- We have severely overreacted as a fanbase after OSU instead of just admitting the truth
- The truth is that we are likely a good, consistent 10-win team under Harbaugh which would be mostly in-line with history; we are not elite and we have never been elite in the modern era
- To be elite would mean winning 85%+ of games like Meyer, Saban, and Swinney – my view is that the distinction between elite and non-elite programs is not scheme or player development but rather player talent being recruited
- Michigan – as a university – has structural factors (not paying players, adhering to academic standards, caring about integrity, etc.) that prevent us from recruiting elite talent as consistently as Alabama, Clemson, and OSU
- We as a university / fanbase would have to sacrifice some of those structural factors to truly be an elite team – the open question to ourselves is whether that’s worth it or not… if it’s not worth it, we should be content with 10-win seasons and rarely beating OSU instead of constantly being in BPONE
- I am not making a value judgment on this, as I’m not sure where I stand on this myself – I guess I personally lean towards being ok with just being good but not elite at football and having Michigan be a place of integrity
I. Our Overreactions
The short-term thinking and overreactions on this board and the broader fanbase consistently leaves me shaking my head. Perhaps it should be unsurprising given that I work as an equity investor and so see short-termism and overreactions in the market constantly, but I guess the effect is even more dramatic in college sports.
Before the season started, everyone had fairly reasonable takes as summed up by LSAClassof2000's diary post here. The average prediction on this board was for 9.6 wins, and we achieved 10 wins which was right in line. But man did we ride an absolute roller coaster of hot takes and overreactions along the way.
After Notre Dame - a game that we lost by one touchdown against a veteran team on the road at night after several game-defining plays bizarrely went ND's way - the board was ready to throw in the towel. We were severely drenched in BPONE and this includes Brian et. al., UMBig11, and even reasonable coach types I really respect like Magnus. There were only a few dissenting opinions that the season wasn't lost and that we - in fact - were actually pretty good. This was my thought as well, and I told several co-workers that I was actually fairly encouraged by our performance against a very good team for a first road start breaking in that offensive line. Of course, today Notre Dame is a lock to be in the playoff. You can argue that their schedule was really easy, but when they made that schedule they had no idea all the teams they would play this year would suck. I would argue the same thing about our schedule - many of the teams we played and beat turned out to be not as good as advertised (e.g., Michigan State, Penn State, and especially Wisconsin which started the season #4).
Then came our string of 10 straight wins. We paved weaker teams into the dust and rode an incredible wave of optimism through the Penn State game. The Revenge Tour was in full swing, with merely one last foe to defeat. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't immune to the optimism in any way and I really enjoyed that feeling. It was strong enough that many ignored some cracks along the way. Never mind that it became fairly obvious that many of these teams that we beat simply weren't as good as they were supposed to be. Never mind the fact that we were somewhat exposed by Indiana, which ran a similar offense to OSU but with athletes only 90% as good (and that last 10% makes all the difference - imagine a 10% difference in the 40-yard dash, for example). We here on the board were already going through every possible CFP scenario to see how Michigan would get in, who we'd play, etc. That little obstacle in the way which was OSU was almost a foregone victory - after all, they got blown out by Purdue right? They only narrowly beat teams that we pounded into the pavement right? Michigan is going to be elite again and the conversation was already "bring on Alabama."
Then the OSU game happened. Yes, it was a debacle, and yes we are probably better than 62 - 39. The game proved that we are - in fact - not elite and not ready to compete with a truly elite team. By this, I mean if the game were played 100 times, that we would win at least 40 of those times. I don't think that's been the case for Harbaugh other than 2016, during which perhaps it was 60 / 100 towards us. We just aren't at that level. But our fanbase simply couldn't take this realization. The asinine calls of fire Harbaugh, fire Pep (never mind that literally no one here knows how much of the offense is Pep vs. Harbaugh), fire Don Brown (never mind that we've fielded the #1 defense 3 years in a row), fire everybody are simply maddening and illogical. Who does this element of the fanbase think we could get that's better? It makes no sense. What was really dumb to me were all the posters who turned on the players and on the Revenge Tour. "Wow the Revenge Tour is the most juvenile thing ever, it's stupid, other teams don't need that motivation, let your actions do the talking, etc." These were very likely the exact same people who were fully on board with it earlier and ready to buy Revenge Tour gear. If we had beat OSU, how many posts on the Revenge Tour being stupid would there be? I bet it would be literally zero. This is ridiculous - either the Revenge Tour is awesome or it's juvenile and stupid. The concept itself should not be affected by the outcome of the game. Yet here we are.
II. Who We Are - Good, But Not Elite
Ultimately the point of this diary is to address our latest overreaction to the OSU game. For my job, I attempt to recognize when human sentiment swings too far from the fundamentals in either direction and simply analyze what the data says. What the data says is that we had a pretty good team that had a pretty good season, just not elite. In fact, the data says that we have - at least in modern history - never been consistently an elite team (the definition here being one that is truly capable of winning a national championship).
This seems to be the disconnect with the wild overreaction to the OSU game - a significant portion of our fanbase already thought of ourselves as elite. This is simply not true and really has never been true in the modern era. The takeaway for me is to simply reset my expectations - the playoff simply shouldn't be the expectation here at Michigan unless we change some long-term philosophical approaches as a university that are ultimately structural deficiencies (more on this later).
I was going to gather the data to prove this myself, but thankfully jmblue has beaten me to the punch and has done an excellent job of both providing the data and his own very well-reasoned conclusions. I link to his diary post here.
The only things I would add to jmblue's work is to highlight a couple points. From 1979 to 2007 (29 years pre-RR), we averaged 9.1 wins. So Bo, Gary, and Lloyd together during this time averaged only 9.1 wins, and 1997 was a complete outlier. 9-3 and 9-4 seasons consistently results in a <75% win rate, obviously. Harbaugh is actually averaging more in his four seasons. Yes an extra game was added at some point compared to earlier eras, but it was also easier to win in the earlier years due to a bigger talent disparity (scholarships). And again, as jmblue points out, we won many of those earlier Big Ten championships simply because you could tie - if that same methodology were used today, we would tie with OSU for Big Ten champions this year.
III. What Does Elite Actually Look Like?
So we've hopefully established that we are a pretty good team over the years - even great at times - but not really consistently elite. So what does consistently elite look like? Phrased another way, what would the team have to achieve to live up to the "fire Harbaugh" reactionary crowd's expectations?
Meyer is 81 - 9 (90%) at OSU in 7 seasons. That is elite. Saban is 144 - 20 (88%) at Alabama in 12 seasons, and 137 - 14 (91%) excluding his first 7 - 6 season. That is elite. Dabo Swinney is 113 - 30 (79%) at Clemson in 11 seasons, but 15 of those losses came during his first 3 seasons as he was building the program. Excluding those, he is 94 - 15 (86%). That is elite.
Since the college football playoff started, here are the teams and winners from every championship year (e.g., 2015 for the 2014 - 2015 season):
2015: Oregon, Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State | Winner: Ohio State over Oregon
2016: Clemson, Oklahoma, Alabama, Michigan State (LOL) | Winner: Alabama over Clemson
2017: Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama, Washington | Winner: Clemson over Alabama
2018: Georgia, Oklahoma, Alabama, Clemson | Winner: Alabama over Georgia
2019 projected: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma
There's a few conclusions that I draw from this:
+ Teams that make the CFP – and especially those that win – generally have the best players. In my view there are two ways to win in football – have better schemes or have better players. At the elite level, however, I think everyone has great coaches that run great schemes. I don’t think we will ever have a massive schematic advantage over Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, or OSU – they care about football and can pay good coaches just as much as us (in fact, below I argue we have a schematic deficit as we refuse to embrace the spread). Case in point – OSU already had counters to adjustments that Michigan made to its defense, as Space Coyote pointed out. It’s not as if we would have magically won the game if we just played zone defense the whole time – OSU has the coaching and the athletes to run zone beaters, and Brandon Watson is still going to be slower than OSU’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th wide receivers (I hate writing that as Watson has stuck around to be a very good player – unfortunately he is simply athletically limited). I don’t think anyone would dispute that OSU has better talent top to bottom than Michigan does and that it matters. We need better players to compete at this level on a consistent basis. Obviously player development matters a lot too, but it’s not like those elite teams don’t develop their players.
+ Teams that make the CFP typically run a spread offense. I believe that the only team above that doesn’t run a spread basically at all is MSU (LOL). Alabama used to be more pro-style (but incorporated spread elements) but has transitioned with the times to a spread. Admittedly, I haven’t followed Georgia much to know whether they are clearly spread or pro-style under Kirby Smart. Ultimately, however, the data would suggest fairly convincingly that at the college level at least the spread offense is simply better and harder to defend.
+ It’s much easier to for certain teams to make it to the CFP than others. But just because you make the CFP doesn’t mean you are an elite top four team. MSU (LOL), Washington, and even Oregon and Oklahoma are examples of this. This is because college football is split into divisions, and some divisions are inherently easier than others. The Pac12 and Big12 are simply weaker than the Big10 and SEC in this current era, meaning that the top-end teams in the Pac12 and Big12 are likely worse than the Big10 and SECs’ top-end teams. Yet, the best teams from these weaker conferences can often sneak in over the 2nd or 3rd best team from the Big10 or SEC. Oregon / Washington doesn’t have to go through Alabama or OSU to get in, nor does Oklahoma. However, Michigan has to go through OSU and Georgia has to go through Alabama. Not that this matters all that much in the end because of the point below.
+ Teams that don't belong in the playoffs are quickly exposed. If you aren't actually a Top 4 team in the country but you make the playoffs anyway, you get pounded pretty hard. MSU (LOL), Washington, and even Oregon are examples of this. They each got destroyed by an actual elite team. Had Michigan made it to the CFP to play Alabama or Clemson, I think we would have been absolutely wrecked. I think Notre Dame – which is a pretty damn good team this year – is going to get wrecked by either of those teams.
IV. How Do We Become Elite?
If you made it this far, I appreciate it and I do finally get to the punchline. I’m not just pointing out problems without offering potential solutions – unfortunately these solutions may not be well received by us as Michigan alumni and fans. After all, Michigan is an institution that stands for integrity and we all need to make our own choices on what football means to us within that broader context.
Easy fixes – schematically. As the data above would suggest, we should be running a spread offense. We should force defenses to play 11v11 (on every play), use misdirection, and get the ball to our playmakers 1v1 in space. We have the athletes now to do so but we still do not do this. Instead, we line up in a mashing formation to run and then run obvious play actions on 3rd and 7 that fool no one (I don’t think we’ve really ever actually run on this down and distance, so why even fake it?). We run to open up the pass when we could and likely should pass to open up the run. Get the ball to DPJ and Chris Evans and let them beat guys 1v1, just like Indiana and OSU did to us. Get the ball to playmakers as they are running in stride so they can pickup YAC instead of having players have to constantly look back, adjust, and then get tackled for YAC. Let playmakers make plays with as few execution constraints as possible (e.g., everyone else needs to hit their blocks). It’s always going to be harder to tackle someone running full speed when they get the ball.
I don’t think these are novel concepts but for some reason seem to choose a more complicated scheme on purpose – Harbaugh has been fairly stubborn in this regard despite showing a history of tinkering and philosophy adjustments elsewhere. Our offense does well against inferior defenses, but against OSU which has superior talent and just as importantly superior depth we have obviously not fared well. The OSU game was really disappointing because it appeared we were on the path to incorporating all the above elements into our game – however, we seemed to prefer to play completely straight up and absolutely regressed.
On defense, I think changes to scheme are less necessary. We simply didn’t have the athletes to matchup. OSU’s top four receivers are all 4.4 speed players and excellent at getting open and they have literally the best throwing quarterback in the history of the Big 10 (by statistics at least). Our defensive line simply was not good enough either – those that thought Michigan has the best defensive line in the country simply have not spent enough time watching other teams out there. I don’t believe the outcome of the OSU game would have been any different had we altered our scheme, ran zone completely, etc. We were simply out-talented more so than we were outcoached.
I think a better scheme will close the gap between us and OSU, and would have made this last game closer for us. It wouldn't have won the game for us though. We needed players as well.
Hard fixes – recruit better players. Michigan pulls in a Rashan Gary, Jabrill Peppers, Daxton Hill, and hopefully Zach Harrison every once in a while, but it really isn’t to the consistency of Alabama, Clemson, and especially Ohio State. Clemson (and I know it wasn’t always the case before) today starts four world-beaters at defensive line. I think highly of Rashan as a player, teammate, and person but think that any of Clemson’s four is likely as good if not better at the college level than Rashan has been… and there are four of them. Again, I don’t think this is going out on a limb here but we simply don’t have the athletes to consistently beat OSU. And yes, I know that Purdue blew them out and Maryland almost beat them but they were just lucky rolls of the dice. Do you really believe that Purdue / Maryland beats this year’s OSU team consistently, e.g., >60 games out of 100?
In my mind, there are several reasons why Michigan does not recruit at the level of Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State:
+ We do not cheat and pay players. We all know that the entire SEC, from Saban on down, pay players to go to their school. Our own players have implied as much during their recruitments – Denard, Rashan with Clemson, etc. Look at Laquon Treadwell and Isaiah Wilson to Ole Miss and Georgia respectively. We know beyond a doubt this is happening. There are supremely talented players that would never consider us because we won’t buy their mother a new house or car or slip them a few thousand dollars.
+ We care about academics. When you come to Michigan, it’s expected that you go to class and graduate with a Michigan degree. It’s expected that you better yourself and expand your horizons – that’s why we have the overseas trips to Paris, Rome, etc. There are talented players that do not care about academics or bettering themselves. They won’t consider us because the just want to play football, party, and fuck girls without having to deal with homework.
+ We care about character. We all know Urban Meyer is a piece of shit who played Aaron Hernandez and who protected a coach who beat his wife (and truthfully, I freely admit I don’t really care about Courtney Smith – I was only interested because it was OSU; otherwise, she is a completely random person to me and I don’t have any vested interest in her any more than I would have towards any other victim I don’t know – obviously domestic violence is horrible in general). We know Urban doesn’t care about anything other than winning, and his own players have implied that it’s an all business, cutthroat environment as opposed to a closer, family environment at Michigan. It just recently came out that Reuben Foster had a domestic violence incident (yes I realize that he isn’t on Saban’s current team). We all know that other teams have played players who have done probably pretty bad things. Yet our standard is higher. There are talented players out there who won’t consider us because they want to get away with doing bad things.
+ These matter to a lesser extent, but geography works against us. Michigan is not filled with recruiting talent unlike Ohio, California, Texas, and the South. Furthermore, though I don’t believe Michigan is really colder than anywhere else of similar latitude (I’m from Iowa and used to live in NYC), the perception that Michigan winters are horrendous probably prevents some talented players from considering us.
So what do we do to counter these issues? Well, the first question in my mind is should we even want to change these things?
There is a clear trade-off between the quality of player and Michigan’s standards (when it comes to recruiting as a whole – obviously we have one-off case in Rashan and Jabrill etc.) – lower the standards and bring in higher quality players. Hypothetically, if Michigan were to pay players I think our recruiting disadvantage goes away. We have more resources than basically any other football school out there. $50k for a top-20 recruit consistently is nothing. I myself don’t even know where I sit on this issue – I’m not sure it’s a good thing to prioritize football over the integrity of Michigan. But that’s essentially what we would have to do to be an elite program. It’s up to each of us to determine how much that means individually.
Overall conclusion: Michigan is not on a level playing field with Alabama, Clemson, OSU, etc. We could make it a level playing field if we 1) paid players, 2) lowered academic standards, and 3) lowered character standards. If we as an institution are willing to make that tradeoff, then we can be an elite program. If we are not willing to do so, then we should be content with 10-win seasons and rare victories vs. OSU and rare appearances in the CFP in which we are beaten by teams with superior talent. We simply cannot have both high institutional standards as a program AND expect to consistently beat OSU and compete for championships.
Side note: I tried to think through hypothetically what would happen if Michigan successfully lobbied (together with other schools) for paying the players. I don’t think that would work either because 1) not all the schools have enough money to pay players beyond scholarships (at least I don’t believe so since most athletic departments are loss-making), and 2) there is nothing to prevent Alabama from further paying the #1 recruit in the nation on top of what they are getting paid just to play in college. We would just be back to where we are today. The counter to that is that after a certain level of payment, money would matter less to players and so they might start valuing other things that other programs have to offer. However, these are 17-year old kids often from less than fortunate backgrounds so I still imagine that – on the whole – more money is hard to turn down.