allows to hang around into the fourth quarter. Tsk, tsk.
The prospects for Michigan football to play in the Big Ten Championship Game continue to trend in a positive direction, while a still competitive game awaits for OSU (vs Nebraska) which may expose further weaknesses and vulnerabilities, or at provide a barometer to gauge the Buckeyes’ progress. In all, it bodes well for this Michigan team as it continues to work toward its goals to compete for the Big Ten Championship, and beyond.
Yours in football, and Go Blue!
Best: Who’s Next? You’re Next!
Professional wrestling has always been, at its core, a bit of a show and a bit of a sham, a way to scam the “marks” under the pretext of “legitimate” fighting. It’s always had a certain carnival taste to it, this roving band of actors and actresses who put on a show 300 nights a year, replaying storylines and character tropes before moving on to the next town under the cover of night. The stories are a bit evergreen, or at the very least easily recyclable; like the movies of Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, the story resets when the lights go out. The suspension of disbelief required to be a fan has this baked into it, and so that’s why the companies could cycle through the same territories at will, bringing in a couple of new characters to liven up the product but generally relying on the stalwarts. And in the event one of those new performers popped, then you better believe they would be pushed to the moon in order to raise the returns at the gate and the concession stands.
Back during the Attitude/Monday Night Wars Era of professional wrestling (or colloquially referred to as the time it was somewhat socially acceptable to chop your crotch and suggest others partake in it), you had perhaps the greatest collection of performers who had some level of mainstream visibility. People point to the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling boom of the 80s, Bruno Sammartino making a name in the Northeast and owning the Garden ever night, or the NWA putting up huge shows in the South during the territory days as other times wrestling controlled the zeitgeist, but people forget that in the late 90’s and early 00’s, you had the internet, you had cable, you had video games, you had other avenues to draw your attention. And yet, for a couple of years, professional wrestling was able to elbow drop its way into the conversation.
In the WWF/E, you had Stone Cold Steve Austin, a “good hand” who had toiled in smaller promotions and half-cocked WCW stables (I’m admittedly a huge fan of both the Hollywood Blondes and the Dangerous Alliance, but neither set the world on fire) for half a century before he cut an iconic promo in Extreme Championship Wrestling that led to another iconic promo and a decade of being one of the biggest draws in professional wrestling history, which culminated (to me, at least) being able to pick games on College Gameday after doing this:
Around the same time, WCW was trying to create a viable opponent to combat the New World Order, which had started off as a teaming of Scarface rip-off Scott Hall and noted male exotic dancer Kevin Nash as The Outsiders, (probably) reached its apex when aggrieved plaintiff Hulk Hogan turned heel in what was legitimately a shocking moment, and was the catalyst for “exposing the business” to the masses. So they looked over at the competition, saw a bald, plainly-dressed former football player dominating the airwaves and figured, and took a page from the playbook.
What emerged was Bill Goldberg, a former All-SEC LB at UGa with prodigious strength and palpable intensity. We talk about Jim Harbaugh tackling the day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind, well, I imagine if it was in the budget he’d walk to his office like Goldberg every morning.
Beyond the obvious physical attributes, Goldberg’s career was highlighted by a much-publicized undefeated streak. The official number is 173 victories in a row, which I’m sure is a number that annoys Nick Saban and once Alabama falls short of it again will lead to a couple more kids being sent to the ol’ St. Saban Medical Campus. But anyway, what made this streak so impressive was how the difficulty was ramped up. Early on, it was just Goldberg beating huge, moonsaulting Riddler cosplayers and Saturday Night Fever homages, but that loses its luster quickly. So then it was whole collections of wrestlers, most famously Raven and his Flock, which wound up being streamrolled. And along the way, Goldberg just demolished guys, no-selling their offense and displaying ever-more-violent means of dispatching them. Then it was time to take on the head of the NWO, Hulk Hogan, and wrest away the top prize from the cabal he was destined to combat, and he did so with authority.
He proceeded to take on all comers, including the “largest athlete in the world” and stalwarts of WCW/NWA history like noted UM fan Ric “Nature Boy” Flair and Sting. And yeah, at some point you run out of viable opponents, and people get bored of the guy at the top when the chase is what excited them, and you wind up getting “tasered” and pinned by said male stripper.
But Michigan isn’t there yet; they are firmly on the rise, in the dominating performances over (seemingly) sacrificial lambs, in letting no injustice, no blemish go unpunished.
The fancy stats will tell you Michigan has played about as well as expected, like a championship team should. They’ll say UM has a better-than 93% chance of going 11-1 or 12-0, which is dangerously approaching football singularity.
The less fancy stats will note that UM is outscoring their opponents buy a total of 341 to 70, that they’ve outrushed teams 1800 to 672 yards, 28 TDs to 2. That on third down, opponents are converting only 13% of their attempts, and hell that number is goosed by conversions late in blowouts. But pointing these out almost seem superfluous as a means to validate what you see with your eyes, much like you didn’t need “the streak” and all the pyrotechnics to remind you that this hulking bull marching to the ring was going to wreck shop.
At some point this run will end, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be in 2016. UM is the best team in this conference and is neck-and-neck with Alabama for best team in the country. They make mortal teams, good teams, seem like chum thrown into the water to attract sharks. That PSU team UM dismantled last month? They just beat the #2 team in the country and UM’s main speedbump on the way to a conference crown, and that followed up a game where Wisconsin look far more capable against a Buckeye defense than they ever did against UM’s death machine. Colorado has a chance at a division crown in the Pac-12, but and they gave UM probably their biggest challenge all year – and lost to UM by 17, 38-7 if you throw out that weird first quarter. This isn’t 2011, a feel-good story helped with a crazy turnover margin and some down rivals. No, this is a swirling ball of death helmed by an evil genius who wonders what would happen if you tried to make 5 guns into 1 gun, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.
Best: Just Another Victim
Keeping with the wrestling theme for a second, you remember how I mentioned wrestling was mostly a cash-grab run by carnival barkers in suits? Well, a byproduct of that was shameless commercialization of anything and everything related to professional wrestling in the early 00’s, including the unholy alliance between wrestler’s theme songs, good old “Nu Metal”, and (I guess) terrible focus-group testing. What resulted was the hilariously-poorly titled “WWF Forceable Entry”, a Gold-selling CD of wrestlers’ entrances remixed by some of your favorite angry white-guy rock that absolutely was blasted out of the boombox in your gym while in HS and college. That’s right, you could hear Drowning Pool scream their way through a cover of Motorhead’s “The Game”, Kid Rock somehow out-trash the already-trashy “Legs” by ZZ Top, and the “original” Rollin’ by Limp Bizkit that was co-opted by the Undertaker during his Biker Taker gimmick era.
And as someone who was absolutely the target demographic for this stuff, I’ll shamefully admit to liking more of this rap-rock than I should have. That’s why when someone points to Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, etc. releasing great works, also remember that this guy who was responsible for this song was not-kidding one of the biggest musical acts in the world.
But anyway, one of the tracks on that CD was a redone entrance for Tazz. Tazz was an odd character in that he was a tough kid from Brooklyn (back when Brooklyn wasn’t synonymous with $1200 strollers and artisanal honey bees) who was built like a brick sh*t house and went by the moniker “the human suplex machine”. He made a name for himself in ECW as a terrifying force of nature, won everything that he could, then made the jump to the WWF where he choked out Olympic Champion Kurt Angle in his first televised match at MSG. The rest of his career never reached those heights and he’s shuffled between promotions since, but probably the lasting image I have of him was Tazz in a dimly-lit room, staring into a shaky handheld camera, snarling his trademark line “Beat me if you can. Survive, if I let you.”
UM allowed Illinois to survive this game moreso than Rutgers, and the score was a bit closer, but make no mistake about it: this was still a profoundly dominating game by UM.
Ace mentioned it in his game recap, but I’m legitimately running out of ways to describe how, well, cruelly-efficient UM has been. UM gave up 4.4x as many yards this week as the last time they played a game (172 to 39), and still put up nearly 400 more yards of total offense than the Illini. They lost their leading rusher (Chris Evans) early in this game to a concussion (which felt like a fine-if-accidentally-dangerous hit to me)…then proceeded to reel off 217 yards on 36 carries for a nice 6.0 ypc by Higdon, Smith, and Isaac. Speight had his best game in what felt like a month, handling some pressure by the Illini (who had 8 TFLs on the day, including 2 sacks) to throw for 253 yards on 23 attempts and 2 TDs, a nice 11 ypa. Even with a couple of drops and a fumble by Chesson, the receivers found openings all day in the Illinois secondary and picked up lots of yards after the catch.
Against a third-string QB running for his life behind a porous line, the defense didn’t face much of a challenge. During the Friday night podcast (yep, I listen to them all), Brian, Ace, and Craig argued over whether or not Malik Turner might catch one or two contested jump balls in this game, and lo-and-behold a prayer by George Jr. was answered for the sole Illinois TD despite solid coverage by Hill. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, lining up under center a number of times to save George from further pain, did break loose for a big 45-yard run (that led to Peppers pulling out his best Jourdan Lewis impression and sprinting across the field to knock him out of bounds), but that was it. Michigan continued to pick apart a competent offensive unit, highlighted by Thomas intercepting a screen pass off the receiver’s helmet. They didn’t record a mountain of TFLs (4) or sacks (1), but that was mostly a by-product of Illinois trying to get the ball out quickly and (rightly) recognizing that asking their 2* walk-on to beat UM in the air was only going to extend the agony.
So they ran the ball a bit, punted a bunch, and let a running clock be their ally as UM scored on their first 4 possessions. And honestly, considering they are still digging out from under this guy, they’d probably take that outcome.
Worst: So Many TFLs
I have to complain about something with the offense, so one thing I did notice was some continued instability blocking against an aggressive defensive line, this time resulting in 8 TFLs and 2 more QB hits. It’s clear that the drop-off from Newsome to JBB is more than some first expected, and so some shuffling is in order. Normally I’d be worried going into a game against MSU with the front line in flux, but (a) Illinois’s defense is predicated (and capable) of racking up tackles in a way MSU’s isn’t, (b) UM has a number of viable-ish options to shore up the line, and (c) it’s still a team that put up nearly 600 yards and didn’t break out too many wrinkles save for a couple of more Pepcat runs, the return of the train formation for their first TD, and a fake punt that would have worked had Gedeon been able to handle the snap. But again, any offense will struggle if guys are in the backfield, and considering how consistent MSU has been over the years at jumping the count, UM can’t give them (and other opponents) an easier time to disrupt the offense.
Best: Speight Worry…Diminished
I said it above, but I thought Speight played really well in this game. He still misses guys at times and can let the ball sail a bit, but he threw some really good balls into tight spaces (he had one throw to Darboh that sailed through about 4 defenders on a rope), escaped pressure effectively, and even showed a willingness to not force a bad throw (witness him pulling down the ball and taking a sack mid-throw in the 2nd quarter). His ceiling is probably still Rudock at the end of last year, but with this defense and running game you can win a title with that, easily.
Plus, both him and Rudock have displayed calmness and confidence in the pocket you don’t always see from college QBs. It’s clear that Harbaugh drills into this QBs that they need to always be looking downfield, even if it means taking a hit, and that they shouldn’t try to do more than the play asks of them. I know that comes across a bit like “game management”, but there’s Trent Dilfer game managers and then there’s “Not being Johnny Manziel”, and while it’s probably exciting to see guys scamper around in the pocket and launch the ball, good players and coaches understand it’s better to stare down 2nd-and-14 than turn the ball over. Speight displays that awareness and continues to mature as a QB, and I think the version of Wilton we saw Saturday can get this team to the playoffs.
Best: An Assembly Line
It’s sort of amazing how far UM’s running game has come in 2 years. Under Hoke, there was always talk about dominating in the trenches and grinding teams under a gashing running attack…and then you got 27-for-27 or a recording –69 yards on 65 carries against MSU and Nebraska in 2013. This year? 326 yards against PSU, almost 5 ypc against Wisconsin, 9 TDs against Rutgers, and another 270 yards and 3 TDs against Illinois, and that’s probably the worst performance of the group. Evans went suddenly and the offense didn’t seem to miss a beat, with Smith grinding down Illinois after first contact while Higdon continued to display the subtle moves and power that portend to even better things in the future. Oh yeah, and he basically weaved across the entire Illini defense for the game’s final score. All four backs are getting the ball and each has had standout performances, and the change of pace clearly adds another element to the offense you might not see if one back garnished the bulk of the carries. MSU will be a challenge simply because they have a competent-ish rush defense and have probably circled this game on their calendar since they lost to Wisconsin, but I don’t see the outcome being demonstrably different.
Best: More Variety Than I Expected
I’m not a huge NFL fan, but I do follow the Lions when I can snag a pirate feed of their game on a site likely operated in the basement of a bath house in Minsk or Sofia, so I remember Lovie Smith as a seemingly nice guy who got to a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman and had the good fortune to have some HOF defenders on his team for long stretches of his career. I thought he was a good hire by Illinois simply because of his name recognition in the state, but he’s definitely going to be the guy who cleans up the mess from the last regime before the next guy comes in to push Illinois forward. But I have to give him credit; I thought their offensive gameplan was far more creative that I expected.
It was probably due in large part to the fact he was down to his last semi-viable QB on the roster, but Illinois broke out some Wildcat, a little option running, some screens and slants, and did their best to move the ball against UM’s defense. And I think that benefitted UM more than people are going to give this game credit, as they had to deal with a good runner keeping the ball out of the backfield and maintaining their assignments on stretch runs. Vaughn’s one big run was largely due to a lineman and LB bumping into each other, and while not a proxy for OSU by any means, it definitely exposed UM to some of the same concerns you’ll have defending the Buckeyes. Obviously Barrett brings more of a passing threat, but unlike Rutgers, which seemingly tried to run their conventional offense in the face of insurmountable odds, Illinois tried to throw some surprises UM’s way defensively, and UM should benefit from them.
Now, UM still dominated this game, don’t get me wrong. The pass defense locked down Illinois save for that one long TD completion, and even that was as much due to Hill not quite timing his jump. Stribling had 2 pass breakups, Illinois had a total of 4 completions all day, and 6 total first downs all day. The rushing game averaged 3.3 ypc, but again that was basically on 43-yard run and not much else. Again, I want to say something other than “UM kicked their ass”, but that’s it.
Best: Oh Man, Hate Week
MSU is bad. Heck, they’re more than bad, they might be the worst team not named Rutgers in the Big 10. They can’t really run the ball, they can’t really pass it either, they can’t cover anyone to save their lives, and all of those years where Dantonio pulled horseshoes out of his ass seem to all be calling in their tabs at the same time. They’ve been blown out of games, they’ve lost on late-game FGs, and they’ve found ways to stub their toes against programs they used to dominate. And they can’t really go with a youth movement because, well, there aren’t a lot of those guys hanging around who could competently perform; the gap between the seniors and the freshmen is rather vast, and isn’t filled with a whole of of competency.
On the one hand, this shouldn’t be a total shocker to people; this was a team that finished 12th in S&P+ for 2015, around the likes of Arkansas and Baylor, not necessarily a playoff team. They won a bunch of close games against Oregon, UM, OSU, Purdue, and Rutgers, and while they did lose on a fluky play to Nebraska this team never felt like world-beaters, and that was with a decent amount of NFL talent. This year, they lack depth at key positions along the line and in the secondary, and it’s submarining what were two strengths of this team in recent years. To his credit, Dantonio has recruited like a top-25 team the past year or two, so in theory better players are on the roster but not ready to see the field, and MSU at their best beat you with age. So this probably isn’t the end of MSU as a top-25 team, barring a total cratering in recruiting and player development.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine MSU being able to keep pace with UM and OSU in their own division, and PSU, Maryland, and Indiana all have identities, national recognition, and/or dynamite recruiting on their side. And it definitely seems like MSU’s non-traditional (I hate the word “gimmicky”) 4-quarters defense has been figured out a bit, or at least isn’t going to work without a bunch of 1st-rounder corners and all-conference safeties to give it teeth. Narduzzi’s defenses at Pitt have given up an average of 32 points per game this year; they’re winning because they average almost 40 a game offensively. MSU couldn’t necessarily compete against every team on talent, so they figured out a system that highlighted their strengths and hid their weaknesses defensively and rode it to great success. But the opposition always figures you out at some point, and the jury is still out if MSU will/can add more wrinkles and adjustments to keep pace. Right now, early returns say no, and if that’s the case, it’s hard to see the Spartans being better than the 3rd or 4th-best team in this division.
So what does that mean about Saturday? Honestly, you’ll hear people talk about throwing out the record books in rivalry games, but that’s mostly BS. MSU beat UM 7 of the last 8 times because they were typically the better team or, at the very least, close enough that either team could win. But that’s not the case anymore; UM is significantly better than MSU at most facets of the game, and while I’m sure MSU will play with passion and abandon and might even keep it close, it’s hard to see a world where this game looks demonstrably different than the other non-Wisconsin games this year. Their offensive line is a mess, they defensive backfield is turrible, they’ve tried 3 QBs and the most memorable performance thus far was this:
That's MSU football in 2016: slapping the floor as the other team drains a 3 in your face.
So I’ll close this column with the man who started it off, Bill Goldberg, on how UM will treat the Spartans this week.