Evidence of Things Not Seen

Stats and numbers are weird sometimes. You can look for logic in them, you can look for trends to try and forecast future success or failure. There are people that do this for a living. I do not envy them.

One thing you really can't gauge with any sort of confidence are specific game situations and their influence on statistics. Even just a single play can alter the flow or momentum of a game. How many 3rd downs of 4+ yards did Michigan successfully convert on the road against winning FBS teams while trailing in the 2nd half? That's an awfully meaningful stat. But so is points off turnovers...of which Michigan has given up all of 6 this season in their two losses.

Go figure.

Another funny stat, Michigan's redzone scoring percentage...which is 100%. Great, right? But as you might've heard, Michigan didn't get to the redzone against Notre Dame or Utah. Doh!

See, numbers are weird. Here's some meaningful numbers from wins/losses this season compared to wins/losses last season.

Handy Chart
Stat 2014
 Rushing Off. Yds/Gm  313.0  109.0  182.43  59.50
 Passing Off. Yds/Gm  197.0  189.5  260.6  232.8
 Total Off. Yds/Gm  510.0  298.5  443.0  292.3
 Scoring Off. Pts/Gm  43.0  5.0  40.6  22.5
 First Downs/Gm  11.75  9.28  12.6  7.8
 3rd Down %  52.38%  40.63%  48.42%  29.07%
 Off. Yds per Play  8.36  4.20  6.25  4.42
 Turnover Margin  -1.50  -3.50  -0.29  1.17
 Red Zone TD %  80.0%  N/A  72.22  55.0

Green means better than last year, red means worser. This ain't rocket surgery.

The redzone stat just kills me. What I also notice is a noticeably better running team, but one that is still in search of Jeremy Gallon's replacement. That's not on Gardner/Morris either. Gallon's absence is palpable. More receivers need to step up.

Making heads or tails from numbers is a full time job for some people. Football Outsiders Brian Fremeau and Bill Connelly have developed something called F+. It's a combination of FEI…
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) considers each of the nearly 20,000 possessions every season in major college football. All drives are filtered to eliminate first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores. A scoring rate analysis of the remaining possessions then determines the baseline possession efficiency expectations against which each team is measured. A team is rewarded for playing well against good teams, win or lose, and is punished more severely for playing poorly against bad teams than it is rewarded for playing well against bad teams.
and S&P+…
The S&P+ Ratings are a college football ratings system derived from both play-by-play and drive data from all 800+ of a season's FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). There are four key components to the S&P+:
  • Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
  • EqPts Per Play (PPP): An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.
  • Drive Efficiency: As of February 2013, S&P+ also includes a drive-based aspect based on the field position a team creates and its average success at scoring or preventing the points expected based on that field position.
  • Opponent adjustments: Success Rate and PPP combine to form S&P, an OPS-like measure for football. Then each team's S&P output for a given category (Rushing/Passing on either Standard Downs or Passing Downs) is compared to the expected output based upon their opponents and their opponents' opponents.
Currently, in F+, Michigan is ranked 32nd nationally. In the S&P+ Michigan is ranked 19th – 1 behind Notre Dame and 11 ahead of Utah.

Okay cool, but we're 2-2 with those 2 losses coming in blowouts, so explain that!
Well, thats exactly it. In the S&P+ rankings, the entire 2nd half of the ND game and the 4th quarter of the Utah game were not recorded because the game was deemed uncompetitive.
The criteria for "garbage time" are as follows: a game is not within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 points in the second quarter, 21 points in the third quarter, or 16 points in the fourth quarter.
So, that actually helps Michigan in theory. Most of Michigan's bad plays and turnovers came when both loses were already out of hand…but the same could also be said for many successful plays against App St or Miami (NTM) when Michigan was way out in front. But when games were in question, yes...even in losses, Michigan was playing relatively good football.

There are similar teams in the past that underachieved on the scoreboard while tallying rather impressive stats. Bill Connelly explains (via MGoBlog)...
If you've read my writing semi-frequently over the last couple of years, you've probably seen me make reference to teams like 2011 Notre Dame, 2011 Texas A&M, and 2012 Michigan State, teams that produced wholly mediocre records (combined: 22-17) and strangely solid statistical profiles.

These three teams went a combined 36-4 in their following seasons. Certain teams end up characterized by key turnovers/takeaways, clutch play, etc., but you tend to play to your ratings eventually, even if it takes until the next season.

So what do we make of Michigan? Brady Hoke's Wolverines have pulled off something pretty incredible so far this season, even if Michigan fans think it is anything but nice. They have managed to outgain both Notre Dame (289 yards to 280) and Utah (308 to 286) and lose both games by a combined 57-10.

It takes a spectacular, steady rate of failure to pull this off. 
Basically, Michigan's failures are hurting them in more than they should…and on a consistent basis.
Michigan has outgained opponents by an average of 6.1 yards per play to 4.2. The Wolverines have held all four opponents below their full-season offensive averages. They've generated scoring opportunities.

And they've also thrown six interceptions and recovered just one of four fumbles in two losses. (They're currently losing about six points per game to turnovers luck.) They showed wonderful creativity in finding ways to fail against Utah, entering Ute territory seven times and coming away with three points*. (Their only touchdown: a pick-six.)
Here's to being a statistical anomaly! 

Ok…so what does this all mean? 
I can't sit here and tell you to be confident because some random number system thinks Michigan is probably playing better than they actually are. But I do think there's some validity to it because in the 31-point loss to Notre Dame didn't quite have the feel of a 31-point blowout. And the final score of the Utah loss was only a 2-score game...again, not ideal, but not the sky is falling, fire everyone total domination either.

One can choose to see positives here. Michigan has flaws offensively, sure. But I also see at least 7 games remaining on the schedule against flawed opponents as well. Michigan just needs to turn these positive numbers into points on the scoreboard. They have to improve. Drives can't stall out on the opponent's side of the field...whether its a turnover, a missed field goal or a pooch punt…I'd argue that there seems to be little difference between all three right now.

A drive ended without points hurts Michigan the same either way.

Regardless of what these numbers tell us, what we see on the field is a team that can't seem to get out of its own way once the wheels start to wobble. Part of that is generating offensive momentum and using that to create tempo...the other part of it is youth vs. confidence. Like Nussmeier said, what Michigan lacks is execution and consistency. He's absolutely right. There's no single stat line for that.

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