Visual shows consistent excellence of Michigan football

Submitted by thepowerrank on July 17th, 2013 at 11:54 AM

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.

Data visualization can capture this rich history of Michigan football. This visual looks at the past 30 years. Michigan

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.



July 12th, 2013 at 10:25 PM ^

In 1983, 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

That was actually 1984.  Russ Rein and Chris Zurbrugg (sp) were the non-suitable replacements, although Zurbrugg came around a little by the end of the season.  

1984 was also the last time Michigan was shut out, 26-0 at Iowa.  The game was actually close into the 4th quarter and Michigan was driving inside the Iowa red zone, but an interception (the non-suitable replacement thing again) and a long return sealed the deal.  

Harbaugh got healthy in 1985 and Michigan bounced way back to finish 2nd in the Nation in the AP, beating Nebraska in the Fiesta bowl.



July 13th, 2013 at 11:39 AM ^

But it hurts my brain on a Saturday morning. 

Strange results that make sense only after I think a lot about them, like 2011 being hardly better than Carr's average teams. 

Also this definitely proves the "big two, little eight (or twelve) theory, and that it's only because of 08-10 that other teams look as if they are crashing the ceiling on any consistent basis.


July 13th, 2013 at 1:58 PM ^

"And for anyone who doubts boring wins football, just remember what happened when the exciting spread offense showed up after Carr retired."

I think there was a *little* more to it than that.

Here's one of many examples:…

Not "hearsay," either ... Jim Hackett is directly quoted.

Anyway, defense was RichRod's main problem. Also, boring wins consistently only when you have superior firepower. Otherwise, you lose (see USC after the '06 season and Oregon in '07).


July 13th, 2013 at 6:33 PM ^

RR wasn't allowed to hire the DC he wanted due to not being allowed to pay a competitive rate.  DB gave Mattison around $1 million to come here.  Big difference.  

Even if you want to ignore everything else that went on, simply having more than twice as much money to spend on a DC makes a huge difference in how the defense is going to play out.


July 17th, 2013 at 5:30 PM ^


He's the greatest bad coach in history!

Every time RR is talked about in a negative manner I fully expect a trap door to open and that person to fall into the ball pit from "Nothing But Trouble"


July 13th, 2013 at 7:57 PM ^

not RR left the program in such piss poor shape. One returning starter on offense, 21 to 24 defensive players on the entire roster and his advice to recruited players such as Mallett to look elsewhere are nothing less than a complete contradiction to what he always preached as to what a "Michigan Man," should be. Bo would not have been proud of LC's actions or mailing it in his final two seasons in regard to having the team ready to continue with a solid depth chart. 


July 17th, 2013 at 1:05 PM ^

Carr left enough talent on defense alone to win more than 3 games...  It's almost like you have to try your hardest at Michigan to lose 9 games.  Can't fault RR's effort there.   

Threet was more than serviceable and would have been a middle of the pack B1G QB even as a freshman if we ran anything other than the read option spread.   

Your statement on Mallett is also an exaggeration with zero context, but that's no surprise. 

There's a reason why the majority of Lloyd's former players would run through a wall for him and to this day speak highly of him.  There's also a reason for the quotes from former players about RR after he left making him look like a joke.


July 17th, 2013 at 10:29 PM ^

It is so tiresome to continue to hear the lies that "Carr left the cupboard bare"

Here are the facts.  On the day that Lloyd Carr retired, he left:

* Starting QB who is now in the NFL. (Mallett)

* 2 Starting WRs that both made the NFL, one is still there (Manningham, Aarington)

* 2 solid Big Ten RBs who had experience (Minor and Brown) along with several backup RBs who had experience.

* Returning TE in Butler

* Several returning starters on the OL and a young Dave Molk coming in.

* Almost the entire DL returning, including Brandon Graham

* Several returning LBs and DBs back, including a few that are in the NFL now.

* A great punter who is now in the NFL..

* A program with 33 straight bowl games and 40 non losing seasons. 

etc etc etc.

You guys who keep blaming Carr what whatever happened AFTER he left... are, no offense...idiots.  Look at the facts.  When Carr left, the cupboard was very welll stocked....

what happened after he left...started with a terrible hire... it all tore down after that hire.

Just tired of hearing about that spin.  it simply is not true.


July 13th, 2013 at 5:58 PM ^

Boring is great when your talent is better then the other team.  Alabama's offense is pretty vanilla also.  However, this falls apart when the other team has better talent then you.  This is probably why Carr failed so badly head to head against Tressel.   The spread is often favored by programs that can not guarantee an advantag in talent.  The attempt is to increase the variance so that you can beat bigger stronger teams. 


July 17th, 2013 at 12:34 PM ^

"Boring" means different things to different people. That Carr used pro-style formations and emphasized the run may be "boring," but there is no reason it cannot be effective. Here are some teams that used the same basic pro-style, non-spread philosophy that Lloyd used: The Andrew Luck Stanford teams, Saban's Alabama teams, the Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush USC teams, and Tressel's OSU teams. All of those teams have had three-year runs that were notably superior to any three-year run Carr produced in the 00s.

The problem was that Michigan failed to properly exploit the advantages available to them in that offense, and to deny opponents success with their defense.

In the Lloyd era, talent was not a problem. Pro-style was not a problem. The problem was how they used what they had.

To contrast that situation with today: I have serious questions about Al Borges, but he has already clearly shown a willingness and ability to adapt his offense to his players in ways that never happened in the Lloyd era. And we have already seen in two years that the staff is better at developing their players than Lloyd's underpaid staff was, particularly in the secondary.

This year's team will go as far as Devin Gardner takes them. Next year I believe that, depending upon the QB situation, we will go to Columbus with a chance to win our way into the playoff. The excellence is returning.


July 14th, 2013 at 5:19 PM ^

"Craig Ross, author of The Obscene Diaries of a Michigan Fan, told me that Carr attempted to "minimize the vagaries of talent and injuries"."


Isn't that exactly why RR started using the spread in the first place?  To minimize the vagaries... well, deficiencies of talent he had when he started coaching? 

Decatur Jack

July 17th, 2013 at 4:46 PM ^

As a young guy, RR was very adaptable and willing to try anything that worked. That's how he came up with the spread zone read option.

However, as he got older, and certainly when he was here, he was very close-minded because the spread (and on defense, the 3-3-5) had got him that far and so it was like "Why change? The way we've done things worked for us at other places. Besides, this is all we know how to do."

Carr at least allowed his coordinators to do different things. Admittedly, no one will confuse any of Carr's offenses as "innovative," but he did more than just run the i-form. iirc his offenses passed the ball way more with Henne in the shotgun, for instance.

Wolverine 73

July 17th, 2013 at 12:13 PM ^

The first 14 years of Bo from '69-'82 were arguably even more awesome than what came later--I am almost certain Michigan finished in the top 25 each of those years.  From 1969 through 2007, you could not have asked more of a football program than what Michigan provided--which is what makes Bo so great, he not only built great teams, he trained his successors who preserved and expanded what he had built.


July 17th, 2013 at 12:57 PM ^

Can of worms: opened. I'm surprised this got front-paged, since this is inevitably going to turn into a raging debate about why exactly the RR years were so terrible.

One thing is sure though, to say "remember what happened when the exciting spread offense showed up after Carr retired" implies that a very complicated, multi-faceted era blew up all because of the spread offense, and grossly over-simplifies the situation. Nobody will deny that the Rodriguez years were terrible; probably the most tumultuous 3 years in the program's history. But to try to pin all of that on the introduction of the spread offense to Michigan football is just wrong.


July 17th, 2013 at 1:57 PM ^

 Even worse to say that after saying this: "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."

I think this got front-paged because it is a surprisingly well-conceived attempt at doing systematic (i.e., data-driven) power rankings. Certainly not because the OP does anything useful with that can of worms.

Interesting expression, that -- "to open a can of worms" -- wonder where it comes from? Fishing, somehow?

Ali G Bomaye

July 17th, 2013 at 2:14 PM ^

This is right.  It's impossible to compare the spread offense to what came before it without also factoring in that we had one returning starter on offense, started a walk-on QB, and were led in rushing and receiving by true freshmen.  That spread offense looked pretty good by 2010, but by then the defense had cratered.


July 17th, 2013 at 3:23 PM ^

First off, I appreciate the time and effort you put into the OP. You obviously put a lot of work into it and it's impressive. I just disagree with your conclusions. I don't think Carr is underappreciated at all. I think there's a fairly large portion of the fanbase that is peeved with him for the way he kind of dropped off toward the end of his career, and the state in which he left the program, but, and your data reflects this, he did lead solid to great teams through the late '90's and early '00's. That's a great accomplishment and that era is one I remember fondly, since that's when I was growing up as a Michigan fan. But I think there's just a bad taste in a lot of people's mouthes for the way things came to a close. 


July 17th, 2013 at 7:25 PM ^

The fanbase is so large, with a wide variety of football acumen & experience that I'm willing to believe that any generalization of attitudes of the base has some merit.  Remember the scene in the Big Chill where (I foreget whom) is bitching about Bo's lack of a pass offense?  I heard similar stuff to that all the time in the mid 80s.

panthera leo fututio

July 17th, 2013 at 2:25 PM ^

It's interesting for me to see that, as down as everybody is on the Big Ten right now, it looks like the conference is actually at about the same relative strength now as it was for much of the '80s/early '90s.


July 17th, 2013 at 5:29 PM ^

I know the offense was horrible but we did  have two talented running backs though the OL & QB were some of the worse I ever seen at Michigan. I traveled a 800 miles to see Michigan play Toledo and left the game rather numb that Toledo had beaten Michigan in the big house.

I prefer having a stellar defense and a power based offense but an offense that can still strike fast with true deep threat WR!