Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Anatomy of a Michigan loss II: The Sequel

The Reason for a sequel:

I thought it was evident from the Michigan numbers alone that something was out of the ordinary in terms of how Michigan loses and who they lose to. However, as I should’ve expected, there are people that remain unconvinced. Michigan football is unlike any other professional or college sports team. It’s perfectly acceptable for Detroit Tiger fans to blast the team. It’s condoned for Gator fans to run Ron Zook out of Gainesville. Fans of all teams, sans Michigan, have the right and privilege to express their dissatisfaction when something is wrong.

In Wolverine world (obviously not everyone is like this but it often seems that way), if you give a criticism, you are labeled either a). Not a real fan, b). Someone who can’t ever be happy or c) stupid. Because of this phenomenon, anytime someone speaks of the “horse on the kitchen table” or even something not so obvious, the die-hard Blue-defenders come out swinging. This makes it hard to show disturbing trends since there is an inherent unwillingness to listen to anything remotely negative. This is particularly troublesome for me because so many Michigan Men (and Women) are giving a free-pass when it’s totally uncalled for. Although I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received from the first post, there were legitimate questions posed by some readers. I received a few comments from my fellow Michigan fans that took one of three forms….

1). Why do we need to rehash losses, let’s focus on the wins.
2). I bet if you looked at all of the top programs, you would find the same results.
3). At least Michigan won a National Championship.

First, I’m not rehashing losses because it provides me joy. I don’t rehash Pistons losses. I don’t mourn the beating that the Lions took at the hands of the Redskins in the ’91 NFC championship game. I don’t take a look back at Red Wings’ failures in the playoffs (pre-Stanley Cup). I like to remember the good things. When I go over losses in the past, you can rest assured that there’s a point.

Second, it shouldn’t even be a question as to whether other programs have similar trends. The numbers speak for themselves. I’ve followed college football intensively for 17 years and I can tell you that there is no equal in the way Michigan loses. It didn’t even cross my mind to look at other programs for comparison until I realized that the numbers I presented weren’t convincing enough.

Third, Michigan won a National Championship? That was eight years ago. How long are we going to have to listen to that excuse? If Michigan didn’t lose so many games to inferior opponents, the Wolverines would challenge for one every year.

It was in response to those three critiques that I decided that a sequel was necessary. I have analyzed the losses of the top seven programs since 1989. The seven teams are Florida St., Miami, Nebraska, Tennessee Michigan, Florida and Ohio St. Thanks to Stassen.com, it is evident that there is a distinct cutoff between the seventh and eighth teams on the list so that seemed like a logical place to stop. I looked at the following statistics for each team; losses by six points or less, total games decided by six points or less, losses to teams ranked below, losses to teams ranked 19th or worse, losses to unranked teams, national championships, losses to teams ranked 18th or better, and ranked opponents.


I included losses to teams ranked 18th or better and ranked opponents to dispel any myths that a). Somehow Michigan having a harder schedule has anything to do with this and b). Michigan simply wasn’t as good as the other programs. I will also include a statistic that analyzes how teams have fared compared to their pre-season ranking. I believe that this will also dispel any myths that Michigan wasn’t as capable as the other six programs.

Charts and facts:


Pre-Season rankings compared to final rankings:


Overrated/Underrated chart

Ohio St.
-11
Tennessee
-12
Florida St.
-32
Miami
-33
Florida
-38.5
Michigan
-47.5
Nebraska
-50.5

Stassen.com has a remarkable database of all things college football. Included is a comprehensive look at who the most overrated/underrated teams have been since 1989. The criteria for the rankings are pretty simple. If a team starts off the season ranked #1 and finishes ranked #5, they receive a -4 for that season. Each season has been added together to give a final score. Each of the seven teams mentioned above has a total negative rating over the last 15 years. This is expected since these teams are generally ranked high every season based largely in part to name recognition and recent accomplishments. The teams that have achieved the most are often given the benefit of the doubt to start the season.

As evidenced by the chart, Michigan is noticeably behind the rest of the teams in the comparison except for Nebraska. Nebraska’s total is quite low but it’s misleading for two reasons. First, Nebraska was ranked 1 or 2 in the pre-season four times and in the top five every year from 1994-2001. It’s very hard to avoid a negative number when you have no room to improve. Secondly, Nebraska had two years that were -18 and -17 respectively. That accounts for more than half of their total. The only thing keeping Michigan from the cellar in this category is the remarkable 1997 season. In the same season where Michigan was ranked uncharacteristically low in the pre-season polls, they won the National Championship. This provided a +13.5. That was the only season where Michigan was better than +4. If the best single season is taken away from each of the seven teams, Michigan would be the worst in this category with Nebraska being the only team close. Since 1989, 46 teams have been ranked in the pre-season top 25. If the single best season of each of the 46 teams is dropped from the numbers, Michigan rates 43rd.

This category is not meant to show that Michigan is terrible or that Michigan has had bad teams. Nor is it supposed to belittle the Michigan program in comparison to its peers. The point of this category is to show that Michigan is considered, year in and year out, one of the top college football programs. Each year, Michigan starts off the season rated very highly. Subsequently, as the chart shows, every year “something” happens that ruins Michigan’s chances at a top 5 finish.

Amazingly, the Wolverines inevitably regain that high pre-season ranking the next season. Why do the voters keep rating Michigan high after so many overrated pre-seasons? We’ve already established that it’s perfectly understandable for these teams to be rated high based on past accomplishments. However, Michigan certainly hasn’t given the voters any reason to put them in the pre-season top 10. Why would voters, with little historical evidence to support their decision, continue to place Michigan in the top 10? The answer is simple. Michigan enters every season with a legitimate chance for success. They begin every season with a roster full of former high school All-Americans. Also, more times than not, Michigan will be favored in every game they play in any given season. Take a look at past Michigan schedules entering the season and they will be ranked higher than every opponent on the schedule more than half of the time. A team that will be favored to win every game on the schedule will inevitably earn a high pre-season ranking. So we know Michigan starts the typical season ranked high. We know that Michigan ends the typical season ranked lower. Why is this?



Losses by 6 pts or less:

Miami
10
Nebraska
11
Florida St.
14
Ohio St.
14
Tennessee
16
Florida
17
Michigan
28


Ranked Opponents:

Florida
89
Michigan
86
Florida St.
81
Ohio St.
77
Tennessee
76
Miami
72
Nebraska
57


Michigan is by far the worst team in this category. In fact, Michigan has double the amount as four of the schools (Miami, Nebraska, Florida St. and Ohio St.) and eleven more than the next closest (Florida). It’s important to understand how much of a difference there is between Michigan and the other schools. Michigan has 28 losses by six points or less (!). The next closest is 17. I predicted that there would be people that tried to justify these numbers by saying that Michigan plays the toughest schedules. As a result, I recorded the amount of ranked opponents each team has faced. Michigan is second behind Florida. It is true that Michigan is second on the list in terms of ranked opponents but the numbers aren’t significant enough to justify the difference in losses by six points or less. Nebraska is far behind the other six schools with only 57 ranked opponents.


Games decided by six points or less:

Games decided by 6 pts or less (W, L, T's)

Nebraska
23
Florida St.
30
Florida
35
Miami
36
Ohio St.
43
Tennessee
56
Michigan
66


Michigan has played in 66 games decided by six points or less. Tennessee is the only school that’s even remotely close with 56. The next closest is Ohio St. with 43. Why is there such a big discrepancy between Michigan and the other schools? The answer can be found by looking at the schedules/results of the other six teams. One thing that stood out about the other six schools is that they crushed lesser teams. Michigan not only failed to crush the lesser teams but they often ended up losing. Michigan has played so many more close games than everyone else that it can’t be explained by chance.

Losses to unranked teams:


Miami
7
Florida
8
Florida St.
9
Tennessee
10
Nebraska
12
Michigan
12
Ohio St.
14


I thought about including only games where teams were ranked when they lost to the unranked teams but that was after I compiled the data. Instead of going back and recalculating all of the losses, I’ll just point out where that would’ve made a difference. As you can see by the chart, Michigan is second to last in this category. Nebraska is tied with Michigan with 12. However, a good portion of Nebraska’s losses to unranked teams came when they were also unranked (and thus not necessarily the favorite). If I applied the rule, Nebraska would actually be tied with Florida St. with 9. Ohio St. has also lost a few games to unranked opponents while they were unranked.


Losses to teams ranked lower:

Nebraska
15
Florida St.
20
Miami
22
Tennessee
22
Florida
26
Ohio St.
26
Michigan
33

Michigan is once again the worst team in this category. Nebraska has been the best team at taking care of inferior opponents. Everyone else is between 20 and 26 except for Michigan. The Wolverines have seven more losses than the next closest team. Compared to Nebraska, Florida and Ohio St seem to be unsatisfactory at taking care of weaker opponents. However, when compared to Michigan, Florida and Ohio St. actually look acceptable.


Losses to teams ranked 19th or below:


Nebraska
9
Florida St.
10
Miami
10
Florida St.
14
Tennessee
15
Ohio St.
20
Michigan
25


Nebraska is again the best team in terms of avoiding losses against lower ranked or unranked teams with nine. Florida St. and Miami have also been very impressive with 10 each. Florida and Tennessee are actually a good ways behind with 14 and 15 respectively. Ohio St. doesn’t even compare to these teams with 20. Nebraska, Miami, and Florida St. each have half (or less) as much as the Buckeyes! However, Ohio St. is once again bailed out by Michigan. On any other chart, Ohio St. would actually look very poor (and they probably still are) in comparison to its peers. But, Michigan has a whopping total of 25! The point here isn’t that Michigan is last in a category. I’m sure I could find 100’s of statistics where Michigan is last compared to other teams. That’s not what I’m interested in. The point here is how big of a discrepancy there is between Michigan and the other schools on this list. The average of the other six schools is 14. Michigan is 25. If Michigan were just average, they would have 11 more wins over the last 15 years. 11 more wins would put Michigan second, only to Florida St., in terms of overall winning %. Keep in mind that the top three teams in terms of winning % since 1989 (Florida St., Miami, and Nebraska) have all won multiple national championships. I’m not saying that Michigan would’ve won another National Championship, but trimming 11 losses (which would only make Michigan average) off of the total would surely have put Michigan in position to win another National Championship, if not more.

National Championships:

Nebraska
3
Miami
3
Florida St.
2
Tennessee
1
Florida
1
Ohio St.
1
Michigan
1

Winning a national championship is a big accomplishment. One of the great joys of my life was watching the Wolverines march their way to Pasadena in 1997. However, many of Michigan’s shortcomings have been countered by simply stating that Michigan has won a National Championship. It’s almost as if that precludes them from ever having any fixable problems in the future. The problem with the argument is that over time, many teams win a National Championship. On this list alone, every team has won at least one National Championship and almost half have won multiple.

In the last 16 years, these teams have all won National Championships; Miami, Ga. Tech, Colorado, Nebraska, Florida St., Florida, Michigan, Ohio St., Tennessee, Alabama, USC, Oklahoma, Washington, Notre Dame, and LSU.

In order for a school to get a free ride from criticism, the list should be more exclusive than that.

Losses to teams ranked 18th or better:

Michigan
19
Florida St.
22
Miami
25
Tennessee
25
Ohio St.
28
Nebraska
29
Florida
33


Now we’re getting into the good stuff. The categories that we’ve gone over so far have set us up nicely for this statistic. Michigan is by far the best team in terms of losses to teams ranked 18th or better with 19. Florida St. is the only team that’s even in the ballpark with 22. Everyone else has 25 or worse. As bad as Michigan was in the other categories, they’re equally good in this one. The results show two things….1). The other six schools lose most often to good teams, and 2). Comparatively, Michigan doesn’t lose nearly as often to good teams. I would venture to say (and I doubt anyone would disagree) that avoiding losses to very good teams is much harder of a task than avoiding losses to inferior teams. By faring so well against very good teams, Michigan has accomplished the most difficult tasks. One can only imagine how much better their records (and history books) would be if they took care of the easy stuff as well.

Sorting this out:

What does this mean?

We established earlier that Michigan often starts the season ranked high and often finishes the season ranked lower. We also established that Michigan is the worst among its peers in terms of living up to expectations. Now, we can add in that Michigan loses most often to inferior opponents and avoids losses to very good opponents far better than its peers. Normally a team that does the best against the best opponents will finish the season ranked high. However, Michigan has fared the best against its best opponents but has finished much lower than where it started. Also, if unranked seasons are thrown out, Michigan’s average end of season ranking is lower than all of these teams with the exception of Ohio St. Michigan, along with Florida St., has been the most consistent program over the last 15 years. They are the only schools that haven’t experienced at least one season out of the top-25. So it can be said that Michigan losing most often to inferior teams is the reason why Michigan typically finishes the season much lower than it started. In addition, Michigan faring the best against very good opponents is the reason why Michigan has been one of only two teams to be consistently ranked in the top 25 over the last 15 years. We can also see from analyzing the other six teams that it isn’t characteristic of the top programs to lose most often to inferior teams. From this, we can also conclude that it’s not something unique that the other teams are doing, rather it’s something that Michigan is doing wrong. Most importantly, Michigan losing to inferior opponents is the sole reason why Michigan is not the #2 college football program in terms of winning % over the last 15 years. One can only imagine how their end of season rankings would look if they fared as well as the other six schools against lesser opponents.

The next step is to attempt to figure out what it is that Michigan does that makes it more prone to losing to inferior teams. Remember, “schedule strength” and “Michigan simply not being in the same class as the other schools” have already been disproved as explanations. All mitigating factors have been eliminated. The answer lies somewhere in how Michigan approaches/prepares/plays in these games. So what is it?

Intermission:

If you’re particularly hostile to discussions that involve admitting Michigan isn’t perfect, then I suggest you stop reading at this point. The rest of this involves trying to pinpoint exactly what makes Michigan susceptible to an upset. Up to this point, the facts have done the talking (and I’ve done the typing). The information that I’ve presented is indisputable. From this point forward, subjectivity will likely play a bigger role. The answer to this question lies within the confines of game plans and play calling. It requires more game analysis than statistical analysis. I’m sure that 100 different fans will have 100 different explanations as to what the culprit is here. I do believe that there is an answer that makes the most sense but I’m not against hearing out other explanations.

Before I delve into this one, it’s very important to remember what we’ve proven. 1).Michigan is far and away the worst team at beating inferior opponents. 2). Michigan has the least amount of losses against very good oponents. If you buy these two arguments (and it’s hard not to since they’re facts), then you must be willing to admit that Michigan is doing something that the other schools are not. If you’re willing to admit that something is wrong, then you cannot stop there. The next step involves finding out what that something is and not just chalk it up to bad luck or “it happens to everyone”. It’s clear in this case that those two things are not the case.

What is it that Michigan does to lose so often to inferior teams?

Since Michigan has consistently been apt to losing to lesser teams, the first question that comes to mind is; what has been consistent about Michigan over the last 15 years? The players change every four years. The opposing rosters change every four years. The philosophy of the coaching staff, however, has not changed. In the last 15 years, the Michigan coaching staff has consisted of “Michigan Men”. Michigan hires its football coaches from within. Bo gave way to Gary Moeller who gave way to Lloyd Carr. The basic idea of Michigan football is “be concerned with our own execution” and the inherent belief that games against quality teams (even lower ranked/unranked teams) “will come down to the fourth quarter.” This has been the staple of Michigan football through the years of this study (and long before). It is the only constant. Thus, it is the cause of the problem. There is something about this style of coaching that is not conducive to winning games against lesser teams.

Why is the coaching style conducive to being upset?

The next question becomes, why is this style of coaching so conducive to losing to inferior teams? Take a quick glance at the schedules of the other six teams in this study and you’ll find that they generally crush inferior teams leaving no doubt in the fourth quarter. Obviously, eliminating the chance that the opponent has of winning in the fourth quarter will dramatically decrease the amount of losses you’ll have. Since Michigan doesn’t experience the same amount of losses to very good teams as they do to inferior teams it can be said that Michigan allows too many inferior teams to be close in the fourth quarter. The next question is why are these teams close in the fourth quarter? The answer lies within the coaching philosophy. Lloyd Carr has often said that the game will be won in the fourth quarter. This is an acceptable statement as long as the opponent is a formidable foe. In the case of a weaker opponent, the game should be won throughout the game. Domination should be continuous, rather than over one quarter. This is the reason why the NBA moved the first round of the playoffs from five games to seven games (specifically so the Lakers wouldn’t lose in the first round). The longer a team has to impose its dominance, the more likely that team will win. An obvious example can be found by looking at the no shot-clock era in the NBA, when inferior teams would hold the ball as long as possible. This strategy shortens the game and gives the lesser team a better chance of winning. The shot-clock era requires a team to be good over an entire game to get the victory. Michigan often plays as if it is the inferior team by shortening the game. If Michigan precludes itself from winning before the fourth quarter, then they are essentially leaving it up to one quarter which makes it possible for luck and poor execution to come into play.

Pinpointing the problem:

As I stated previously, I believe that the problem lies within the unfettered belief that “the game will be close/won in the 4th quarter.” This philosophy dictates a conservative approach. The conservatism doesn’t lie in the offense or defense specifically. Rather, it permeates the entire game plan. As a result, the offensive and defensive (as well as special teams) approaches contribute equally to Michigan’s propensity to lose to lesser teams.

Offense:

Nebraska (at least before Bill Callahan) is far from a passing team yet they manage to put away inferior opponents as well as anyone. I think Nebraska is the key here. Nebraska proves that it’s not only about passing the ball or running the ball. It’s about exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses. Since nobody could stop the option, Nebraska inherently attacked the opponent’s weaknesses every game. They ran the option on what seemed like every play. I saw this first hand at the Nebraska-Michigan St. game in 1995. Nebraska pummeled Michigan St. with the option for four quarters. The Spartans couldn't stop it, so Nebraska kept running it. On the other hand, Michigan will run the ball and employ the short passing game against every opponent regardless of that opponent’s weaknesses. This was never more evident than in the 2002 Citrus Bowl vs. Tennessee. John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth were the best defensive tackle tandem in college football. In an attempt to shield John Navarre’s inconsistency, Michigan ran three straight plays into Tennessee’s NFL-loaded defensive line to start the game. As you might imagine, Michigan punted after three plays and the tone was set for the rest of the game. Michigan was so afraid of their own weakness that they willingly played into Tennessee’s strength. Tennessee was so good that Michigan was going to lose no matter what. It was evident from the first snap that the Michigan-style was not going to get it done. In this case, it would’ve made most sense to go “all-out” with the no-huddle or shotgun. Anything would’ve been better than three straight runs. This is a perfect example of how Michigan’s offensive philosophy doesn’t change based on the opponent. Rather than change their approach in an attempt to make the game more competitive, Michigan opted to get blown out using their “tried and true” philosophy even when it was obvious that Tennessee wasn’t going to let that happen.

Each of the seven schools has versatile offenses that are conducive to versatile game plans including Michigan (in fact, I would say Michigan has been THE most versatile). However, having versatile offenses and employing versatile game plans are two different things. To the credit of their coaching staffs, the other six schools have historically employed versatile game plans. I vividly remember seeing Florida St. pass, pass and pass some more over some overmatched secondary. In fact, I remember watching all these teams blow teams away by beating them through the air (or option) over and over until the clock reached :00. The name of the game here is to expose your opponents’ weaknesses. Most mid-level teams can’t contain the top-notch wr’s that you’ll find at these seven schools. When Michigan chooses to use the same game plan regardless of the opponent, they are choosing not to expose their weaknesses. Instead, they are content with trying to physically dominate the opposition through execution. A few years ago, I remember a Big Ten coach saying something along the lines of, “We know exactly what Michigan is going to run, and THEY know that WE know what they are going to run. All Michigan cares about is executing its own plays, and they feel that if they execute better than us, they will win. And they are right, because they have better players than us.” Focusing on your own execution is perfectly understandable. In fact, it will win a lot of games. However, when Michigan does not take advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses in addition to the execution, they are increasing the chances that the game will NOT be out of reach in the fourth quarter. This once against shortens the game and gives a weaker opponent a greater chance at benefiting from a costly mistake or an unlucky bounce.



Defense:

As mentioned above, the problem isn’t necessarily Carr’s approach to offense. The issue is Carr’s approach to the game. His feeling that “the game will be won in the 4th quarter” doesn’t just affect the offense. The defense has been equal to or worse than the offense in terms of allowing inferior opponents to steal games. Like the “we need to focus on what we do” approach on offense, the same game-plan is instilled for the defense. One of the common critiques after a tough Michigan loss is the lack of preparedness coming into the game as well as the poor in-game and halftime adjustments. The reason that it appears that Michigan has not prepared for the opponent, or has failed to make in-game adjustments is that Michigan uses the same approach to every opponent. I know that the coaching staff studies film of the opposing team. I’m not sure what they get out of it since they rarely ever change what they do. The Michigan defense is like a template. It’s the same look every week using different combinations of players. On third and long, Michigan will blitz the fastest/best corner. It was Charles Woodson in ’97 and Marlin Jackson the last three years. Michigan will play the corners 10+ yards off the line to avoid giving up the big play. Michigan d-lineman are not counted on to apply pressure, rather they’re supposed to tie up the offensive lineman to allow lanes for the linebackers. Each of these things is typical of Michigan defenses. Win or lose, they stay a part of the game-plan. This type of predictability makes film study and game planning much easier for opponents. This type of predictability is also what allows opponents to play Michigan closely, giving them a chance to pull the upset.

Special Teams/Ineffective use:

Believe it or not, the conservatism has even found its way into the special teams. At least once a game, Michigan faces a 4th and 2 inside of the opponent’s 40 yard line. Each time (with rare exception) Michigan punts without hesitation. More times than not the ball ends up in the end zone giving the opponent possession at the 20 yard line. Michigan gains a paltry 20 yards (and often times much less) on the exchange. If the Michigan punter could be counted on to pin the ball inside the 20, this strategy might not be as bad. However, time after time, the ball gets blasted into the end zone bringing it out to the 20. It does no good to choose field position (punting) over a risk (going for it on 4th down) if your punter can’t give you the field position. Having a punter (and this has to be something that can be improved in practice since punters all over the country exhibit the ability to put touch on their punts) that can pin the opponent inside the 20 only makes it slightly more acceptable to punt. It doesn’t make it the right decision. The right decision in most of these cases it to go for it. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Michigan doesn’t go for it on 4th down nearly as much as it should. Footballcommentary.com has done extensive research on the topic and concludes that teams punt too much on 4th down.


Opponents taking advantage of The Template:

Even if the opponent puts an unexpected wrinkle into their offensive plan just for the Michigan game, the M coaching staff will stick with the original game-plan. This is exactly why many athletes seem to have career performances against Michigan. Over the years, Donovan McNabb, Jarious Jackson, Carlisle Holiday, Drew Stanton, Troy Smith, Vince Young, Craig Krenzel, Bill Burke, and Zach Kustoc have had monster (not always stat-wise) games against Michigan. In every one of these cases, the QB did the same thing over and over. Michigan stayed true to their game-plan, and the opposing QB kept moving at will. Most fans expect an adjustment at halftime but it never happens. The reason? The coaching staff doesn’t even realize the problem. I can’t even remember how many times Lloyd Carr has attributed Michigan’s poor defensive performance to missed tackles either at halftime or in post game comments. I’ve heard it so many times that I almost started to believe it. In order for that to be true, we have to buy three arguments; 1). Michigan just happens to get the highest rated recruits that are poor tacklers, 2). Michigan coaches are so bad that tackling issues are not addressed in practice, and 3). That Michigan is the only school that loses on a regular basis because they just can’t get the tackling thing taken care of. I don’t buy any one of those points. Tackling may be the company line, but it’s not the culprit. The culprit is the approach to the game. If you intend on playing a close game, then lesser teams will have a legitimate chance to win.

Will anything ever change?

It depends. Lloyd Carr will definitely not change. In fact, I don’t see Carr admitting that there even is an issue. Surely he doesn’t like to lose but I doubt he differentiates between losses to good teams and lesser teams. It’s been ten years of the same stuff so I’m 100% sure that Carr will not change. However, when Carr retires, Michigan will have the option of sticking with the current philosophy by hiring from within, or jumping into the college football world and bringing in a new coaching philosophy. It’s important to understand that the philosophy that needs to be changed is NOT to to stop running the ball, or switch to the Spurrier Fun’n Gun. The rosters don’t need to be overhauled. Recruiting philosophies don’t need to be changed. The “virus” in this program lies within the refusal to expose an opponents’ weakness and the insistence that the game will be won in the fourth quarter. The “win in the 4th” mentality has led Michigan to three of the biggest comebacks in school history in recent years (Virgina ’95, Minnesota ’03, and MSU ’04). It can be argued that the “win in the 4th” mentality gave Michigan confidence to come back in those games. However, three monumental come-from-behind wins against lower ranked teams doesn’t justify 25 losses to teams ranked 19th or worse. It is not impossible for Carr to make this change, but like I said, he would have to admit that those are ineffective approaches. The best bet for a reversal in philosophy will come from the upcoming coaching change (whenever that may be). If Michigan hires a Michigan Man, then be prepared for the trend to continue. If they go after someone who’s notorious for piling up the points against weaker teams, then Michigan could be ready to make the jump into yearly national title contention.


22 comments:

Hwood said...

I did a similar analysis, albeit not nearly as lengthy, after hearing a ton of Michigan slappies claim "Other schools wish that they had the kind of consistency us Michigan men have". I went back and looked at the number of losses each team that has competed for/won the national title since 1997, and Michigan ranked in the bottom half of that analysis, and if you took out the lean years that LSU and USC had at the end of the 90's, Michigan would rank even worse.

Michigan is a very good program, but they aren't at the level that I would regard as elite. 8 wins every year is nice, but that shouldn't be enough for "the winningest program in college football" or a school that regards itself as "Leaders & Best".

mjhollen said...

Interesting analysis. I'd be curious to see how the stats played out if you went back before 1989. Did this conservative "template" begin with Moeller or has Bo gotten away with it since 1969, since his players' talent was so much higher than most of his opponents?

One thing that seems odd, though, is that using the same game plan every time would result in more wins against the good teams. Why? Wouldn't you expect the opposite to be true? If lesser teams have an easier time of staying close since they know what's coming, shouldn't the good teams have an even easier time?

Anonymous said...

Post of the year.

idiotbo said...

Amen - great article. I've lamented Lloyd's belief in winning every game by 1/2 a point for years. Another way to express what you have written, is no desire to dominate. Lloyd is the complete opposite of Carroll, Spurrier, Saban and Stoops.

idiotbo said...

amen - Lloyd loves to go for the 1/2 point victory. What you write is M's complete avoidance of domination. Lloyd is the opposite of Carroll, Spurrier, Saban and Stoops.

Bobobob55 said...

Nice job, but I have several comments.

Moeller didn't have the "it'll come down to the 4th quarter" attitude. That's a Carr thing. And while I agree that it's a problem, and PART of the reason for the phenomenon that you describe, I think there's other very real reasons for it as well. So they act together to get the result you see.

Michigan has rivalries with ND, MSU, and OSU. But, ask any fan of PSU, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Purdue, or Iowa who they'd most like to beat, and the answer will be Michigan. Their teams feel that way too, so UM is getting everyone's best shot. While that may seem like an excuse to some, it's a very real part of the game. UM has to be "up" every week, while some of those seven schools you mentioned can sleep walk past lesser teams.

Next, I think the Big Ten as a whole is deep with what I'd call "upper-middle tier" teams. That is, legit bowl teams that can upset anyone on a given day. So in the 1990's, FSU could get up for Virginia between cupcakes, while Michigan might have been playing four Virginia-level teams in a row. This years schedule is a classic example. UW, MSU, Minnesota, PSU, and Iowa all in row - ouch!

I agree that sometimes UM doesn't attack other teams' weaknesses enough. But Tennessee is a bad example. That Michigan team was horrible and flat out quit. That was also the OC's last game calling plays. Plus, did UT really have any weaknesses? Point to not throwing downfield on Oregon early, or the huge edge that Toomer clearly had on the Texas A&M corners that wasn't exploited. Point to waiting until there was seven minutes left to just throw it up to Edwards agaisnt MSU!!!

On the statistical stuff, I'm not sure that I get the significance of UM having more losses by 6 or less points. If you put that stat next to teams with most seven or more point losses, I suspect that UM would look pretty good. So all that tells me is that UM is less likely to get blown out.

Finally, as to your opening point, I think there are a lot of different ways to be critical, and the response will be a measure of the way you choose. Some are so over the top with their criticism that they do come off as Buckeye fans. After I got to about the tenth list of stats in reading your analysis I found myself thinking "this guy HATES Michigan." I knew that wasn't true and gave you a chance, but when you try to prove that UM is somehow inferior like that, it read like the sort of thing a rival fan would post. There has to be a way to express the ways that UM can improve, while at the same time taking pride in what has been accomplished. Because if all you do is say what's wrong, then you're crapping all over the accomplishments that people are taking pride in, and you'll get the nasty replies. I thought you did well with it, but that's just my two cents on the topic.

nreddig said...

I really enjoyed your article. It’s clear that you put a lot of thought and effort into backing up your arguments. I don’t think that Lloyd’s commitment to winning games in the 4th quarter is very mysterious when I imagine what motivates the men behind the business of Michigan football. The motivation is obviously money. The current model fulfills what must surely be on the short list of the Athletic Department’s goals:
1.) Get television money
2.) Sell out every home game
3.) Get BCS money
I would add that this philosophy is win-win for almost everyone in the program, from the players to the coaches. Despite underachieving, UM players populate the NFL and the coaches bring home Big 10 championships and every so often, a national championship. If I was inside the system, I’m not sure I would want to radically depart from a blueprint that has kept Michigan football coaches gainfully employed since 1969. I don’t mean to be so cynical, but it would be naive to think that money doesn’t rule college athletics.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. I think that it is true that UM needs to be at the top of their game the whole sixty minutes, every week. They are a great program and other teams get sky-high at the thought of playing them. That just means they need to prepare and execute every play like they know they can. I have often thought about the same things brought out by the analysis. But all you have to look at the yearly schedule/results to see what was the problem. They lost games they shouldn't have. I absolutely hate it when they let these lesser teams hang around until they decide it is time to kick it up a notch. Isn't it more fun to blow out a team in the first half and coast to a big win than to have the crap scared out of you by a 1-5 team coming off a huge loss to another 1-5 team. Git-R-dun early and let the second and third string play some.

Anonymous said...

Great reading. Thought provoking. Like Twain said, there are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics. I would like to correct one thing though. I think it's more accurate to say that games are LOST in the fourth quarter, than won in the fourth quarter. Like you said, a good team let's an inferior opponent know in the first half that the outcome is just a formality. The most unbelievable stat about UM FB I ever heard was not about it's W-L records, consecutive bowl game streak, etc. I came out a few years back when UM beat UVa in the last minute. Never before then in over 110 years of competition had UM overcome a 17 point deficit to win a game. Astounding.

Derek said...

Very well written! I am so sick of seeing Michigan come in season after season with so much talent and be out of contention by September.

I also agree that the Michigan cheerleaders who insist on 8-3 records being good enough. Something is wrong in Ann Arbor.

This team has chronic patterns that the auther points out. The flat out inability of Herman defensive plan to contain a QB is so poor that ESPN jokes about it.

The QB who looked better when he knew less of the playbook now looks just like John Navarre. Congrats Malone, you have Chad playing just like John. He throws picks at bad times, throws for 3 yards on 3rd and 13, gets balls batted, hangs wr's out to dry, throws too low, throws too high. You had Navarre doing all of this real well by the time he was a soph. Now Henne looks just like him.

Some Michigan fans that insist coach knows best also blame the wideouts. I recall comments like Braylon didn't catch this or Braylon didn't get seperation from the D. Yeah, well Braylon is gone and now who are you going to blame?
Braylon won more games for the Maize and Blue than he was ever credited for and kept Michigan's head above water in games we should have lost during his time at U of M.

These fans say, blame Henne, blame the players, blame the lack of execution, blame turnovers. Well you know what? I never hear people say blame the coaching staff for not having the players tuned up for games. If they are making mistakes the coaches have to drill drill drill this out of them. Blame them for not having these kids game ready.

Blame them for not having a coaching plan that overcomes team errors. I never hear that the coaching staff should be able to overcome injuries and player mistakes with a better plan. Kids make mistakes in huge and close games. Coaches need to make up for those mistakes and overcome some of that for these kids. They need to be put in a position that will give them a chance to win despite some mistakes.

I never once hear Carr say we got out coached. Well that is the truth. He gets out coached and the team usually wins in spite of the poor calls. Well, finally, the team is showing that it cannot graft over this blaring lack of planning and prep.

You can blame the kids all you want. The coaches have to take some responsibility. When fans praise Carr for wins and point fingers at players for losses I see a problem to some degree.

You can look at most of the losses U of M had and many of them were still very winable games despite team mistakes. The coaches need to have the team ready for pressure situations and need to come up with better plans to avoid all these nail biters and one score losses.

To the fans that say Carr is great because he wins 8 or 9 games every year, all I have to say is he is also the coach that losses 2 or 3 every year. If you credit him for those wins, you should credit him with some responsibility for those losses.

Anonymous said...

***Losses to teams ranked 18th or better:
Michigan
19

Ohio St.
28***

imagine what that stat would look like if not for John Cooper bailing the Blue out each November...

Anonymous said...

This analysis has more to do with the conference that Michigan plays in that with the quality of the Michigan football program. If you look at all of these categories, you will find that Ohio State is right next to Michigan in pretty much every category. Is Ohio State also a perennial underachiever? I think not. Let us not forget the fact that the Big Ten is without a doubt the most competitive and deepest conference in the nation. Playing good competition week in and week out is what has caused these stats. Even if teams aren't ranked in the Big Ten, you still have to bring your A game because they can beat you on any given week.

I will admit that your argument holds some weight, but it is not indisputable as you suggest. Context cannot be ignored.

Aside from that, the program does have its problems lately, particularly in big games or road openers. Put simply, the team doesn't know how to get excited for games it should be prepared for. This is a result of poor coaching, not lack of athleticism or talent, and more and more I'm starting to get off of the Lloyd Carr bandwagon.

NITTANYRAY said...

Review last years Michigan highlights and count how many bad Henne passes were turned into highlight tape completions because of great catches by Braylon Edwards. His departureexplains the downturn in the passing game. Its not the coaches.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read. As an outsider to Michigan football, I would concur with the evaluation.

First, Michigan is not an elite college football program, at this time, and they have not been since Bo retired.
Elite programs consistently achieve the highest levels of performance, while Michigan periodically peeks its head in that crowd, it doesn't show up in the Top-4 of the end-of-year AP/Coaches polls year-in and year-out.

Why is -of course- the important question. To which, I believe you are on to something... Michigan football's addiction to risk aversion.

Yes, Michigan loses to lesser teams more frequently than the Miami/Florida/Florida State's of the world. Those, however, are elite teams because they do NOT lose to the lesser opponents on a recurring basis.

Michigan's strategy is is problem, if Michigan believes it should consistently be an 'elite' team. The strategy is flawed.

Strategy is the way you believe you will conduct things to meet your goals. If Michigan believes it should be an 'elite' team, then it would have to change its strategy to have a chance to move into that club.

The win-by-execution approach will not allow Michigan to become 'elite' because we know these things:
1. Other teams circle Michigan on their calendar
2. Michigan has better talent but does not have vastly superior talent than their opponents have
3. During an 11 game season, every team will have games in which it plays sluggishly because of emotional fatigue, burn-out or feelings of being overwhelmed by ______ (injury/bad calls/suspension/girlfriend broke up with player, etc.)
4. Execution is not always perfect
5. In close games, lesser teams can win with greater emotion through better motivation and/or a simple execution mistake (refer to #1...teams circle the Michigan game!)

John Cooper did solve Michigan's problem, while at Ohio St. He went for the throat right away and for big plays in all 3 phases of the game against inferior competition on a regular basis. How many long touchdown plays did Galloway, Glenn, Dudley, Boston, and others have against Indiana, Northwestern, Minnesota, etc.? After getting up by 3 scores, THEN the Buckeyes pounded the opponent into saying 'uncle.' In those years, Ohio St. was always undeeated coming into the Michigan game (OSU didn't lose to lesser competition - Buckeyes may say Michy was lesser competition)

However, Cooper is of a different background (Pac-10...he shocked Michigan w/ASU in '86 Rose Bowl) and mindset than Carr, Schembechler, and Michigan, and you can't teach old dogs new tricks.

Michigan would have to change its philosophy if it would ever seek to be an elite football program ala USC, Oklahoma, Miami, Tennessee, and Florida St.

Yours Truly,
- Buckingham Badger

VA "M" Fan said...

The problem with the logic of looking at how teams did versus opponents using the rankings at the point in time when the game was played is that the rankings during the season have already shown to be inaccurate (as demonstrated by the overranking of Michigan itself).

If the assumption is going to be that that the rankings at the end of the year are what matters (since the thrust of the argument is we're underachieving here), then shouldn't the end of the year rankings should be the measurement stick that all of these comparisons should go by?

If so, it implies the analysis needs to be done differently. For example, in looking at the losses Michigan had to unranked teams, shouldn't we only be only looking at losses to teams that were unranked at the end of the season? For example, we lost to unranked Notre Dame this year, but if they stay ranked through the year then isn't the it true that they were incorrectly ranked when we played them and that this really should count as a loss to a ranked team?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to address an excuse from some fo the follow-up posters here.

Michigan is circled on everyones' calendar and so we get their best shot, and that creates the stat inequities shown in the original post

You don't think Virginia or Ga Tech wants to beat FSU and doesn't circle that game and give FSU their best shot? The point is that Big Ten teams know that if they punch Michigan in the mouth and play unafraid, they will be in the game at the end and may be able to win the game. Their confidence is bolstered by beating Michigan in the past. Virginia and Ga Tech have given FSU their best shot and almost always get blown out. This diminishes their confidence and instills fear, because lesser teams know that no matter how good they play, they will still get blown out. Michigan does not instill fear in opponents, FSU does.

TheVictors04 said...

Excellent and thorough analysis of Michigan football and coaching tendencies. I agree with much of what you say - the notion of "coaching NOT to lose" and "doing what WE do better (execution) will win the game."

What I do not necessarily agree with comes from some of the fans in their remarks.

For starters, if you begin to list USC, Oklahoma and Nebraska as perennially elite teams, you are then FORCED to include Michigan among them. All three of the above mentioned programs have had (or are having) far worse down times than Michigan has since Bo took over.

Second, there is definitely a degree of truth to the notion that all teams aim to knock off Michigan. Ohio State and its fans are the extreme, but for many schools, the game against Michigan is "THE" game on the schedule. Michigan often gets a team's best shot and effort.

Third, when it comes down to what Carr and the coaches are accused of relying upon - execution - the blame does invariably land at the players' feet. A gameplan can be perfect, but if the pass is late, the ball is dropped or ... the opposition has anticipated the play and defended it well, it is out of the coaches' control.

All that said, I find your piece to ring true in many ways. Our group all but scripted the 2nd Half of the recent loss to Wisconsin during Halftime, up 13-3.

When that is the case, you pretty much know the opposition knows what to expect as well!

jimijames said...

I recently was involved in a discussion about alot of these same issues involving the coaching philosophies at UM. I found you article direct and well thought out. You closed many of the doors that the typical UM fan would try as their arguements. Thank you.
Lastly I have to say that while I believe that Carr is partially responsible, the issue is far deeper than him. The athletic program and its "leaders at best" are stuck in the glorious rut of early 1900s football. The last 20 years have brought great inovative styles of play to the game and yet we are stuck with "3 yards and a cloud of dust" football.
Change is good!

Scott B said...

Thank you for a well thought out, coherent analysis of my favorite team. It is gratifying to read the cold hard facts regarding something that has been circling my subconscious for years. I've known there was SOMETHING wrong with the UM style of football but couldn't quite put my finger on it.

Here's hoping that the higher-ups in the UM athletic department can drag us out of the leather helmet days.

Anonymous said...

Your article and statistics lead to the same or similar conclusions that I have reached by watching every Michigan Game since 1967. First, as soon as Michigan gets a 14 point lead, they go into the prevent defense and offense - they play not to lose. This action stops U of M's momemtem and allows big MO to swing to the other side. I have seen several games where this has happened and Michigan has lost because they were never able to regain the momemtem.
Also, the coaching staff is inconsistent in the way players are treated. If a receiver or running back misses several catches or fumbles twice, they are benched. Not true with the quarterback. It is no secret that as the quarterback matures, the game slows down and he is able to make better decisions, not rush passes and in general, is much more effective. I have no doubt that Henne is going to be great but it is obvious that the game is to fast for him and he is not making consistent passes and good decisions. He is locking on one receiver and is getting far to many passes blocked (The same thing that Navarre went through), Last year, he had a limited playbook and about half of the passes to Edwards required circus catches that 99% of the receivers would not have completed. He also had a running back that had a sensational year running behind one of the best blocking fullbacks that Michigan has ever had. Over the past 8 games, Henne is 3 and 5. Carr has an upperclassmen quarterback that has paid his dues, never lost a game in high school and is mobile which adds a new dimension. You can be sure that Carr will not make the change because of his stubborness. If you dissagree with Carr, you obviously don't know anything about football.
It is time for a change. Either the staff looks around and updates coaching philosophies to the current century or the fans, the team and the University deserve a complete house cleaning in the coaching staff. In the real world when companies or divisions underperform, there is a change in management which results in a change in the culture and most of the time gets the desired results.

Anonymous said...

I have to address two excuses here because they simply cannot explain why we lose to inferior teams.

1. The big ten is the strongest, deepest conference.

This is true a lot of the time, but it still cannot be an excuse for losing games to vastly inferior teams. There is a huge list of games that I can remember since starting at michigan in '95. Two of the worst games were Illinois ('99) and Minnesota ('05) at home. We were up on Illinois by 20 points at half and lost! How is this possible? One poster had it absolutely correct. Michigan goes into a shell to protect a lead way too early. The only times we can blow out a team is when they give up and the only times this happens is versus MAC teams that are starry-eyed in front of 111K people (also included are MAC level teams, like Indiana). Remember 2000 when we gave up 17 point leads to Purdue and Northwestern? I'd love to see Michigan keep the pedal to the metal until there is no doubt left against at least one big ten team.

We do not lose many of the games to the Big 10 elite (OSU, Iowa, or the hot team of the year - Wisconsin, Illinois ('01), Penn State ('90's and '05), etc.). We lose these games to the mediocre teams. I agree that the reason we lose is lack of preparation and lack of adaptability. Both of these are directly the fault of the coaching staff.

2. Everyone circles Michigan on the schedule.

We know this. It simply doesn't matter. One poster pointed out that ACC always circles FSU, yet it took those teams 10 years to finally muster a victory against the seminoles! The fact is that FSU will exploit the inferior teams' weaknesses and have the team down by 4+ TDs entering the 4th quarter. Why Lloyd can exploit a favored team's weaknesses (take for example the brilliant offensive play calling vs MSU this year) and not do the same against a beat up Minnesota team the next week is beyond me. It points to a lack of concentration on the part of the coaching staff. The best part of having superior talent is that that talent can adapt to different offensive and defensive schemes week in and week out. Every once in a while we are reminded of what a little bit of creativity can do - look at the Breaston TD vs Iowa. I just wish that Lloyd would stop being so lazy and start being a little creative.

Once this coach decides to quit, I beg the Michigan brass to bring in a fresh regime. I love the times of Bo, but times are always changing and Big Blue needs to adapt before it goes the way of the Big Red Machine from Lincoln.

Anonymous said...

You forgot, "Being in a position to Win a National Championship."

A key to winning a National Championship is ending the season with 1 or 0 losses. Let's look at how many times these teams ended the regular season with 1 or fewer losses including 1989:

Florida State
8
Miami
7
Nebraska
7
Flordia
5
Ohio State
5
Tennessee
5
Michigan
3 (didn't count the 8-0-3 season)

and only once since Carr has been the head coach.

 

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