Things actually went pretty well for Maryland. They piled up 367 yards at a 5.6 yards-per-play clip. Their average start was on their own 25.1-yard line, which is a couple of yards behind opponents’ average starting spot against Michigan, but their success rate was a very respectable 35%. Maryland had four players who had 30+-yard receptions on the day, including one that went for 47 yards. They even picked up 19 first downs, a surprising 12 of which came via the pass.
All of that didn’t lead to much in the way of points, of course. Maryland finished with three points on three scoring opportunities; their doinked field goal and tunnel screen that got tackled at the one-yard line as time ran out in the first half could both have been converted and it still wouldn’t have mattered considering the way Michigan’s offense was operating on Saturday.
Michigan averaged 10 yards per play. They had 10 drives and posted 10 scoring opportunities. They averaged 5.9 points per scoring opportunity. Their success rate was 65%, they picked up 31 first downs (including a 14-14 split passing and rushing), and they finished +2 in turnover margin. They were, in effect, unstoppable.
Maryland had a pretty good game relative to what opponents usually do against Michigan’s defense; it once again came mostly via a couple big busts and didn’t make a big impact on the defense’s overall stats. The story of Michigan’s season to this point isn’t how dominant the defense has been, but how far the offense has come. Last season the defense was statistically great enough to prop up (until that one game) the middling offense.
This year, Michigan’s defense has spent most of the season atop the S&P+ rankings and in the top 10 of defensive FEI (they’re currently ranked sixth). The offense’s success rate and explosiveness (IsoPPP) have steadily climbed, their average starting field position has been the best in the nation for a while, and the offense as a whole is now ranked eighth per S&P+. According to FEI, the offense is the best in the nation; they were ranked third before Maryland, and they climbed multiple spots after they game in every category offensive FEI tracks. This is not 1997 and it is not 2015. Michigan finally has an offense that should worry opposing coaches in its own right. They happen to couple it with the best defense in the country. It’s going to be an interesting two months.
[After THE JUMP: more on Maryland, Connelly’s Five Factors, combing through FEI, and looking at Iowa’s stren—looking at Iowa]
Things really took off for Michigan’s offense after the Wisconsin game. At that point, they were ranked 51st in efficiency. This week, they’re ranked 13th. At that point in time, they were hovering around 44%, which was still a few percent above the national average. Still, the ascent of the offense’s success rate has been impressive the last few weeks, and that’s after controlling for the opponent (that’s important, as Michigan hasn’t exactly faced a murder’s row from week six on). They’re keeping themselves in favorable down-and-distance situations on nearly half of their offensive snaps; we know the Harbaugh playbook is massive, and moving the ball at this rate keeps almost the entire thing in play.
Michigan’s defense is ranked 90th, while the offense is now 33rd. Not a surprise that the defense is poorly ranked in explosiveness because that’s their one obvious issue. It’s usually one or two plays a game, but you’re going to get dinged on a measure that looks at how long successful plays were when your defense allows a success rate as low as Michigan’s. Offensively, Michigan’s aerial attack was excellent against Maryland, averaging 14.3 yards per attempt with four receivers who had long receptions on the day of over 34 yards. The run game only featured one run longer than 14 yards (Ty Isaac’s 53-yard rush), but they averaged seven yards per carry.
Three turnovers on downs and two interceptions that all left Michigan starting at Maryland’s 35-yard line or closer certainly helped Michigan’s offensive number stay atop the nation. Maryland’s starting field position is a microcosm of the season: they received the ball off a kickoff on 10 of 11 drives, returned one of those 10 for 10 yards, and started their other drive off a turnover on downs…from their own 14-yard line.
Go reread the paragraph above, then look at the graph below. If teams are getting the ball primarily on kickoffs against Michigan, that obviously means Michigan’s doing a good job putting up points. That’s clear even when expanding the area of analysis to the 40-yard line. Defensively, Michigan’s led the nation in this category since week six. As I mentioned earlier, Maryland had a field goal bounce off the upright and a long tunnel screen get tackled at the one-yard line as time expired in the first half. They only had one other drive cross Michigan’s 40-yard line, and that ended in a turnover on downs.
I know this graph looks like there’s a fairly large disparity in expected and actual turnover margin, but looking at national rank helps put this in perspective. Michigan ranks 14th in expected turnover margin and ninth in actual turnover margin, so while they are outperforming expectations they aren’t so far ahead in actual margin that they look like a candidate to crash. One interesting tidbit: Michigan has yet to recover a fumble this season.
I thought this would be an interesting time to start looking at FEI data, as we’re a few weeks removed from preseason projections having been dropped from this year’s dataset. FEI is the Fremeau Efficiency Index, and it differs from S&P+ in that it eschews play-by-play data to look instead at opponent-adjusted drive efficiency. FEI was developed by Brian Fremeau; here’s a bit more about it in his words:
Approximately 20,000 possessions are contested annually in FBS vs. FBS games. First-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores are filtered out. Unadjusted game efficiency (GE) is a measure of net success on non-garbage possessions, and opponent adjustments are calculated with special emphasis placed on quality performances against good teams, win or lose.
On the whole, FEI and S&P+ line up fairly well. FEI ranks Michigan second overall (Bama is first), while S&P+ ranks them first overall. FEI likes Michigan’s offense more than S&P+, ranking them first overall to S&P+’s eighth. S&P+ likes Michigan’s defense a little bit more, ranking them first overall to FEI’s sixth overall.
Michigan’s defense is ranked in the top ten in every category Fremeau tracks aside from defensive turnover rate; only 11.1% of opponent possessions are ending in turnovers, which ranks 68th overall. That actually makes the rest of Michigan’s defensive stats even more impressive, as they’re holding opponents back without the random-luck-generated turnovers. They’re ranked sixth in defensive FEI (1.04), Fremeau’s big measure that produces a per-possession value adjusted for strength of the offenses faced. Opposing offenses are picking up 26.6% of available yards (second nationally), picking up a first down on just 50.0% of possessions (first overall and one percent better than Bama), and scoring a touchdown on 11.1% of drives (fifth overall). Fremeau also tracks what he calls Value Drive Rate, which is the percent of drives that start at least 50 yards away from the end zone and reach the tracked team’s (read: Michigan’s) 30-yard line. Michigan’s defense allows 19.5% of opponent drives to hit that mark. However you look at it, moving the ball on Michigan’s defense is yeoman’s work.
Michigan’s offense is ranked first overall in offensive FEI, and the numbers tracked are in stark contrast to what the defense allows. Michigan’s offense is acquiring 61.8% of available yards (sixth overall), reaching the opponent’s 30-yard line on 55.4% of drives that start 50 yards from the end zone (that’s the value drive measure discussed above; the offense ranks ninth), picking up a first down on 81.6% of possession (ninth), scoring a touchdown on 46.0% of possessions (fourth), and turning the ball over on a nice 6.9% of drives (eleventh). As I mentioned earlier, Michigan’s offensive FEI (1.61) is the best in the nation. Fremeau says that’s the value generated per possession adjusted for the strength of defenses faced; Wisconsin’s and Colorado’s defenses are ranked third and fifth by Fremeau, respectively.
Things do not look good for Iowa. You’ve read the FFFF offense and defense posts, I’m sure, and the numbers don’t make them look any better. Their offense is ranked 65th per S&P+ and 38th per FEI. Their defense is ranked 38th per S&P+ and 58th per FEI. Their offense is not explosive (95th overall), not that efficient (49th in success rate), bad at passing (71st in S&P+), and though they’re fine running the ball (25th in S&P+) their runs don’t go very far, as they’re ranked 82nd in rushing IsoPPP and 95th in rushing opportunity rate (runs that get more than five yards past the line of scrimmage).
Defensively, Iowa’s mediocre in most areas and not very good in one: run defense. They’re ranked 87th per S&P+; rushing success rate, IsoPPP, and opportunity rate are all in the mid-fifties, while their stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line) is 126th. They’re also prone to explosive pass plays (64th in passing IsoPPP), and on the whole Iowa’s defense gives up 43.7% of available yards (46th). This is not the time for them to face a Michigan offense that’s rounding into what appears to be peak form. Connelly has Iowa’s win probability at 5%, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.