A look at Michigan’s opening opponent through the eyes of PAN*.
When Michigan Rushes
Let’s kick the season off with a nice chart, Michigan Rush Offense PAN vs. UConn
Last year the gap between the two was worth nearly two points a game and this year it is projecting to narrow slightly. This projection is probably on the pessimistic side for Michigan as UConn has four consecutive years of decline on rush defense and nothing would indicate that Michigan would see a drop versus last season’s performance on the ground.
Since Rodriguez had experience against UConn while at West Virginia, those matchups provide another, better data point of comparison. In four games from 2004-2007 West Virginia averaged 6 PAN/game offensively and UConn averaged 0 PAN/game defensively. In other words, West Virginia’s ground game average 6 points per game more than the average team that played UConn and the Huskies defended the Mountaineers about on par with the average team.
Based on both West Virginia and Michigan experience, the numbers indicate that Michigan should have an opportunity to do some damage on the ground on Saturday.
When Michigan Passes
Michigan was pretty average passing the ball last year but UConn wasn’t great at covering the pass. The historical numbers are a bit all over the map, the Huskies had a 10 point negative swing from 2008 to 2009.
UConn returns a lot of their defense from last year but the one position group that will be replacing players is the secondary. In 2009 the team had to deal with the midseason murder of starting cornerback Jasper Howard, putting a little perspective on the mostly on-field issues Michigan’s secondary has faced. Of the top 11 UConn players in points taken last year, the only three not returning this year are cornerback Robert McClain, 25 PT, 2nd on team and first among DBs, DE Lindsey Witten, 20 PT, 4th on team and first among DL and S Robert Vaughn, 15 PT and 2nd among DBs.
With the year to year variance these two teams have shown in passing and defending the pass, it is difficult to tell who will pick up the advantage when Michigan puts the ball in the air.
When UConn Runs
Michigan saw their first dip into negative PAN against the run last year, while UConn is coming off back to back strong seasons on the ground.
The UConn running back situation is one where PAN sheds an interesting light that is hidden by tradition stats. Last year UConn split the carries almost evenly between Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon (235 vs 239). Todman ran for 1188 yards and 14 TDs while Dixon had 1093 yards and 14 TDs as well. Despite those very similar stat lines, Todman’s performance was worth 16 points and Dixon’s nearly offset the gains with –15 points.
Unfortunately for Michigan Todman is back and Dixon is gone. The historical trend indicates that Michigan should have the advantage, but with a quality back in Todman returning, Michigan will need a much improved defense performance to limit the UConn rushing attack.
When UConn Passes
After a dreadful stretch through the air in 2005-2008, UConn bounced back last year with their best showing in five years.
UConn has two QB’s with starting experience coming back. Cody Endres who took over in mid-season after an injury, was a modest 1.1 PAN whereas this year’s starter Zach Frazer was a worse –1.5 PAN in action at the beginning and end of the season. Frazer posted a similar –1.6 in 4 games in 2008.
Despite the higher value, Frazer beat out Endres again for the job this season and Endres went on to get suspended for the opener, leaving UConn with the sole experienced QB for Michigan. Unfortunately, Michigan’s secondary will make this matchup interesting, but at least the Huskies are able to trot out a world beater at QB even if he does have 2 years of experience.
History in Openers
When factoring in quality of opponent, Michigan best two games of the Rodriguez era have been the openers. 2008 felt very disappointing at the time, but taking an eventually undefeated and Alabama crushing Utah team to the wire, was the best performance of the season. 2009 saw a much much weaker opponent in Western Michigan, but the utter dismantling Michigan displayed made the 2009 the highest rated game Rodriguez had at Michigan to date. Success in openers had been the norm for Rodriguez at West Virginia. 3 of his last 4 were double digit PAN and two were over 20.
UConn’s sample size is much smaller. 3 of the last 7 years they have opened with 1AA opponents and the four years have seen performance within 5 points or so of average.
Head to Head
In the last four meetings Rodriguez and West Virginia owned UConn. West Virginia average a PAN of 13 while UConn came in at –5 PAN. Even after giving the Huskies a break for how good West Virginia was for several years, they still did worse than average against them.
The 2007 game is a bit of anomaly on this chart. It looks like UConn outplayed West Virginia but the Mountaineers completely dominated the Huskies in the game. The PAN is off because two first half fumbles by UConn meant the offense didn’t have to do much heavy lifting to build a 17 point lead after the first drive of the second half. A 17 point lead means that the plays stop counting towards the PAN, but WVU just kept going. To the tune of nearly 400 yards, 29 PAN all after they already had a 17 point lead. So in other words, 2007 looks like a good performance by UConn, but in reality a couple fluke plays got them in a hole and once they were there, West Virginia buried them.
The All In Look
The history is on Michigan’s side, the two year trend is on Michigan’s side, the strength in openers is on Michigan’s side, the head to head coaching matchup is on Michigan’s side and with homefield, I have Michigan pegged at about a touchdown favorite with about a 75% chance of starting the year off in the win column.
*PAN is calculated by assigning every play a value based on how much the play helped or hurt the offense’s chances of scoring. Every down, distance and line of scrimmage combination is assigned an expected value, the average points scored across college football in that same situation. If a play increases the expected value, the respective teams and players are credited with the amount of increase.
All plays are then adjusted based on strength of opponent. Plays against weak opponents are penalized and downgraded while plays against strong opponents are bumped to reflect the degree of difficulty.
Only games against FBS (D1A) opponents, games against FCS (1AA) opponents are non-existent in any numbers used in this work.
Qualifying Plays (QP) are all plays in the first half and plays in the second half when the game is within two touchdowns. End of half run out the clock drives are also excluded.