2010 is not 2009 v2.0, is it?

Submitted by The Mathlete on October 6th, 2010 at 9:44 AM

The Question

It is a statement perpetuated on many outside of Wolverine-fandom in response to the 2010 start, and the deep dark fear inside the hearts of many Michigan fans: This year isn’t going to end up like last year, is it?

The argument for "Yes" usually boils down to the only teams Michigan has beat this year are the same ones they did last year (more or less) before the fallout, oh and because after five games we had a hyped young quarterback last year as well. The response from Michigan fans is subsequently, "Yeah, but Denard!!!"

Until we play a few more games and win one that we didn’t last year, we’re stuck answering the question in purely philosophical form. And who is better at throwing some numbers out there and seeing what sticks than The Mathlete?

The Methodology

Here is the normal disclaimer/overview of what I do for the uninformed:

All numbers included in this article are using my PAN metric: Points Above Normal. PAN is essentially how many points above an average FBS team was a team/unit/player worth. For reference, an average FBS team is approximately equal to Illinois or a top team from the MAC.

All games against FCS teams are excluded, as well as any plays in the second half where one team leads by more than 2 touchdowns or any end-of-half, run-out-the-clock drives.

For this particular exercise I will look at this year’s performance-to-date through two different lenses: 1) raw performance with no adjustment for opponent and 2) an opponent-adjusted view using how that opponent has performed this year to date. Normally I would forgo the unadjusted view to do a comparison but it is still early enough in the season that both views can provide perspective.

The Matchup: Offense

Let me just kill the suspense right now: this offense is better than last year’s. Shocking, I know. Through four FBS games this year, Michigan is averaging an unadjusted +23 PAN per game, +13 rushing and +10 passing. In the four FBS games Michigan won last year, Michigan was +12 overall, +8 rushing and +4 passing, and it’s pretty safe to say that UConn is a solid step up from Western Michigan and BG is probably a slight step up from Eastern.

To put more focus on the magnitude of this season's success, look at last week against Indiana, where the Michigan offense posted a +33 on only 44 plays. The 0.75 points per play is higher (by 10%!) than any other performance in my database, which stretches back to 2003. In fact, Indiana, Bowling Green and UConn are the three highest-rated offensive performances from Michigan I have on record. Western and Eastern Michigan were the only games last year that ranked higher than any game this year (Notre Dame is behind them).

Although impressive under any circumstances, those numbers were all without adjustment for the respective strengths of opponents' defenses. When you look at how Michigan’s performance compares with other offenses that ND, BG, Indiana and Uconn have faced this year, Michigan still comes out pretty well. All four games are at least +6 PAN and the average is +15, with +8 coming on the ground and +7 coming through the air. Last year in the comparable games, Michigan was +8 with +3 coming on the ground and +5 through the air.

Based on the sets of numbers, Michigan initially has been 7 to 11 points-per-game better than year’s offensive unit. This represents a very high level of play.

The Matchup: Defense

Unadjusted, Michigan has allowed +9 PAN per game this season. Almost all the damage has come through the air, and almost all of that was against Indiana. Excluding the Indiana game, the number was +6, with the damage split almost evenly between rush and pass defense. The Hoosiers' performance was +17 PAN with –5 on the ground and +22 through the air. This pushes the overall numbers to +9 with +8 coming through the air.

In the same games last year, Michigan’s defense was much more effective. Through four games, the defense held opponents to –7 PAN and was –6 against the pass. The defense moved to the middle through the rest of the season, finishing –2 PAN on the year, with –1 apiece coming on the ground and in the air.

How you evaluate this year really depends on good you think Indiana’s offense is going to be. If they continue to have success in Big 10 play, Michigan’s defensive prospects could be trending to on-par or slightly better than last year. If you think the Chappellbomb will be a dud against the rest of the Big 10, then last year’s performance is probably a best-case scenario.

One thing to consider about this defense is that its traditional stats are going to look bad no matter what. Based on the pace and success on the offensive side of the ball, Michigan is going to face more aggressive versions of their opponents, and they are going to face them on more drives, especially if the offense keeps scoring within the first minute of touching the ball. Everything you see from me will be adjusted to account for the pace. Remember: just because we gave up a ton of yards, it doesn’t mean that we had a bad day.

I am giving the defense an incomplete so far. Until we see how we fare against MSU and how Indiana does against Ohio State, the verdict is still out. If the defense can hold serve occasionally against Sparty, and Indiana can find some success against the Buckeyes, then the defense should at least be good enough to let us stretch a lead in a few games. If MSU torches us and Ohio St shuts down Chappell and Doss, we could be in for a full season of excruciatingly exciting games.

The Variables

Our health, especially at key offensive positions, remains good.

The offense remains highly potent against the top tier Big 10 defenses.

The Indiana game was more of a reflection on Indiana’s great passing attack, and not our poor pass defense.

The Verdict

Although it doesn’t look like the defense has progressed like we had hoped (or maybe at all), the dilithium-powered offensive quantum leap has moved this team well beyond last year’s. There are still plenty of question marks out there, but it looks like until we face Ohio State’s defense to end the regular season, a Denard-led offense should be the best unit on the field. That fact alone should make a 2009 like swoon all but impossible. How much better is a question of defensive progress and Denard’s ability to shine as the defenses get better.



lexus larry

October 6th, 2010 at 10:06 AM ^

Inside, too! Too many M Football fans, too many new-to-mgoblog fans are also afraid of 2009 v2.0. Not really paying much attention, and hopefully your numbercrunching will enable some of them to see the light, rather than wandering aimlessly until the light of (Satur)day to clarify reality.
Fully agree with the new agey ca. 2010 Big Ten strategizing for Michigan, needing to open the playbook a bit, think like a Romer on 4th down, etc. Look at our debacle so many years ago to NW with ATrain, 54-51. That NW team is what I'm thinking we are today. Maybe better, maybe not, but definitely, 54-51-esque against several of our opponents, whether we like it or not.


October 6th, 2010 at 2:32 PM ^

Hey - I'll admit it - after 2007, '08 and '09, I am in wait and see / no kool aid.

2009 resulted like it did because Tate and Molk suffered injuries.

God between us and evil, but what if Denard and Molk are taken out of the equation? (Or Denard at least is injured enough not to be able to accelerate and cut like he does?)

Do we think less Molk and full strength Dilthium, our offense could continue to outscore the points allowed by our defense?


October 6th, 2010 at 1:45 PM ^

Illinois is better than last year, but they're a less threatening matchup for us because their passing game is so bad. In contrast, Indiana is exactly the type of marginal team that can give us trouble because the only thing they can do is throw.

The Mathlete

October 6th, 2010 at 10:25 AM ^

I have adjusted numbers but the Indiana game is really wack right now. With all of their other opponents so terrible, our adjusted performance for that game actually looks really good and throws everything off. That's why I put it down as incomplete, adjusted numbers with a great number against Indiana weren't reliable enough at this time.

Blue in Seattle

October 6th, 2010 at 10:55 AM ^

Is to read the amusing and emotional stories produced by Brian as he careens through his bipolar state each week, fueled by a still very young Michigan team that has a style almost incomprehensible to the conventional wisdom of Wolverine Fans.

But a very close second to that reason is The Mathlete. The analysis is brilliant, and what goes beyond that is his ability to select to answer the key questions that are floating in the collective brain tank of the fandom.

In 2009 after the MSU and Iowa games I was disappointed, but each game showed that something incredible was growing.  They were so close each time that clearly they were on the right path and more success would come.  The remainder of the season was crushing, but for me it was also clear that after 7 games, that young 2009 team had already shown everyone everything they could do, and without strong upperclassman experience to just out play their opponents, there really was little hope of bringing the next surprise.  The weaknesses laid bare for exploitation, and no amount of faith could overcome.

But in 2010 and especially at this point of the season all the analysis and logic in the world is not going to change your strength of faith in this team, this season.  To my father, my brother, and any friends who ask me, I know that I can't point to anything logical when I describe my belief that this year will be better, that this year they will win more than they did before, that this year they will be the Big Ten Champions.

What I can point to is the result of two miraculous drives.  Each drive coming in the closing seconds of the game, each drive  needing to succeed to come away with the win, each drive including a pass play where Denard throws the ball with complete faith that his receiver can make the play, each throw being made not only under pressure but while he is being tackled.  Go back and look at those plays from ND and Indiana.  Each one completing and resulting in a first and goal.  Each one setup by a defense betting that Denard will try and do it himself, and each time the defense being defeated by Denard's sacrifice and faith in his team.  A statement of "if you think you can stop Michigan by giving my receivers man to man coverage, you will fail.  On this drive, in this game we will succeed."

These triumphs do not come with out swagger.  The ND pass was thrown based on a wink from Roundtree.  The Indiana drive started from a belief that 80 seconds was "too much time to give us."  That swagger is not empty bravado, it comes from a deep belief that this season, this team is different, this team is special, and that this season is THEIR season.

People, we are witnessing a Miracle.




October 6th, 2010 at 1:24 PM ^

"...each drive including a pass play where Denard throws the ball with complete faith that his receiver can make the play..."

Love the optimism, but didn't Denard do this on the last drive against Iowa last year? I hope he has matured enough and has the necessary confidence in his receivers to make these sort of plays foolproof, but all it takes is one failed two-minute-or-maybe-even-less-drill-for-the-win to shatter our 13-0 MNC miracle.

Actually, I'd still consider a win against OSU a miracle. A MSU win, while awesome, will still feel like "...but our princess is in another castle".


October 6th, 2010 at 11:04 AM ^

This year, not only are we better, but a bunch of BigTen teams are down - Illinois (no Juice), Purdue (injuries galore) are both way worse than last year, Penn State is struggling with the transition to a new QB, reformed OL and injuries - all three look like ready to flip from an L to a W this year. This itself takes us to 8 wins.

Indiana and MSU are the teams that are showing the most improvement (also NW - but who cares about them this year) - we have already taken care of one and we will know about the other this Sat.

Wisconsin is still strong - but based on what we saw with MSU, we would expect us to have a better chance than previously imagined. OSU is tough - but - with our O, its not like last year where Tresselball was the best strategy for them. They will have to be aggressive and that might lead to lucky bounces like INTs - so its not all hopeless.

All in all - we are on par for 8 wins, have a good shot at 9 wins (convert MSU or Wisc) and a chance at 10 wins. Wow - who among us would not have taken these odds at the beginning of the season.


October 6th, 2010 at 11:40 AM ^

That's why this season is the most nerve-racking in recent memory. Will we be the same team as last year?  The OP didn't quell those fears at all, just identified a few. One thing I rely on heavily to feel a bit more at ease is an intangible such as payback. Desire to set right what has happened the last 2 years. Its obvious we have more character than talent on D and those with character are motivated by pride to write history of their own. We are talking about a bunch of very close, hard fought games coming up and if we win our share we will be on track for great things next year.

There is no explaining those 4th qtr defensive stands last week except pride, guts and heart. Time and time again our offense couldn't score and our D inexplicably held on the ensuing possession. There is no metric for that.  Then our defense cracks with just enough time for Denard to finish it off. And ND was similar. These are the type of young men who will use adversity and lack of respect shown them by media- on D-  to propel them to greatness. They will get better. It's virtually guaranteed in my experience.

Blue in Seattle

October 6th, 2010 at 11:56 AM ^

In my subjective memory, the grit seasons for Michigan have been the most wondrous to watch.

You can't get much grittier than this defense, this season.

I expect to see some Camera footage of T-Wolf on the sidelines this Saturday.

in a big huge cast, eating his grit sandwhich with a gleam in his eye.


October 6th, 2010 at 11:41 AM ^

I agree with Blue in Seatlle, the Mathlete content is my second favorite recurring part of this site.  Love the UFRs, the Mathlete, and the recruiting updates.

As a bonafide math guy myself, I love this stuff.  Keep it up!

Jim Harbaugh S…

October 6th, 2010 at 11:52 AM ^

BG is probably a slight step up from Eastern.

2010 BG is way better than 2009 Eastern.  That Eastern team, in true Huron fashion was an epic winless diaster.  BG is at least looking at 3 wins.

That said, love your work.


October 6th, 2010 at 12:12 PM ^


Any chance you can run the numbers for the first three games last year compared to the to this year?  Or maybe more specifically, the numbers up to Molk going out as compared to having him in.  I've read several articles down playing Michigan's competition to date and noting that MSU held the team to 28 yards rushing last season, but I think other than the obvious difference (Denard instead of Tate) another key difference that the media isn't picking up on is that Molk was out for the game last year and has been healthy this season.


October 6th, 2010 at 12:36 PM ^

Thank you very much  for crunching the numbers. I actually strongly believe that the defense is much better than it is being given credit for, and that the offense, incredibly enough, has actually underperformed.

On the defensive side, I believe the growth curve and ceiling for the freshman is very high. Actually, being beat up by Chappell is maybe the best thing that could have happened to our secondary. With Carvin getting better, and Mouton, and Cam Gordon, and Herron returning to health, and their conditioning, our defense is only going to get better.

On the offensive side, I believe that between Shaw and Toussaint, our running game is going to improve significantly. With the addition of Lewan, we have a very, very strong O Line, something that must be given huge credit for Denard's success, and for the running game. As they play more and more, fumbles like Saturday's will become more infrequent. With our receiving corps, and Denard getting used to throwing deep, balls like the misses thrown to Hemingway and Roundtree will happen less and less and touchdowns will be more and more frequent.

While I don't see MSU as a huge game, I actually wouldn't be surprised if we run the table all the way to Wisconsin. With a bit of luck, no injuries to us, and possible injuries to Wisconsin and OSU, we could run the table all the way to the MNC. I can't believe I'm writing this, but until I see a defense able to pound Denard, I don't see anyone being able to stop the offense, and we will be in every single game. Just incredible, and unbelievable.

Doctor Wolverine

October 6th, 2010 at 1:57 PM ^

I agree that the potential for the defense to improve is there, but I don't know that they are "much better" than they are getting credit for.  If anything, I think the defense actually took a step back from last year (it's hard not to losing BG and Warren).  The next couple of years, we will continue to stockpile talent on that side of the ball and improve, but it is going to take some time for these younger guys to develop.  I also strongly disagree that MSU is not a huge game!  I think this game and the OSU game are the two biggest games of the season based on rivalry status, momentum, recruiting, team morale, etc!  MSU will be the best team we will have played to date and will be a critical measuring stick for how far we've come since last year.


October 6th, 2010 at 4:44 PM ^

While with limited data, it seems to me that your analysis shows us as being worse overall.  We are significantly worse on defense as unadjusted, the net PAN allowed is a swing of 16.  While the offense is better by 7 to 11 PAN depending on whether or not you use the adjusted or the unadjusted, aren't we worse off by 5 to 9 PAN net?

Btw, love the analysis, keep it up!


October 6th, 2010 at 10:16 PM ^

I was having a similar thought today - Michigan hasn't accomplished anything yet that they didn't last year.  I still am hoping for 8 wins and that's my expectation the rest of the way. 

  • Last year Michigan lost heart-breakers to Iowa and MSU, one of those needs to be a win this year. 
  • Last year Michigan blew two winnable games against Purdue and Illinois that are must win this year. 
  • Last year Michigan got crushed by PSU and WI.  I don't see either being a blowout this year, but I'm not sure I see either of those as a win. 
  • Then there's the OSU game.  It was deceptively close last year, but I just can't see us winning on the road against that defense at this point. 

So until we see something change, I'm still hoping for 8 wins from that list.  Maybe this MSU game is a great barometer for the rest of the season since many of the teams play a similar style. 

But I disagree with anyone who thinks this defense is worse than we expected.  Once Woolfolk went down this defense had incredibly low expectations.  Graham, Brown, Warren, and Woolfolk are gone from a lousy 2009 defense.  The only logical arguments made for why this defense would be better were a second year of Greg Robinson and the linebackers couldn't be any worse.  That isn't much to go on. 

So cross your fingers that we win a close game in one of the next two and then beat the two crappy teams to set up a solid 8 win season with a chance of stealing one late in the year.


October 6th, 2010 at 11:57 PM ^

Yeah I definitely agree that the offense is perhaps the best Rich Rod offense we've seen yet - the numbers Denard has put up suggest as much.  Another thing to consider is that the majority of Big Ten teams want to pound the rock.  If the media is a true weather vane then those teams have plenty of reason to think they are tougher than us when it comes to running the ball.  And gosh darnit people like them.


October 7th, 2010 at 7:00 AM ^

You could not be more mistaken.

If RR loses for the third time in a row to MSU—something that hasn't happened since before Bo came to town—the fallout will be absolutely huge for him. It will give a dramatic boost to the "RR-can't-get-it-done-at-UM/Hire Harbaugh" crowd, it will be a boost to MSU in recruiting in Michigan and the midwest, and will turn the heat back up to "surface of sun" under RR's butt. The effects of a loss to State will only be temporarily reduced by a win the following week against Iowa, but if we go on to lose to OSU—hardly an unlikely scenario—then that would make RR a gaudy 0-6 against our two biggest conference rivals during his tenure. Making a bowl game would only partially counteract the negatives for RR and his staff.


October 7th, 2010 at 8:06 AM ^

     While people lament last years losses to Sparty and Iowa, please don't forget that ND and Indiana were eminently losable.  Arguably the young defense can improve (and very quickly) but until we see it, it is not something to be counted on.  Assignments are still missed on a frequent basis and not only by the freshmen.  There will come a time when the offense stalls and when that happens, the only plausible result is a loss.

     I believe Brian pointed out recently that our defense would probably be a liability for at least the next year or two.  This is not what we have grown accustomed to seeing and does not bode well for our ability to content for either the Big 10 title or something on a bigger stage.