Welcome to the first 2016 edition of Moving the Stati-Sticks, our weekly deep-dive into the advanced stats that have become increasingly popular in college football and the weekly in-season post that you most likely forgot existed. I’m hoping to change that this season. Instead of a bunch of tables or numbers in text, I’ll be creating graphs (and they’re mostly intelligible!) for items of note. This won’t be an exhaustive look at every single line item in the advanced stat profiles that are out there, but rather items of interest spun out of last week’s game, followed by a quick look ahead to Saturday’s opponent.
We’ll start with a thousand-foot view of Michigan, and the view’s pretty nice, actually. ESPN’s FPI predicts Michigan’s record will be 10.8-1.7 with an 11.9% chance they win out and a 39.9% chance they win the conference. Bill Connelly’s advanced stats profile at Football Study Hall, from which most of the rest of this post is derived, gives Michigan a 9% chance to win out and 35.2% chance to finish 11-1 or better. Brian Fremeau’s FEI doesn’t have opponent-adjusted stats available yet, but Michigan’s first in the country in unadjusted game efficiency. They’ve also played teams that FEI ranks as either below average (ranked 71-90) or awful (ranked lower than 116), but, uh, wooo we’re number one. More detailed stats are obscured by a lot of garbage time, but on a macro level available projections are very favorable to Michigan.
[After THE JUMP: the run game, quantified]
Brian recently wrote a great Picture Pages that wrapped the “football is a game of inches” trope in a box and tied a nice, neat bow around it. Reading it is a visceral experience, a reminder of the miniscule events that can swing a game. If that’s looking at football through a microscope, what happens when we climb up to the photo deck and pull out a wide-angle lens?
We’re lucky enough to have people like Bill Connelly and MGoBlog’s own The Mathlete wondering the same thing and working toward achieving focus with a zoomed-out view of the game. Connelly wrote an influential piece about the five factors that he found to influence the outcome of a game, while The Mathlete’s research has come up with four. The purpose of this new weekly post is to pick through those factors and find what influenced last weekend’s outcome, as well as whether it was expected (turnovers are not great, Bob) or unexpected (I’d give you an example but then it’d fall into the “obvious” category, wouldn’t it).
I can hear my boss down the hall give me a quick summary of what I need to know about advanced stats before I have to switch to a different tab.
That’s oddly specific. It’s almost like the author of this piece has some prior experience with a scenario very similar to this one in a prior job. Anyway, Bill Connelly’s five factors are:
- Explosiveness: If you’re averaging more yards per play than your opponent you’re in good shape. Win probability swings wildly here; averaging just 0.1 yards per play more than your opponent raises win probability from 50% to 55%. Connelly also has a more advanced Equivalent Points Per Play metric that also accounts for the equivalent point value of the yard line from which a play is run.
- Efficiency: Last season the coaches often said that they “fell behind the sticks.” In effect, they were saying that the offense wasn’t very efficient. Success Rate is basically a measure of how well your offense stays on track; to be counted as a success a first-down play needs to get 50% of necessary yardage, a second-down play needs 70%, and third- and fourth-down plays need 100%.
- Field Position: Turns out starting closer to the endzone than your opponent is kind of a big deal. I’ll let Connelly explain it numerically.
- Finishing Drives: Connelly looks at how successful a team was inside the opponents’ 40-yard line. His argument is that there isn’t that big a difference in how teams perform inside the 20, but you do see some difference if you expand the range you’re looking at by 20 yards. It’s a pretty intuitive thing to look at; if you’re getting into opponent territory and not coming away with points you’re probably not going to win.
- Turnovers: Just don’t do them. Giving up the ball cuts off your opportunity to score while handing the opponent an extra one. We’ve already talked about field position, and with that being a component of a turnover you can understand how costly they can be from the standpoint of win expectancy.
The Mathlete’s four factors are similar in principle to Connelly’s, but are calculated differently. In his words, they are:
Conversion rate = [1st Downs gained]/[1st Down plays (including first play of drive)]. A three and out is 0/1. A one play touchdown is 1/1. Two first downs and then a stop is 2/3, etc.
Bonus Yards = [Yards gained beyond the first down line]/[Total plays from scrimmage]
Field Position = The expected point difference per game for where a team’s offense starts and where a team’s defense starts. Each drive is given an expected value based on the start of scrimmage, all of the drives for the offense and defense are totaled and compared. This accounts for all elements of field position: turnovers, special teams, drive penetration etc.
The fourth one is points per trip inside the red zone, which is self explanatory.
I’m back. Can you start writing about numbers so it looks like I’m doing something important and work related?
I mean, I guess? I’d recommend opening a sheet in Excel but that’s just me. Let’s look at The Mathlete’s factors first.
|Team||Field Pos||Rank||Conv Rate||Rank||Bonus YPP||Rank||Red Zone||Rank|
That’s about as close as it gets with the exception of field position. Mathlete has Michigan’s average start at their 21 while Bill Connelly’s advanced stats box score has Michigan’s average start at their 30.9. I did some charting myself and also came up with 30.9, so the 21 is likely just a typo. The national average starting position is 29.6. With both schools a little over a yard away from that mark, field position turns into another category that’s essentially a wash.
Switching from where they started to where they finished, Michigan and Utah both made six trips inside the 40 and 3 inside the red zone, and both came away with 17 points from those trips. As Mathlete has noted, that results in both teams averaging a fairly good 5.6 points per red zone trip.
From this we can conclude that field position data doesn’t do a good job of explaining what happened. Looking at efficiency doesn’t unmuddy the waters much either. Bill Connelly uses a stat called Leverage Rate as a part of efficiency. Leverage Rate basically tells you what percentage of plays the offense was on track (i.e. all first downs, second and seven or less, and third or fourth and four or less). Michigan’s leverage rate was 70.8%, while Utah’s was 72.9%. Both topped the national average of 68.3%.
Digging through more of Connelly’s advanced box score tells us what the eye test already has: the run game was a little below average, while the passing game was actually really good if you exclude the three interceptions.
I’m hiding in the bathroom please just get to the point.
The first place there’s any real separation is passing downs success rate, where Michigan was successful on 33.3% of throws while Utah was successful on only 10.5%. The separation in passing games is echoed by Michigan’s 25.8 to 19.1 advantage in equivalent points from passing (I highly recommend checking out the definition of equivalent points here).
That doesn’t mean that Utah’s passing game was a total flop; their IsoPPP, which is basically a measure of explosiveness, was 3.37 while Michigan’s was just 1.95. (The national average is 1.84). As mentioned above, I did some rudimentary charting where my criteria for explosiveness was a 10+ yard run or a 20+ yard pass. I had Utah with two such passes in the game while Michigan had three. I’m not sure I’m using the best explosiveness proxy, as Utah did have a number of throws in the range of 15 yards that didn’t meet my criteria for explosiveness but certainly could have had an effect on IsoPPP.
Hey thanks I had to go back to my desk and you still haven’t given me a good explanation of what happened.
If I had to pin it on one thing it’d be turnovers. Utah was +2 in turnover margin, while their turnover points margin was +13.8. In a game where all other factors were relatively close this is massive. In fact, Connelly’s projected scoring margin had Michigan losing by 13.0, but they managed to lose by only seven.
That, along with a good statistical performance from the passing game, was counterintuitively positive. The running game, however, was a fairly clear negative. The offensive line’s struggles resulted in 2.38 line yards per carry, well below the 2.82 LY/carry national average. Even Utah’s line generated 2.74 LY/carry despite the outward perception that Devontae Booker was bottled up. Michigan’s rushing success rate was 31.0%, which isn’t even in the neighborhood of the 42.9% national average. Not having an explosive run game is tenable if your success rate is high, which Michigan’s wasn’t. Improvement there and some regression to the mean in the turnover department should lead to success for Michigan.
“Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles… But sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But... aw, hell. I've done introduced him enough.” –The Stranger, The Big Lebowski
In mid-2010 I got hired by a bank to be a
Customer Service Representative teller. This put me on the front lines of the never-ending war between people’s money and the financial organizations that hold it. I learned very quickly that there were two things that could turn a mild-mannered citizen into a venom-spewing troglodyte: bank fees and Rich Rodriguez.
I loved when people came into the bank wearing college gear because it meant I’d be able to easily strike up a conversation about football, and people are a little less likely to verbally assault you when you’re able to find some common ground. The operative word in that last sentence is “little,” but I digress. By the fall of 2010 people were so fixated on the abject disaster that was Michigan’s defense that they willfully ignored how incredible the offense was. This was the fuel they needed to turn the “RichRod isn’t a ‘Michigan Man’” fire into a raging inferno, and it got so out of control that I talked to people who were even criticizing Rodriguez’s wife for not being Michigan-y or Michigan-ish or something crazy like that. At one point someone complained to me about her having blonde hair.
The Microscope of Public Scrutiny was so zoomed in on Rodriguez and everything surrounding him that Dave Brandon was able to make the Free Press look stupid and then lie in wait. At some point in 2010 Brandon’s opinion aligned with the bank’s clients; to them, the Rodriguez experiment had failed. Enter: Brady Hoke.
Hoke represented everything that the anti-Rodriguez movement wanted: familiarity with the program, a defensive background, and the mixture of self-oriented humility manifest in his claim that he’d walk across the country for the job and the program-oriented bravado in the interminable fergodsakes claim.
The honeymoon phase lasted a full season, but by the end of Hoke’s fourth year the program was in a place similar to where he found it, a place all too familiar to Michigan’s fanbase. One side of the ball was above average, but the other side was in such shambles that the team collapsed under the dead weight.
"Once we get the power play down, then we'll go to the next phase. You know, because we're gonna run the power play."
Brady Hoke, 3/23/2011
The transition from Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke was like switching from cold brewed coffee to run-of-the-mill drip coffee; a move away from the newer, higher-octane movement and toward what felt more traditional, the tried and true. The fallout from this was immediately apparent in the speculation that one of the most dynamic players to every don the winged helmet might transfer to a school with an offense better suited to his talents (i.e. a school that wouldn’t put him under center and have him hand the ball off).
In what may be one of the most significant events in program history (more on that later), Denard stayed. Al Borges still tried to put Denard under center and Michigan did rep power, but there were enough zone reads incorporated to allow Denard to continue waking up opposing defensive coordinators in cold sweats. You know all of this. You watched it unfold. That also means you watched crimes perpetrated against manpanda and an offense hell-bent on skinning its forehead running against a brick wall before finally, mercifully, abandoning their MANBALL-big-boy-football-noises ideals and exploding out of the shotgun.
This piece is intended to be the counterpoint to the memory’s emphasis on the spectacular. The intent isn’t to accuse, but to take a more calculated look at what exactly happened to Michigan’s offense over the last four years and see where things went well, as well as where and how things stopped functioning.
[After THE JUMP: charts and tables]
Turnover margin is a notoriously jittery stat that does not often repeat year to year. Turnovers are infrequent and hugely impactful, so they tend to wander all over the place without much rhyme or reason, slaying or rescuing seasons. Yes, there are obvious repeatable factors that correlate with good or bad turnover margin on a macro level. Get to the quarterback and he will explode in a confetti of bad decisions; allow the opponent to get to yours and watch the same thing occur.
On a micro level, sometimes you eat the bear… sometimes the bear eats you.
Michigan ate the bear last year, recovering around 75% of available fumbles. I know people want to believe there is a narrative that supports this model of football. When I returned from the Mattison coaching clinic presentation, one of the items I mentioned was that Michigan treats all incompletions as live balls in practice. I didn't think that was much of an explanation but a lot of commenters seized on it.
There does not have to be a reason that events transpire. It's not an Eastern thing. Sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you.
Michigan ate the bear last year, and how. SBN's Bill Connolly put together a stat called "adjusted turnover margin" that assumes an NCAA-average fumble recovery rate (50.3% for the D) and NCAA-average PBU-to-INT ratio (21.9%), compares it to your actual turnovers gained, and calculates a points per game figure Connolly figures is just the bounce of the ball. Drum roll…
Five Teams Who Benefited Most From Turnovers Luck
1. Michigan (+3.97 points/game)
2. Maryland (+3.97)
3. N.C. State (+3.61)
4. South Carolina (+3.61)
5. Oklahoma State (+3.40)
I am Jack's utter lack of surprise. Michigan's overall fumble recovery rate of 75% was first in the nation by a whopping eight percent! (Maryland was #2 at 67%.) They were three standard deviations above the mean! They were a full standard deviation above the #2 team in the country! This aggression against regression to the mean will not stand!
This is the point where I talk about how lucky Michigan got last year and a lot of people say "nuh-uh." This gets a little frustrating on both ends. I get frustrated that something like that Sugar Bowl doesn't bring the point home; people who disagree with me get frustrated that I'm downplaying Michigan's success or being grim about next year.
They're not entirely wrong. I do think that if you replayed the 2011 season 1,000 times Michigan ends up 11-2 in relatively few of them. They were only sort of close in one of their losses*, won two-and-a-half nailbiters** and acquired 10 more turnovers than Connolly's model expects. Michigan also had the benefit of a soft schedule (no Wisconsin or Penn State) in a down Big Ten and an Ohio State team in shambles after tatgate. It was pretty uninspiring in terms of 11-2 years featuring wins over ND, OSU, and a BCS opponent despite undergoing massive transition costs and operating with a slap-dash, attrition-ravaged roster.
Which is to say: WOOOOOOOOOOO. Yes. Score.
But once we get past the woo and start talking about setting expectations for year two we should not base it off what Michigan did last year but what they should have done, what they lost to graduation and attrition, who they return and add, and who they play. We should start with the premise that Michigan was super lucky last year and probably won't be this year.
This doesn't mean their turnover margin is doomed. It just means their turnover margin is doomed unless Denard Robinson becomes a lot more responsible with the ball. Michigan got away with being –7 in interceptions because of the fumble surplus. That covered up a lot of blemishes last year.
What should we expect Michigan's turnover margin to be next year?
I am arguing it will be worse. I made similar arguments for much of the Rich Rodriguez era when Michigan was hugely negative every year and dammit it never changed.
Experience at quarterback. This is a double whammy to the good for Michigan: they've got a senior starter entering his third year and—even more important—his second year in Al Borges's system. A number of Michigan's turrible interceptions a year ago came paired with hand-wavingly-open receivers Michigan's quarterbacks just missed, like this one Gardner chucked against Purdue:
The ball is in the air here, but it's going to the double-covered Gallon instead of the hand-wavingly open Junior Hemingway. This wasn't pressure—Gardner had all day—it was a huge coverage misread. In year two these things should significantly diminish.
Fitzgerald Toussaint could be Mike Hart-like. IIRC Toussaint has not fumbled as a Michigan ballcarrier. As carries move to him from other sources—largely the fumble-prone Denard—Michigan should reduce the number of fumbles that can go against them. Fumble prevention/extraction is a skill.
The defense should be sack happy. Michigan finished 29th last year without getting great production out of its three-tech or weakside defensive end. Will Heininger had one sack last year; Craig Roh and Jibreel Black combined for 5.5. If the moves of Roh and Black inside upgrade the pass rush at three positions, the blitz-mad Mattison D will be in QBs' faces even more than they were last year.
Complicating factor: Mike Martin only had 3.5 sacks last year but his disruption opened things up for other people.
Protection should be good if the line is healthy. Lewan is an all Big Ten left tackle (at least) and Schofield is a touted recruit with a year of quality playing time under his belt with all the tools to pass protect on the edge. Wicked blind-side hits on Denard should be rare.
Denard is just turnover-prone. This has been a fact by air and ground ever since he hit the field. While he's going to improve with experience, sometimes players never have that light bulb pop on. Toussaint will shift some carries to his five points of contact but Denard will still get a bunch of carries, and he'll cough the ball up some.
Chucking sure interceptions up to Hemingway will result in interceptions because Hemingway is gone. Unless these are going to Gardner.
Hello massive reversion to the mean on fumble recoveries. If Michigan recovers over 70% of available fumbles this year I'll eat a lemon. Probably at the Rose Bowl.
If a tackle goes down, yeesh. Everyone's assumption is that this would see Kyle Kalis step in at right tackle. Mega-hyped recruit… and a true freshman.
Seriously, Denard is walking variance. I think Michigan will preserve its fairly positive TO margin. If they don't, we will all be sad about Denard's inability to shake the turnover bug. I can't predict he'll be better or worse until we see him play.
There's a reason a couple departing seniors picked Robinson—who was an All-American as a sophomore, remember—as a "breakout player" in that Rothstein article from yesterday($). He could break out. He could run in place, and not know which it will be makes predictions here even more useless than they have been in the past.
You may now return to thinking about Taylor Lewan on a tandem bike.
*[Even if Michigan does score against Iowa they have to get a two-point conversion and then win in OT, which is like a 20% shot.]
**[OSU should not have been since there was no reason to overturn the Toussaint TD that would have ended it.]
Cannibalism is actually an improvement in their level of civilization. Add Eddie George to the long list of current and former Buckeyes bombing the program:
“It appears to me that Bollman is out there, he’s totally exposed,” George said. “It’s his offense to lose, and clearly he has no idea or concept what to do with them at this point.”
Blue Seoul described the MSU-OSU game as "fun to watch if you don't like either of these teams" and that is so true. It's more true for Ohio State, which was blithely running second and long draw plays as Michigan State run blitzed with nine guys in the box. "OY OY OY this worked with Troy Smith OY," Bollman thinks.
Crack journalism. Well done, Free Press, well done:
Michigan does not have a women's hockey program.
Time lapse. The Notre Dame game in time lapse photography:
The numbers. It's week six. FO's advanced stats maintain some preseason projections in them for another week or two, but they are increasingly based on events on the field and whoah:
Moving up four slots after bombing Minnesota probably means the formula does not yet comprehend how terrible the Gophers are—they did hang tight against USC and FEI ignores games against I-AA foes. Also it does not know just how goofy that ND game is.
Still, how are you doing, Stanford? U MAD?
Block MST3K. So this happened at the Hoover Street Rag:
In the not too distant future, Saturday A.D.
There was a guy named Jordan, not too different from you or me
He worked at Schembechler Institute, just another face in a maize jumpsuit
He did a good job cleaning up the place, but his bosses kinda liked him so they made him play in space
(Curse you GERG!)
We'll send him speedy runners, the best we can find
He'll have to stop, tackle them all as we monitor his mind
Now keep in mind he can't control when the games begin or end
He'll try to keep his sanity with the help of his D-Line friends...
D-LINE ROLL CALL!
Martin! (I'm Captain!)
Heininger! (Left side!)
Van Bergen! (Where've you been?)
Rooooooooooooooooh! (I'm sophomore!)
If you're wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts
He's got a meal card and it's set on earth so you can really just relax
For Michigan Defense Theater 3000.
Either you have no idea what that is about or you are no longer reading this post.
Woolfolk comes in. I erroneously left Woolfolk out of the Monday game post talking about the guys who stayed through all this drama, as Rodriguez might say, but in the Michigan blogosphere there is always someone to pick up where you fell short:
And one wonders; why have the Wolverines normally injury prone players been relatively healthy this year while Woolfolk has been injured time and again? Bad Luck? Anger an old gypsy woman? Did the coaches use black magic to keep the guys healthy but the turnover was Woolfolk gets hurt instead? Did they find some D&D style Rings of Transference to transfer all injuries to Troy as long as everyone was wearing the rings? Not that I've ever played Dungeons and Dragons or anything. Like I don't have a level 17 Wizard named Tulmo Falconclaw just sitting around, so don't think that. I'm just guessing what nerds would say. FIREBALL!!
It gets even saner from there.
Etc.: Highlights from hockey's season opener. I was not aware that Michigan's first goal was not a lucky bounce but rather a beauty assist from Hyman. Also Hunwick flashes the glove. WAC "instant" replay takes 22 minutes. Cue Special K homer drooling.
via flickr user larrysphatpage
Almost nothing drives me more insane than someone who proclaims certain numbers to be bad because these other numbers are better without suggesting a mechanism that would make this true. Via Slate, Murray Chass provides the canonical example:
The stats freaks who never saw a decimal point they didn't worship were ecstatic last year when Zack Greinke won the American League Cy Young award while winning only 16 games. Felix Hernandez, who won 19 and whose 2.49 earned run average was second to Greinke's 2.16, would have been my choice, but the stats guys "proved" that Greinke was the correct choice because of his statistical standing in formulaic concoctions in which we mere mortals do not imbibe.
—Murray Chass, murraychass.com, May 9, 2010.
This makes me clench and unclench my fists helplessly. It seems impossible that you could be this venerated New York Times baseball writer without picking up on the fact that AL pitchers have no control over how many runs their team scores. The fists clench and unclench because attempting to model an argument with Murray Chass about this quickly leads into a cul-de-sac where Chass says something condescending about something he doesn't understand and repeats it ad nauseum as if he believes "no blood for oil" or "drill, baby, drill" is a coherent, self-contained, impregnable point of view.
Presenting Jonah Lehrer, who actually manages to write for Wired despite being able to compose the following:
Consider the case of J.J. Barea. During the regular season, the backup point guard had perfectly ordinary statistics, averaging 9.5 ppg and shooting 44 percent from the field. His plus/minus rating was slightly negative. There was no reason to expect big things from such a little player in the playoffs.
And yet, by Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Barea was in the starting lineup. (This promotion came despite the fact that he began the Finals with a 5-for-23 shooting slump and a minus-14 rating.) What Dallas coach Rick Carlisle wisely realized is that Barea possessed something that couldn't be captured in a scorecard, that his speed and energy were virtues even when he missed his layups (and he missed a lot of layups), and that when he made those driving floaters their value exceeded the point score. Because nothing messes with your head like seeing a guy that short score in the lane. Although Barea's statistics still look pretty ordinary — his scoring average fell in the Finals despite the fact that he started — the Mavs have declared that re-signing him is a priority. Because it doesn't matter what the numbers say. Barea won games.
A man who writes for Wired ascribes JJ Barea's value to "nothing messes with your head like seeing a guy that short score in the lane." Fists clenching and unclenching due to impossibility of refuting argument that stupid. Plenty of other people have tried to do so. Some guy at Deadspin who pointed out that the Mavs are amongst the most stat-obsessed teams in the league. A Baseball Prospectus guy tore apart Lehrer's introductory car analogy, in which car buyers who focus on a couple of barely relevant but easily understandable numbers instead of the important, hard-to-quantity data are Bill James, not Joe Morgan.
It doesn't matter, though. These articles always have a tautologically number-negating logic. The argument goes:
- I don't understand statistics*.
- People who understand statistics don't understand intangibles.
- Therefore my understanding is superior.
Now let's talk about Denard Robinson and last year's offense.
*[This lack of understanding can be many things but is always at least this: statistics are a suggestive tool, not math gospel. To be fair, some people use statistics like they are a golden hammer. These people are very annoying and should be yelled at. Just don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. ]
Y WE NO SCORE GOALPOINTS
This came up a lot in the aftermath of the Spring Game, when the quarterbacks strove to make themselves indistinguishable from walk-ons and quite a lot of people put finger under collar and went "uggggghhh." This was met with a round of backlash largely consisting of people pointing at select—sometimes hilariously select—statistics from last year's team in an effort to prove the offense wasn't really that good.
The favorite was a focus on the first halves against good opponents, when Michigan did not score points. This did not escape notice even around here:
The Ohio State game has the power to make whatever happens in it seem like Michigan's season in microcosm, and so the overriding theme of the 2010 season is looking up at the scoreboard at halftime to see Michigan on pace for about 500 yards and about twenty points. Michigan had 238 yards and seven points this time around and instead of a competitive game we got the usual.
Michigan was frustratingly spectacular at getting to the half with almost 300 yards and something like ten points on the board. But using points to evaluate the output of an offense is like using wins to evaluate a pitcher. Events outside the entity you are trying to evaluate have so much impact on that number, it is only a fuzzy explanation of the story.
I have engaged in message board fights and observed many more about whether the Wisconsin game was a failure on the offense's part. At the half the score was 28-0 Wisconsin and the game was as good as over, whereupon Michigan came out of the locker room and scored three straight touchdowns against the UW defense. This would have made the game interesting if Michigan could have forced the Badgers to pass, ever.
My fists do the clenching bit whenever anyone tries to claim the Wisconsin game was evidence Michigan should move away from the spread. The Michigan offense's entire first half:
Michigan drives from their own one yard line to
the Wisconsintheir 35 before punting.
- Michigan drives from their 28 to the Wisconsin 13; Seth Broekhuizen misses a 30-yard field goal.
- Three and out from the 36.
- Three and out from the 40.
(There was also a meaningless two play drive at the end of the half.) That's not a great four drives. It is a great seven drives if you consider the next three. Meanwhile, the final touchdown against UW is often dismissed as "garbage time" but Badger tacklers on that drive include JJ Watt, Patrick Butrym, and Aaron Henry—all starters—and Michigan hit Roundtree three times for more than 20 yards on a three-minute march. That was not Wisconsin's goal. Even if you still dismiss Michigan's last couple drives as garbage you have to acknowledge that the defense's inability to make them meaningful robbed the offense of opportunities to impress for real.
But you're sitting there and your fists are clenching and unclenching and everything is black and doom and blacky black doom, so maybe it's hard to tell.
Transistors don't give a damn
This is the disconnect. While what seems like a fairly large subset of the fanbase saw wholesale collapse in the Wisconsin game, computers saw two units failing immensely and an offense that put up 442 yards on a defense that gave up 321 on average, scored 31-ish points (computers will credit the offense with acquiring the field position for the field goal and deduct the miss from the special teams; if they deduct from the garbage TD they will use a lower denominator when trying to figure out expected points) on a defense that gave up 21. Statistically, Michigan's offense was at least a standard deviation above the mean against the Badgers.
While the Wisconsin game is the biggest outlier between the offense's actual and perceived performance, it's instructive. It is often lumped in with the crap from last year along with Iowa (tenuous case indeed there), MSU, OSU, and the bowl game. There is no reasonable case it should be. This is why statistics are useful, because meat-emotions often overwhelm our capacity for reason.
These are the questions I think we should be asking in our most robotic voices:
What aspects of last year's performance project most strongly to next year's?
There are three reasons for the gap between points and yards: field position, field goal kicking, and turnovers. The latter two combined to see Michigan's redzone scoring rate rank 109th nationally. The first two are almost entirely out of the offense's control. The latter was a huge problem all three years under Rodriguez. However, turnovers notoriously do not correlate year to year, are heavily dependent on quarterback, experience and saw Rich Rodriguez consistently in the black at West Virginia.
Michigan's turnover issues aren't fate, should improve naturally, and are not related to the spread. Most of Michigan's other issues at turning yards into points are not really the offense's.
That leaves an inherent flaw in the spread offense as a potential culprit that has the potential to repeat next year. Point in favor: Michigan was even worse in the redzone in 2009, finishing with just 49% of available points. Point against: Auburn and Oregon finished in the top ten last year. Further point against from a Football Outsiders study of the NFL:
We took … 20 overachievers and measured their performances the season after said overachievement; while their DVOA [ed: something value over average, a fancy stat they have designed to smooth out noise.] in the red zone that initial season exceeded their total offensive DVOA by an average of 33.3 percent, in the following season, their DVOA in the red zone exceeded their total DVOA by an average of 1.3 percent. In other words, the teams' performances in the red zone mirrored how they did outside it, implying the overachieving was a fluke.
We also can measure this by using correlation coefficients, a way of measuring the relationship between two variables that results in a number ranging from minus-1 (at which the two variables have an exact inverse relationship) to plus-1 (at which the variables have a perfectly positive relationship). The correlation between a team's performance in the red zone and its overall offensive performance, year to year, is 0.08 -- essentially nil. Teams simply do not exceed their performance in the first 80 yards once they get to the final 20 on a regular basis.
The evidence suggests Michigan's red zone struggles should revert to the mean; the things that made the offense less than the sum of its yards last year are all small sample size outliers.
What's left that does correlate, or at least correlates better? Everything else. On a play by play basis Michigan's offense does well in standard and advanced metrics, and returns ten starters. If they should be better but weren't (because of things that should revert) and can expect similar performance next year (because of all the returning starters), then what should happen is that the expected and actual meet somewhere south of #2 nationally but well within the schwing range.
Is it better to play to Al Borges's strengths or the offense's strengths?
In 2008 this was easy since the offense had no strengths. In 2011 it's a difficult question. Michigan's transition demands that Borges or Denard (and, importantly, the OL) leaves his comfort zone. This is necessarily going to be suboptimal for someone.
The spring game suggests it will be vastly suboptimal for Denard if Borges gets his way, and it seems a lot easier to change playcalls than turn Denard into Jon Navarre. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. The last few years I've documented the ever-evolving Michigan run offense. Rich Rodriguez kept ahead of the curve by constantly adding new wrinkles to the ground game. He was able to do this because of his vast experience with the spread 'n' shred. Al Borges is a smart guy with a lot of experience but his history suggests his inventiveness may be more oriented towards the passing game. If a good chunk of offensive effectiveness is staying ahead of the game, Borges might be able to do that better from a pro-style offense.
But the following is true even in the NFL:
Shotgun formations are generally more efficient than formations with the quarterback under center.
Over the past three seasons, offenses have averaged 5.9 yards per play from Shotgun, but just 5.1 yards per play with the quarterback under center. This wide split exists even if you analyze the data to try to weed out biases like teams using Shotgun more often on third-and-long, or against prevent defenses in the fourth quarter. Shotgun offense is more efficient if you only look at the first half, on every down, and even if you only look at running back carries rather than passes and scrambles.
With an offense outright designed for the shotgun featuring a quarterback whose main asset is his legs, the cutting-edge effect would have to be absurdly important to make the offense more effective from under center.
Does I-form pro-style help you win in ways undefined by conventional statistics?
This is Brady Hoke's theory when he denigrates the zone-heavy spread offense as an impediment to having a good defense. A quick glance at the top defenses in both conventional and fancy measures suggests this is unlikely. TCU, Boise State, and West Virginia were the top three teams in yardage defense. WVU, Missouri, Oklahoma, Auburn, Oregon, and Mississippi State are all in the top ten in defensive FEI. There appears to be little if any problem with having a top defense opposite your spread 'n' shred offense as long as you account for the increased pace of the spread.
Is it worth sacrificing effectiveness down the road for immediate results?
Unknowable, but there's no better way to quickly put the question marks on Brady Hoke's resume to rest than by having a breakout first season.
Extensive Conclusion Section
MOAR SHOTGUN PLZ