to play football, not to play trumpet
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.