If you're reading this site, you're a true Michigan fan. The type that yells "Go Blue" at anyone with two legs and block M on her shirt.
Your commitment goes beyond packing the Big House on Saturdays each fall. You still remember how the sun set over the Rose Bowl in 1998 as Michigan beat Washington State to capture a national title.
Michigan football has rewarded your commitment by winning a lot of football games. The program has the most wins and best winning percentage among all college football programs. This success has been consistent, well, except for a recent 3 year stretch.
The bottom panel shows how a computer algorithm viewed Michigan football each year. The Power Rank algorithm takes a team's margin of victory in each game and adjusts it for their schedule. It makes a difference whether a team plays in the Big Ten or MAC. Last year, Michigan was rated higher (26th) than Northern Illinois (44th) despite having a worse record.
The rating for each team gives an expected margin of victory against an average FBS team. The difference in ratings of two teams gives a predicted margin of victory on a neutral field. For example, Michigan was predicted to beat Michigan State by 5.7 points (including 3 points for a home game at the Big House) last season. Michigan won 12-10. While the visual shows year end ratings, the calculations from before bowl season have predicted 62.8% of bowl game winners over the last 11 years.
These insights into Michigan football jump out from the visual.
23 Years of Sustained Excellence
In 1984, sophomore QB Jim Harbaugh got hurt in the fifth game of the season. Bo didn't have a suitable replacement. Michigan struggled to 6-6 record, finishing 36th in The Power Rank.
For the next 23 years, Michigan football never finished out of the top 25 of the rankings. The teams coached by Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr showed remarkable consistency.
The Rich Rodriguez Years
This consistency came to an abrupt halt when Carr retired and Rich Rodriguez took over as coach. The dip in rating over these 3 years looks like the Grand Canyon compared with Michigan's results on both sides of this era. Rodriguez's teams won more games as the offense picked up his spread scheme. However, the poor defense kept team rating negative during those 3 years.
Michigan had a terrible time with turnovers under Rodriguez. Turnover margin in football is like flipping a coin. The randomness implies that a team with poor turnover margin should do better the following season. However, regression to the mean does not rescue every team. Rodriguez's teams had a consistently terrible turnover margin, with 10, 12, and 10 more giveaways than takeaways in his 3 years.
Boring wins football games
Lloyd Carr did not play the most exciting brand of football. Run, run, pass on offense. Very predictable and boring.
But Lloyd Carr won 122 football games in his 13 years as head coach. He claimed 5 Big Ten titles and a national championship in 1997.
How did he do it? Craig Ross, author of The Obscene Diaries of a Michigan Fan, told me that Carr attempted to "minimize the vagaries of talent and injuries". He probably had turnovers on his mind as well.
To a mathematician like myself, this quote means he understood randomness and tried to minimize its impact on his team. The calculated ratings from 1995 to 2007 show the consistent results from this philosophy. Similar to the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, Carr put his team in position to win every year. He broke through with a national championship in 1997. Who cares that the algorithm thinks the Big Ten had a down year?
And for anyone who doubts boring wins football, just remember what happened when the exciting spread offense showed up after Carr retired.
The hidden strength of 2005 team
The remarkable 23 years in the top 25 of the rankings includes 2005. Most fans will not remember the 7-5 season fondly, but Michigan finished 10th in The Power Rank.
How can a team with 5 losses get ranked so highly? The Power Rank considers margin of victory and strength of schedule in ranking teams. A team gets credit for staying close with good teams. In 2005, Michigan lost by 4 points to 3rd ranked Ohio State, 7 points to 6th ranked Notre Dame, and 3 points to 19th ranked Wisconsin.
The 2005 team was much better than their record indicated. The Power Rank rated them two touchdowns better than the average FBS team. The core of Jake Long, Chad Henne and Mario Manningham along with a healthy Mike Hart would lead Michigan to an 11-0 start the following year.
Bo's best team was in 1988
Of the last 7 years of Bo Schembechler's coaching tenure, which team was the beat? The 1985 team that beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl? Or the 1986 team that finished with 11 wins?
Actually, the ranking algorithm gives a slight edge to the 1988 team. Michigan opened the season with a 2 point loss at Notre Dame. The following week, the Wolverines lost an agonizing 1 point game to Miami when the Hurricanes recovered an onside kick to set up a winning field goal. However, The Power Rank considers margin of victory and strength of schedule in rankings teams. Miami and Notre Dame would finish the season 1st and 2nd (Notre Dame won the national title with an undefeated season).
Michigan went on beat USC in the Rose Bowl and finish 4th in the rankings. The algorithm states they were a point and a half better than the 1985 team. However, the algorithm does not make any kind of definitive statement on the best team. To put this in perspective, the 1988 has a 53% chance of beating the 1985 team on a neutral field.
Get a free postcard of the Michigan visual
As Michigan enters the third year of the Brady Hoke era, the program appears to be climbing out of the Grand Canyon of the Rodriguez years. The Power Rank will continue to use analytics and visualization to break down the program in detail. For example, I apply the algorithm to yards per play to account for strength of schedule in ranking offense and defense.
The best way to keep up to date with this analysis is my free email newsletter. If you sign up, I'll send a postcard of the Michigan visual to you and the next biggest Michigan fan you know. To check it out, click here.