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Archive for the ‘Opinion/Editorial’ Category

Signing of the Stars shines spotlight on Michigan football

Thursday, February 4th, 2016


Signing of the Stars(MGoBlue.com)

Dense fog blanketing Interstate-94 from Chicago to Ann Arbor in the wee hours of Wednesday morning provided an apt metaphor for the current state of Michigan football. I knew the destination was ahead, but could only see a few feet at a time. As long as I stayed the course I would get to where I was going, despite the vast unseen in between.

By Wednesday afternoon, a good portion of the fog separating the Michigan program from where it stands now to where it wants to be had been lifted as Jim Harbaugh polished off a top-five recruiting class in style with a star-studded event in Hill Auditorium. The one-of-a-kind Signing of the Stars event was streamed live via The Players’ Tribune, drawing a large audience and making Michigan the talk of the college football world on National Signing Day.

During the two hour event seven early-enrollees were introduced by duos of celebrities, resembling an awards show like the ESPYs or the Oscars. Each player walked up onto the stage to applause from the audience, similar to NFL Draft day. Their highlight reels were then broken down by a panel of experts made up of ESPN analyst Todd McShay, former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz, and former Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan.

“That was originally Harbaugh’s idea,” said Matthew Mills, the founder and executive producer of Spacestation, the New York-based production agency that produced the event. “We were told that they wanted something that felt like a combination of NFL Draft day, College GameDay, and an awards show. And I think we delivered that.”

The members of the 2016 recruiting class that were on hand to be celebrated for the night agreed.

Carlo Kemp(MGoBlue.com)

“It felt like NFL Draft day, sitting in your seat and waiting to hear your name called to go say your two lines and stand up there with Coach Harbaugh,” said defensive end Carlo Kemp, who enrolled a month ago. “It was like waiting to get drafted.”

Former Michigan quarterback and current Jacksonville Jaguars running back Denard Robinson, who along with fellow former Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock, was among the day’s presenters, echoed that sentiment.

“It was crazy because during the pre-runs for the whole thing it was kind of funny looking and you’re like ‘how’s this going to set up, how’s it going to be?’ and now you see it and it’s like ‘wow!’ It’s a great idea,” Robinson said. “It’s almost like draft day. You’ve got guys announcing you, you’ve got guys breaking down your highlights, it’s like getting drafted. You come to Michigan for things like this and to get drafted because a lot of people get drafted from this school.”

Per Mills, as Michigan worked to confirm celebrity attendees, who ranged from Tom Brady and Derek Jeter to Josh Gracin and Migos, other celebrities were “coming out of the woodwork” to ask to participate. So much so that Mills and Michigan couldn’t fit them all into the program. Instead, they filmed video montages of Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Robert Patrick, Dick Enberg, Verne Troyer and many more congratulating the recruiting class.

“Usually (coaches) sit by the fax machine and the coach stands up and talks and usually says the same kind of things, so I wanted to do something different, wanted to do something awesome,” Harbaugh said after the event.

SotS(MGoBlue.com)

Although he was traveling across the country, climbing trees, sleeping at recruits’ homes, and attending classes with them, Harbaugh was involved with the planning throughout the process, said Mills.

“He contributed a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We took our cue from him in that regard. He said ‘make this bold and give people something unique’, and I think we gave them that. He was very involved in the process and the creative process. We were giving him briefs about ‘we’d like to do this, we’d like to do that’ and he would say yea or nay or he would amplify something. He was very collaborative and we just had a blast working with him.”

It was a grand spectacle that provided water cooler talk in offices nationwide, some good and some who thought it was over the top. But those who will take notice the most are still in high school and Harbaugh will be battling for their commitments in the years to come.

“Sixteen and 17 year old kids are going to love this,” Kemp said. “I mean, if I knew this was going to happen I probably would have committed even earlier. It’s awesome, it was great. I’m glad to be a part of it and I’ll remember February 3, 2016 for the rest of my life.”

Robinson, who was drafted in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, concurred.

“I think it’s a big deal. It’s going to put us back on the map a little bit. This was a great idea to have guys come out like this. We’ve had so many celebrities come out, actually announcing these guys, so it’s big. I mean as an 18-year old you’ve got Derek Jeter announcing you, Tom Brady announcing you, Ric Flair, Desmond Howard. They get to announce you when you’re 18 years old. It means everything and coming to Michigan is going to be a great opportunity.”

But in addition to celebrating a top five recruiting class, the purpose of the event was to raise awareness and money for pediatric cancer, an issue that has gripped the Michigan family since last year. Chad Carr, the grandson of former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr passed away on Nov. 23 after a battle with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Giloma (DIPG).

Harbaugh-Chad Carr

While Harbaugh’s recruiting tactics have drawn criticism from rival coaches, players, and fans, there was no more telling moment than shortly after 1pm. As the nation’s consensus top recruit, Rashan Gary, whom Harbaugh and his staff had been courting for over a year, was announcing his commitment to Michigan over Clemson live on ESPNU, Harbaugh wasn’t glued to a television set or a smartphone. He wasn’t backstage working the phones. He wasn’t eagerly awaiting a text message or a call or a tweet.

No, he was standing on stage, flanked by his wife Sarah to his right and Tammi Carr to his left. He was telling the 3,500 fans in attendance and the rest of the country watching the live stream the importance of a five year old kid, urging them to visit ChadToug.org and donate to help fund research that may someday save other kids like Chad who suffer from DIPG.

Word of Gary’s commitment spread through the Hill Auditorium crowd as they wiped their damp eyes — a poignant reminder of what matters most.

Jim Harbaugh’s party guests, ranked

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016


Harbaugh(Getty Images)

Jim Harbaugh sure knows how to throw a party.

Whether it’s a sleepover on the floor of a high school senior’s bedroom, an appearance on Judge Judy, or a National Signing Day celebration, Harbaugh only knows how to do it one way.

He does it BIG.

On Wednesday, Harbaugh will return from a fortnight of country-wide tree climbing and birthday cake baking to officially welcome his first full recruiting class to the halls of the Maize and Blue. But he won’t be sitting beside the fax machine, chewing his fingernails in anticipation of LOIs from high school players.

Instead, Jim Harbaugh will be hosting a few special guests.

What kind of guests? I’m glad you asked.

From current NFL stars to pop culture idols to chain-smoking former MLB managers, this party is sure to have it all. Naturally, I’m going to put these guests into a special edition of the M&GB power rankings (we’ll be sure to update this list as soon as Donald Trump and Bruce Jenner RSVP).

20. Todd McShay
Todd McShay

It’s only fitting that our list kicks off with a savvy little under-the-radar invite from Harbaugh. Although McShay isn’t exactly an American household name, he fits two of the major criteria that 21st Century recruits crave: national television and the NFL.

What better way for Harbaugh to compliment his NFL pedigree than bringing in half of ESPN’s draft debating duo? McShay is an immediate reminder that playing for Harbaugh means a chance to move on to the next level — just ask Jake Rudock.

19. Lou Holtz
Lou Holtz

Thpeaking of sporth broadcathterth, Lou Holth ith altho heading to Ann Arbor. Holtz adds something even Harbaugh doesn’t have to the party: A college football national championship.

If you can look past his “Notre Dame is still 1940s dominant” mentality and the fact that he once compared Rich Rodriguez to Adolph Hitler on national television, Holtz is actually a pretty nice addition.

Just don’t ask him to blow out the candles on the cake.

18. Derek Holland

Derek Holland(AP)

For the non-baseball fanatics, Holland is one of the hidden gems on this guest list. Sure, a simple ESPN search will tell you he’s a soft-throwing, oft-injured southpaw with mediocre career stats. But off the field, Holland has the social arsenal to be the life of the party.

As the five-star recruits pour in from all over the country, Holland can christen their unity with Ann Arbor in the soothing drawl of Harry Caray or the dulcet tones of Tim Kurkjian. Holland’s impression game is so strong, he even does impressions of celebrities doing impressions of other celebrities.

How did this unlikely union between Holland and Harbaugh come to be? It all started on a fateful August evening in downtown Detroit. Harbaugh was set to throw out the first pitch at a Tigers game, and Holland was in right field wearing a Winged Helmet. The rest is a story for another time.

17. Jack Kennedy
Jack Kennedy

No, not THAT Jack Kennedy.

Among the Michigan football alums returning for this remarkable gathering is one of the most efficient passers in the school’s history. Kennedy finished his Michigan career with a perfect completion percentage and an average of six yards per rush.

Even more impressively, the quarterback-turned-rapper opened for Lil’ Wayne back in June when Weezy came to Joe Louis Arena. If he can rock the “Big Show at the Joe,” he can probably handle Hill Auditorium.

16. Randy Sklar
Randy Sklar

Randy Sklar enters the party as a rare five-tool social talent. He went to Michigan, joined a frat, worked for ESPN, became a professional comedian, and appeared on several huge T.V. shows. Harbaugh just couldn’t pass on such a well-rounded talent.

Sklar appeared on shows like CSI, Law & Order, Entourage, Grey’s Anatomy, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He’ll be asked to play the charismatic Michigan-salesman on this episode of Signing of the Stars.

15. Jim Leyland

Jim Leyland(Ronald Martinez)

Ah yes, the Skipper. Can you imagine a conversation between these two Jims? Harbaugh would put so much effort into understanding Leyland’s mumbling and bumbling that he’d probably blow a gasket. Harbaugh’s post-talk slap on the back would send the former Tigers manager to his knees.

Luckily, Hill Auditorium has exits to the left, right, and center of the main entrance, so Leyland can avoid most of the young’uns and take plenty of smoke breaks.

14. Jon Jansen
Jon Jansen(Taylor Baucom, The Players’ Tribune)

Jansen is valuable in that he brings an almost Harbaugh-level enthusiasm for Michigan football. As emcee of the Michigan Football Bust last year, he brought an enthusiasm unknown to mankind in his sendoff for Coach Brady Hoke.

Jansen adds to the NFL experience in the room. He was drafted in the second round in 1999 and played 137 games on the offensive line.

13. Jessica Szohr
Jessica Szohr

If you were starting to think, ‘Wow, there are a lot of dudes going to this party,’ fear not, because Jessica Szohr will also make an appearance.

I won’t even pretend that I know how Harbaugh managed to bring Szohr to Ann Arbor for this event. Maybe she’s an undercover hardcore football fan? Or simply couldn’t say no to Harbaugh’s boyish charm?

Either way, Szohr has some impressive credentials. Her biggest role was Vanessa Abrams — which I think will especially appeal to Gossip Girl diehards like Rashan Gary — and even guest starred in an episode of Drake and Josh, which takes the cake for me.

12. Mayer Hawthorne
mayer-hawthorne

Now that I’ve done a little research and confirmed that Mayer Hawthorne isn’t actually a mayor, I think he’s a strong addition to Harbaugh’s party list.

Lame jokes aside, this guy is all over the music industry. He’s a singer, songwriter, producer, rapper, and DJ and he plays a ton of instruments. I’m not sure how Harbaugh got in touch with the Mayer, but it’s another notch on his popularity belt.

11. Josh Gracin
Josh Gracin

Let’s face it, country music has made a huge comeback over the last several years and it’s not going away.

Not only is Josh Gracin a product of Westland, Michigan, but he also went to school at Western before joining the Marine Corps. He’s a big-name musician in his prime and that’s a major plus on National Signing Day.

Oh yeah, and he picked up bonus points for being on American Idol way back when it was cool. There’s no shame in losing to the likes of Clay Aiken.

10. Phil Hellmuth
Phil Hellmuth

It’s almost like Harbaugh is trying to collect the best of the best in every sport (or activity). Hellmuth has a record 14 World Series of Poker bracelets and won the Main Event in 1989 and the World Series of Poker Europe in 2012.

The Poker Brat might just sit at a table in the corner with his sunglasses on, staring menacingly at the rest of the room with his fingers interlocked, but anyone who musters up the courage to start a conversation with him will surely learn a lot about overreaction and intimidation.

9. David Portnoy
Milton, MA 022511 Dave Portnoy (cq) is the publisher of Barstool Sports empire which he puts out his Milton office. He and his blogger / vlogger Jenna Mourey (cq) were photographed at his office on February 25, 2011. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)/ MET

This is one of the unbelievably amazing names that might be unappreciated on the list. El Presidente did the entire world a huge favor when he started Barstool Sports and he’s one of the best follows on Twitter.

Portney will be an easier guy to approach at the party, but I think a conversation with him will be the most entertaining on campus. This’ll also be a bit of a reunion for Portney, who went to high school with McShay in Massachusetts.

8. Denard Robinson

(Daniel Brenner, AnnArbor.com)

He may not be the biggest name on this list, but there’s no way Shoelace wasn’t making my top 10.

Denard Robinson was the single player who made watching Michigan football bearable from 2009-2012. In an offensive era defined by terrible coaching and broken plays, Denard turned bad snaps and missed blocks into 60-yard touchdown runs. He was the best athlete every time he took the field, and didn’t make a peep when he lost his starting job due to injury.

And in a world of domestic violence, drunk driving, and banned substance abuse, it’s refreshing to remember a character like Denard Robinson.

7. Migos
Migos

All you need to know about this hip hop trio is they call themselves Migos and their names are Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff. They work under the former manager for Gucci Mane, which I think makes them pretty cool, and I’m sure Harbaugh heard their name on the recruiting trail a few times.

Hey, they’re no 2 Chainz, but they’ll have to do.

6. Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski(Geoff Burke, Getty Images)

I’m certainly not much of a NASCAR expert, but a quick Google search told me Keselowski finished seventh in the Sprint Cup standings last season.

If top 10 is good enough for Harbaugh, it’ll be good enough for the recruits. Keselowski has won at some of the biggest racetracks in the country and even has a Sprint Cup championship under his belt. As NASCAR’s biggest Michigan football fan, he’ll fit right in.

5. Mike Shanahan
Mike Shanahan(Getty Images)

We’re getting down into elite territory now, and my top 5 will start with the most accomplished coach attending the event.

Shanahan has been out of the NFL for a few years now, but his nearly two decades of head coaching experience is highlighted by three Super Bowl championships and 178 career wins.

In a building full of football fanatics, Shanahan’s three rings will shine even brighter than Quavo’s chains.

4. Desmond Howard
Desmond Howard

This was probably the easiest sell of the year for Harbaugh, but that doesn’t take away from how valuable Howard’s presence will be.

Howard is one of the greatest players in Michigan history as a Heisman Trophy winner and author of one of the program’s most memorable moments. He’s an unabashed homer for the Wolverines on the most popular football pregame show in the world and won’t hesitate to do whatever he can to help Harbaugh in his pursuit of the best players in the country.

Des will give new Michigan players an early taste of what Ann Arbor love really looks like.

3. Ric Flair
Ric Flair

Ever since Harbaugh said he would love to host WrestleMania at the Big House, he’s been a popular guy in professional wrestling circles. He specifically said he wanted to referee a bout between Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, which likely kicked off the relationship that brought the former wrestler onto this list.

Wrestling isn’t as popular as it used to be, but Harbaugh’s sudden in with pro wrestlers is one of the things that is so Harbaugh you can’t help but admire it. Flair, like Keselowski and Holland, demonstrates another corner of the sporting world Harbaugh has taken over.

2. Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter

Every fanbase has its crowned jewels, and Derek Jeter is one Michigan fans hold close to their hearts. When Jeter shows his support for the Wolverines, Michigan football gains even more credibility.

It couldn’t have been difficult to get Jeter to Ann Arbor for this party after he spent a full night partying at Rick’s in the fall. The Captain also came to the Big House for a game this season and stood on the Michigan sideline. It’s obvious that Harbaugh is working to keep Michigan’s most famous fans in the loop.

1. Tom Brady
Tom Brady(AP)

Nobody on this list even comes close to matching Tom Brady. Even though he only started for two seasons at Michigan and fell to the 6th round of the NFL draft, Brady is one of the greatest players to ever step on the field.

When Brady walks into the hall with his four Super Bowl rings, two MVP awards, 11 Pro Bowls, and nearly 60,000 career passing yards, he’ll be the absolute center of attention. Brady alone has turned half the state of Michigan into devoted Patriots fans and when his face pops up on the Big House scoreboard, the responding cheer is unmatched.

Brady is probably the most loved Michigan player of all time, and might retire as the greatest football player in history, so he grabs the top spot on this star-studded list.

While the event is drawing big names from all corners of the sports and entertainment world, I would be remiss not to mention the ChadTough Foundation, which will be the biggest beneficiary of the event. Proceeds from tickets sold to the event will go to the foundation, and Michigan donor Ira Harris announced that he will match any donation at the event up to $50,000. Whether you’re going to the event, following The Players’ Tribune’s live stream, or stuck at work, head on over to the foundation’s website and make a donation to help fight DIPG.

Wednesday is sure to be a big day for Michigan football, wrapping up one of the top recruiting classes in the country with a party full of stars on hand and all benefiting a great cause.

Who’s got it better than us?

No-body!

Michigan’s potential bowl matchups

Sunday, December 6th, 2015


Citrus Bowl

The last 12 months have been a roller coaster ride for the University of Michigan in terms of bowl aspirations. After dropping its final two games in 2014, the Wolverines failed to qualify for postseason play for the third time in seven years. Fast forward to just over a week ago, and Jim Harbaugh’s team had an outside chance to land in the College Football Playoff.

But after being blown out at home by Ohio State and finishing the season at 9-3, the 2015 Wolverines sit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Michigan’s resume is impressive, but the Big Ten is loaded with elite teams at the top.

Michigan State will move on to the final four while Iowa and Ohio State will land in New Year’s Six bowls – likely the Rose Bowl and an at-large bid.

Once those three top 10 teams are placed, Michigan and Northwestern are the remaining ranked teams in the conference. So how does it work from there? Since the Orange Bowl is hosting one of the national semifinal (playoff) games, the Big Ten will send a team to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

I think the Citrus Bowl is Michigan’s most likely destination, though the Big Ten has to approve the bowl’s request before anything is finalized. Formerly the Capital One Bowl, the Citrus Bowl is an upper-tier bowl that pits a Big Ten school against an SEC school.

Potential Citrus Bowl matchups

Florida vs. Michigan: Since the Gators couldn’t upset the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game, Alabama will move on to the College Football Playoff and leave Florida as the top non-final four team in the conference. Florida’s Cinderella season lost most of its steam when starting quarterback Will Grier was suspended for using a banned substance. In the final four weeks of the regular season, Florida nearly lost to Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic before getting crushed and failing to score on offense against Florida State. Though the Gators did win the East, they aren’t trending in a direction that will make them a sexy bowl pick. But if these teams do meet, it would be a rematch of Lloyd Carr’s last game as Michigan’s coach, when the Wolverines won an entertaining shootout over Tim Tebow and the Gators.

Ole Miss vs. Michigan: Mississippi got dumped by Florida, 38-10, back in October, but the final few weeks of the season could give the Rebels a leg up on the Gators in the bowl selection process. Ole Miss has a road win over Alabama on its resume, the crowned jewel on an otherwise average resume. The Rebels lost to Memphis and Arkansas but picked up a pair of solid wins over LSU and Mississippi State to close out the season. Michigan has struggled to stop the run since losing Ryan Glasgow from the defensive line, but Ole Miss is led by quarterback Chad Kelly, who would meet one of the best secondary units in the country in this matchup.

If Michigan isn’t picked for the Citrus Bowl, it would likely head about 100 miles southwest to the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida. The Outback Bowl will host five different Big Ten teams from 2014-2019, so Michigan could land here for the second time in four seasons. The Wolverines lost a shootout with South Carolina in the Outback Bowl under Brady Hoke on Jan. 1, 2013. Like the Citrus Bowl, the Outback Bowl would match Michigan up with an SEC team.

Potential Outback Bowl matchups

LSU vs. Michigan: The Les Miles vs. Michigan storyline would give this matchup a little extra steam, but LSU was dreadful during the second half of the season. Three straight blowouts at the hands of Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss proved that if you can stop running back Leonard Fournette, you can roll past the Tigers.

Mississippi State vs. Michigan: If this matchup brings back bad memories for Michigan fans, that’s because Mississippi State was responsible for putting the nail in the coffin to send Rich Rodriguez out of Ann Arbor. It took Michigan three seasons to make a bowl game under Rich Rod, and when it did, the Bulldogs smashed the Wolverines 52-14 in the Gator Bowl.

Georgia vs. Michigan: I really don’t see this happening, because Georgia would have to be selected above some of the much more impressive teams in the SEC West, but the Bulldogs did finish second in the East. Though Georgia won nine games and reportedly hired Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to replace Mark Richt, this team might be a bit of a mess in the bowl game.

The only other potential landing spot for Michigan would likely be the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. The Holiday Bowl is the final top-tier bowl game with a Big Ten tie, and it would give Michigan a chance to play a Pac-12 team.

Potential Holiday Bowl matchups

USC vs. Michigan: USC put up a bit of a fight against Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, but the Trojans finished the disappointing season with five losses. At times, like in a runaway win over Utah, USC’s elite talent shone through and it looked nearly unbeatable. But Pat Hayden’s crew is very hit-or-miss, especially after a month of preparation.

Oregon vs. Michigan: This is definitely not a matchup Michigan wants to see. With Vernon Adams back healthy at quarterback, Oregon’s offense is rolling and the Ducks are extremely dangerous. Michigan would have to win a shootout to win this matchup, a tall task against a team like Oregon.

The College Football Selection Show will air on ESPN at 12:30pm Eastern time today, beginning with the playoff teams and pairings. The rest of the New Year’s Six bowl pairings will be announced along with the rest of the Top 25. Michigan will know its destination and opponent by this evening, so stay tuned for a preview.

CFP Rankings: What they missed – Nov. 24, 2015

Friday, November 27th, 2015


CFP banner

The College Football Playoff selection committee cleaned up some of its own mess this week when it released the third-to-last top 25 of the season.

Ohio State and Memphis were both embarrassed on Saturday, forcing the committee to drop both schools from pedestals they didn’t deserve. Even Florida, which hasn’t looked like a top 50 team for weeks, finally paid the price after a slim overtime victory over Florida Atlantic University.

But there are still a rash of alarming mistakes, highlighted by a few I pointed out last week. Stanford is still ranked above Michigan, despite the clear Wolverine edge in both quality wins and outcomes against common opponents. North Carolina is also ranked ahead of a few teams with much better resumes and far fewer cupcake wins over FCS opponents.

For now, let’s dive into some of the new mistakes that emerged from Tuesday’s rankings.

(3) Oklahoma…anywhere near the top 3

While the rest of the country jumps aboard the Sooner bandwagon, I’ve been left wondering what it is about their resume I’m not seeing.

Oklahoma has only played two respectable opponents this season – Baylor and TCU – and neither team had its starting quarterback against the Sooners. Committee chairman Jeff Long touted Oklahoma for dominating Saturday’s contest while its starting quarterback was in the game. But did he realize TCU played with a backup for 60 minutes? The Horned Frogs were also without their top playmaking receiver in the contest.

But a win over a two-loss TCU team playing without its two best players was enough to vault Oklahoma to number three?

Maybe the committee is forgetting Oct. 10, when the Sooners were thoroughly dominated by a terrible 4-7 Texas team that has since lost to the likes of West Virginia and Iowa State? Texas outgained Oklahoma by 90 yards and never trailed in the contest.
How in the world can this happen?

Who should be above Oklahoma? Let’s start with Iowa, a team that, in case you haven’t noticed, is undefeated. The Hawkeyes have two wins – Wisconsin and Northwestern – that are just as impressive as beating Baylor and TCU with backup quarterbacks. And Iowa hasn’t lost to anybody, let alone a 4-7 train wreck like Texas.

Michigan State should also be ahead of Oklahoma. The Spartans have wins over Oregon and Michigan and Ohio State on the road. They went into Columbus and bullied the Buckeyes with two backup quarterbacks. Oklahoma jumping two Big Ten teams with such obviously stronger resumes makes me worry about the integrity of the sport.

If Oklahoma wins out and stays above an undefeated Iowa or one-loss MSU, it’ll be obvious the committee is trying to make up for snubbing the Big 12 last season.

(13) Florida State ranked above (16) Northwestern

Does the committee even know that Jameis Winston declared for the NFL Draft?

Florida State and Northwestern, which share identical 9-2 records, should be the easiest side-by-side ranking of the top 25.

Florida State plays in the worst power five conference and has zero wins over ranked opponents. In fact, FSU’s best win came over an N.C. State team that lost to Virginia Tech by 15 points. In the only ranked game the Seminoles have played this season, they lost by 10 points at Clemson.

Oh yeah, and Florida State lost to a Georgia Tech team that is 3-8. Three wins, eight losses. Georgia Tech’s only win in over two and a half months came against Florida State.

Northwestern, on the other hand, lost to two top ten teams in the country. It has wins over No. 9 Stanford and on the road against previously-ranked Wisconsin. Northwestern also beat Penn State, Nebraska and Duke, all teams better than N.C. State.

But the Wildcats really aren’t even close in the rankings. They’re three spots behind a team with worse wins, a much worse loss and a one-hit wonder schedule. If there was any question the committee doesn’t know what it’s doing, it’s been answered.

(14) North Carolina ranked above (15) Navy

You might look at this example and think, ‘These teams are only one spot apart, why does it matter?’ It matters because the CFP committee has one job, to rank football teams, and it can’t even do that right.

North Carolina is on a 10-game winning streak, which is an impressive feat. But I think more than a handful of college football teams would be on a 10-game winning streak if they played two FCS schools, Illinois, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech along the way. UNC did beat Miami and Duke, but both games were at home. The team’s best win came over a Pittsburgh team that isn’t ranked in any of the polls.

By the way, the Tarheels lost to South Carolina. Yes, the same South Carolina that is 3-8 and just lost at home to The Citadel.

Unlike UNC, Navy’s lone loss came to a top 10 team. The Midshipmen lost at (6) Notre Dame on Oct. 10 and have since put together a five-game winning streak of their own. Navy has beaten three eight-win teams this season by an average of 19.67 points. North Carolina beat one eight-win team by seven points.

There’s no doubt Navy has put together a much stronger resume than North Carolina this season, but apparently, the committee is too blind to notice.

With every passing week, these mistakes become more and more alarming. The committee is not only whiffing on teams ranked outside the top 10, it can’t even nail down a deserving top four.

If most of the top-ranked teams continue to win and force these “experts” to make a tough decision, I have no confidence they can sit down and pick the four most deserving teams to play for a championship.

Alarming CFP ranking mistakes cast shadow over wonderful weekend

Friday, November 20th, 2015


CFP banner

Week 12 of the 2015 college football season embodied everything that’s great about college sports. Four of the top 10 teams fell in upset fashion and seven additional games featuring ranked teams were decided by a single score. Two teams, Michigan and Utah, played into double overtime on the road. Kansas, 0-10 on the season, had three chances to knock off one of the Big 12’s best teams on the road.

The weekend was perfect, but Tuesday night was not.

At this time of year, Tuesdays become almost as important as what happens on the field on Saturdays. Tuesday nights are when the College Football Playoff committee releases its weekly rankings and reveal which teams have the chance to play for the National Championship.

The committee is given the most important job in college sports. I won’t bore you with details, but thousands of students and coaches dedicate their lives to each season. Hundreds of millions are spent (and more importantly, earned) through games, travel, television deals and merchandise. This entire process is held together by the common aspiration of every major program in the country: To win championships.

Despite all the chaos that happens on the field, the committee’s job is relatively simple. They put two resumes next to each other, and the better one is ranked higher. Is it the committee’s job to guess which teams are the best? No. The ranking process should be all about resumes. If it’s not, then what’s the point of playing the games?

In spite of the beautiful simplicity of this process, the committee still manages to make baffling mistakes each and every week. It harks on criteria like head-to-head outcomes, scores against common opponents and strength of schedule, yet when the rankings are released, those factors seem to take a back seat to a more ambiguous placement process.

It’s not the committee’s job to get most of the rankings right, it’s the committee’s job to get all of the rankings right. If you disagree, just talk to the players who poured their hearts and souls into 12 fall Saturdays only to finish below a team that didn’t have as strong of a season. When the committee can’t correctly rank Nos. 10-25, why should we have any faith it’ll pick the right teams for the final four?

Before you read any further, remember: This is my opinion on the rankings, and yes, I know only the final top 25 matters. But the weeks leading up to that reveal are important because they set the stage and give us a look at how the committee operates.

Take a look at some of the problems I found in this week’s rankings.

(3) Ohio State ranked above (5) Iowa
Comparison
Ohio State logo new  Iowa logo
10-0 (6-0) Record 10-0 (6-0)
0-0 vs Top 25 2-0
59 SOS 53
22.6 Scoring Margin 15.2
1 Record vs P5 teams over .500 3
Penn State
N. Illinois
W. Michigan
Best Wins at #20 Northwestern
at #25 Wisconsin
Pittsburgh

One of the simplest mistakes the committee has made in the first three weeks concerns the Big Ten, which features four top-12 teams.

The conference’s remaining undefeated teams, Ohio State and Iowa, would eventually have to meet in the conference championship game, should they both continue to win. But even so, their placement is an example of the committee refusing to use solid evidence in the rankings.

Do I think Iowa is a better team than Ohio State? Absolutely not. But Iowa has three wins over power five teams with at least seven victories, two of which came against ranked teams on the road. Ohio State, on the other hand, has only one win against a winning power five team: A home win over 7-3 Penn State. The best three wins on Iowa’s resume came at (20) Northwestern and (25) Wisconsin and against Pittsburgh. Ohio State’s best three wins came at home against Penn State, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.

So how does Ohio State land in the top four while Iowa sits on the outside looking in? There really isn’t a good answer. The Hawkeyes went on the road and dismantled the 20th-ranked Wildcats by 30 points last month. The only teams Ohio State beat by 30 were Hawaii and Rutgers.

Sure, this will work itself out on Dec. 5 if the teams meet in Indianapolis. But what if these teams weren’t in the same conference? It’s alarming that the committee feels it can take matters into its own hands instead of letting the play on the field determine who makes the top four.

(11) Stanford ranked above (12) Michigan
Comparison
Stanford Logo Maize M
8-2 (7-1) Record 8-2 (5-1)
2-2 vs Top 25 1-2
40 SOS 37
15.0 Scoring Margin 17.8
at #22 USC (41-31) Best Win #20 Northwestern (38-0)
at #20 Northwestern
#23 Oregon
Losses Current #13 Utah
#9 Michigan State

Here’s the most indefensible example of the committee completely whiffing on teams with identical records and completely different resumes.

Let’s break down both bodies of work. Michigan’s two losses came to the 9th and current 13th-ranked teams in the country and Stanford’s two losses came to the 20th and 23rd-ranked teams in the country.

Was Stanford more competitive in those loses? Well, the Cardinal lost its season opener by 10 points. The Wolverines lost their first game of an entirely new system by a touchdown. Stanford lost to Oregon after being outplayed from start to finish. Michigan lost to Michigan State after outplaying the Spartans start to finish.

Okay, so it’s not because of the losses.

Maybe Stanford has a better win? Strike two. Stanford’s best victory came over the 24th-ranked team in the country. Michigan blew out the 20th-ranked team in the country.

How about their performances against common opponents, which is specifically outlined as one of the main criterion of the rankings? Michigan finished 2-0 against the common opponents (Northwestern and Oregon State) with a combined score of 73-7. Stanford finished 1-1 with a combined score of 48-40. The Wolverines beat Northwestern by 38 points and Stanford lost to Northwestern by 10 points. That’s a 48-point difference.

But it’s not enough for the committee. Jeff Long and company can’t even build a top 25 by the standards they created. Michigan has a far better resume than Stanford, but the committee threw the Cardinal one spot ahead of the Wolverines. Strike three.

(17) North Carolina ranked above (20) Northwestern
Comparison
 UNC NorthwesternLogo
9-1 (6-0) Record 8-2 (4-2)
0-0 vs Top 25 1-2
101 SOS 21
22.6 Scoring Margin 15.2
at Pittsburgh (29-16) Best Win #15 Stanford (16-6)
South Carolina Losses at #14 Michigan
#6 Iowa

Now I’ll give you an example of the committee completely overreacting to one week. On Tuesday, it announced that North Carolina, previously ranked 23rd, jumped up six spots to 17th.

You’re probably thinking, ‘Wow, which top 10 team did the Tarheels knock off to earn such a jump?’ Actually, all UNC did was knock off one of the biggest dumpster fires of the season, Miami, at home. How does a win over a team that’s lucky – and I mean LUCKY (see Miami’s win over Duke) – to have an above .500 record vault North Carolina over a team like Northwestern?

North Carolina hasn’t played a single ranked team this season. In fact, UNC’s best win came over a Pittsburgh team that has one win over an above .500 team. The Tarheels spent their preconference season playing two FCS schools and two bottom-feeder power five teams. Oh yeah, and they lost to a 3-7 team.

Meanwhile, Northwestern already played three teams ranked in the top 12 of the playoff rankings, including a comfortable 10-point win over Stanford. The Wildcats also won at Duke before the Blue Devils had the wind taken out of their sails by the officials in the Miami game. For good measure, Pat Fitzgerald’s team won at Nebraska and knocked off seven-win Penn State.

Sure, Northwestern has two losses and North Carolina only has one. But as we’ve seen in Alabama’s rise to No. 2, that isn’t the most important factor in the rankings. It’s flooring that a win over a team as bad as Miami can boost North Carolina over a team that’s played a much better schedule and has much better wins.

(21) Memphis loses… but doesn’t fall

When I saw Memphis ranked at No. 21 in this week’s polls, I couldn’t help but laugh.

After getting dumped by Navy – by a score of 45-20 – Memphis fell eight spots to No. 21 in week 11. This weekend, the Tigers blew a huge 4th-quarter lead to Houston and lost their second straight game. But despite the two-game losing streak and the clear exposing of this team’s defense (80 points allowed in the last two weeks), Memphis didn’t fall a single spot in the rankings.

Here’s the kicker: Memphis didn’t even lose to a team ranked higher in the rankings. The committee ranked undefeated Houston 24th in week 11 and Memphis lost to Houston. Clearly, that means Memphis isn’t as good as the committee thought. But there isn’t any accountability for the loss.

How can you lose a game and not be penalized? That’s a world of college football I don’t want to live in. Most of these teams will have a chance to move up over the next few weeks, but that doesn’t change the clear miscues the committee has made through three weeks.

College football deserves a committee that can get this right. Every season is a clean slate and teams that earn the right to compete for a title this year should be given the chance to do so by the committee. If not, the playoff is no better than the BCS.

Michigan’s College Football Playoff rooting guide: Nov. 14

Saturday, November 14th, 2015


Cardinals Stadium

Only four weekends separate us from when the College Football Playoff and bowl game selection committees will make their final decisions and determine the fate of teams that have earned the right to play in the postseason.

Through Week 10, more than 100 FBS teams have been realistically eliminated from playoff contention. Michigan, an enormous long shot to make the Final Four, is one of the teams still in the hunt. But since the Wolverines already lost two games, they need a ton of help over the next four weeks.

Yes, it would take a Hollywood movie-type finish to the season for Michigan to slip into the top four. But until that last glimmer of hope dies, Michigan fans should enjoy the team’s first meaningful home stretch in almost a decade.

We’ll stick with the movie theme as we break down the first of the final four Saturdays. If you’re a Michigan fan holding out hope, here’s what you should root for.

“I really, really need you”

In honor of Sanka Coffie from Cool Runnings, these teams completely hold Michigan’s fate in their hands. These are the teams that Michigan absolutely needs victories from on Saturday in order to keep the Wolverines’ CFP hopes alive. If even one of these teams falls, Michigan’s CFP dreams die.

No. 14 Michigan (away) against Indiana (3:30pm, ABC): The only absolutely essential game for Michigan this weekend is its own contest in Bloomington. Thanks to a pair of early losses, the Wolverines don’t have any room for error. As soon as they drop a third game, it’s all over.

Result: Michigan 48 – Indiana 41 (2OT)

“It could happen!”

In honor of JP from Angels in the Outfield, this is the “It could happen” group. These are the teams Michigan is rooting for that have a legitimate chance to win on Saturday. Wins by these teams either help the Wolverines move up in the rankings or improve their resume (in order of kickoff time).

South Carolina (home) against No. 11 Florida (12pm, ESPN): Florida will win the SEC East and play in the conference championship game, so there’s another loss in the future. But after a 9-7 win over Vanderbilt last week, a loss to 3-6 South Carolina would drop Florida well below Michigan.

Result: Florida 24 – South Carolina 14

No. 3 Ohio State (away) against Illinois (12pm, ABC): This one might be tough to understand, but Michigan actually needs the Buckeyes to be undefeated when they come to Ann Arbor. A win against a top two team in the country would prompt a big jump for the Wolverines.

Result: Ohio State 28 – Illinois 3

No. 13 Michigan State (home) against Maryland (12pm, ESPN2): Even more surprising than rooting for Ohio State? Michigan needs MSU to bounce back against Maryland. The Wolverines already need the Spartans to lose next weekend in Columbus to have a shot to win the Big Ten, so this week’s game is very important. If Michigan State loses to Maryland and makes it three straight against in Columbus, it’ll drop out of the top 25. That would make Michigan’s loss in October much less forgivable.

Result: Michigan State 24 – Maryland 7

No. 18 Northwestern (home) against Purdue (12pm, BTN): Northwestern is Michigan’s best win of the season. As long as Pat Fitzgerald’s team keeps winning, Michigan’s resume gets better and better. If the Wildcats lose to Purdue, everything they’ve worked for comes crashing down.

Result: Northwestern 21 – Purdue 14

No. 2 Alabama (away) against No. 17 Mississippi State (3:30pm, CBS): Here’s another strange one, but Michigan needs Alabama to lose for two reasons. First, the CFP committee has proven it WILL NOT penalize Alabama for losing, no matter the conditions. Nick Saban’s team lost at home to an unranked team and still sits ahead of five of the six unbeaten teams in the country. So since Alabama will stay ahead of Michigan no matter what happens, the Wolverines might as well avoid being jumped by Mississippi State in the process.

Result: Alabama 31 – Mississippi State 6

Iowa State (home) against No. 8 Oklahoma State (3:30pm, ESPN): Oklahoma State burst onto the scene when it stomped TCU by 20 last weekend. Now, with both Oklahoma and Baylor coming to town over the next two weeks, Michigan needs a team like Iowa State to do the dirty work and knock off the undefeated Cowboys. With no conference championship game, Big 12 teams will have a hard time bouncing back from losses like that.

Result: Oklahoma State 35 – Iowa State 31

No. 12 Oklahoma (away) against No. 6 Baylor (8pm, ABC): Since the Bears lost their starting quarterback to a neck injury, the entire country has been waiting for them to slip up. Once they do, their fall in the polls will be a long one. Without a quality victory to its name, Baylor would fall out of contention with a home loss to Oklahoma. As far as the Sooners, they’ve still got games against TCU and Oklahoma State on the horizon. Michigan can hope for a slip up in one of those contests.

Result: Oklahoma 44 – Baylor 34

No. 5 Iowa (home) against Minnesota (8pm, BTN): If you actually think Michigan has a chance to slip into the top four, you need Iowa to keep winning and head into the Big Ten Championship Game with a 12-0 record. That would mean another opportunity for a top five win.

Iowa 40 – Minnesota 35

“It’s just not believable, Cotton”

In honor of Pepper Brooks, from Dodgeball, these are the true underdog stories. These teams have almost no chance to win, but if they do, it would really help Michigan.

N.C. State (away) against No. 16 Florida State (12:30pm, ESPN3): Another incredible oversight by the CFP committee: Florida State lost a game last weekend and didn’t drop a single spot. Yes, it was to the No. 1 team in the country on the road, but a loss is a loss. If N.C. State pulls an unlikely upset, FSU becomes an afterthought.

Result: Florida State 34 – N.C. State 17

Wake Forest (away) against No. 4 Notre Dame (3:30pm, NBC): Wake Forest is really, really bad. As Notre Dame’s second loss, this would likely drop the Irish out of the top 15.

Result: Notre Dame 28 – Wake Forest 7

Arkansas (away) against No. 9 LSU (7:15pm, ESPN): LSU got pounded against Alabama last week and now faces a streaking Arkansas team. Another loss would devastate Leonard Fournette and Company.

Result: Arkansas 31 – LSU 14

Arizona (home) against No. 10 Utah (10pm, FS1): “How can you ask me to root for Rich Rod’s team!?” Because Arizona is irrelevant on the national scale and Utah is ranked ahead of Michigan. Yes, a Utes loss would diminish Michigan’s opening-week game, but Utah could still win the Pac-12 South and finish in the top 15 with two losses. As long as the Utes stay in the top 25, it’s more important for Michigan to jump them in the poll.

Result: Arizona 37 – Utah 30

Oregon (away) against No. 7 Stanford (7:30pm, FOX): Oregon is starting to play a bit better, but this game is still a long shot. If Stanford losses its second game of the season, Michigan will definitely jump ahead of the Cardinal because of a win against their only common opponent: Northwestern.

Result: Oregon 38 – Stanford 36

How good is this Michigan defense?

Thursday, October 29th, 2015


eMichigan's cornerback Charles Woodson (2) leaps to make an interception in the end zone in the first half on a pass from Washington State's Ryan Leaf during the 84th Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 1, 1998. Watching the play are Michigan's William Peterson (23) and Washington States Kevin McKenzie (9). Player at right unidentified.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)(Mark J. Terrill, AP)

The 1997 Michigan football team is considered the best Michigan team in the modern era. With Heisman trophy winner Charles Woodson leading a defense full of future NFL players, the Wolverines captured a national championship.

Seven games into the 2015 season, Michigan once again features one of the nation’s best defenses. But how does it compare to that legendary 1997 squad? You might be surprised.

The 1997 squad yielded 57 points through seven games compared to 65 allowed by the current team. But 13 of those 65 points allowed weren’t allowed by the defense. Utah’s Justin Thomas returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown in the season opener and Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson returned a blocked punt for a touchdown. Remove those two scores that weren’t allowed by the defense and the Michigan defense has actually allowed just 52 points — five fewer than the 1997 defense through seven games.

1997 vs 2015 Michigan defense comparison (through 7 games)
1997 2015
Points Allowed 57 (8.1) 65 (9.3)
Total Yards Allowed 1,518 (216.9) 1,474 (210.6)
Rush Yards Allowed 537 (76.7) 453 (64.7)
Pass Yards Allowed 981 (140.1) 1,021 (145.9)
First Downs Allowed 80 (11.4) 89 (12.7)
3rd Down % 29/105 (27.6%) 19/97 (19.6%)
Sacks 16 (2.3) 18 (2.6)
Turnovers Forced 21 (3.0) 8 (1.1)

The 1997 Michigan defense allowed 216.9 total yards per game, 76.7 on the ground and 140.1 through the air. This year’s defense has given up 210.6 total yards per game, 64.7 on the ground and 145.9 through the air. Similar to the 386 total yards Michigan allowed to Michigan State two weeks ago, the 1997 squad allowed 354 yards to Notre Dame in Week 3. However, that still yielded a win.

The 1997 Michigan defense allowed its first seven opponents to convert 27.6 percent (29 of 105) of their third downs, while the current squad has allowed just 19.6 percent (19 of 97). The 1997 defense recorded 16 sacks (2.3 per game) through its first seven games, while this year’s team has notched 18 (2.6 per game).

Now, the big difference is the 1997 squad won all seven games, while the current team stands at 5-2. Why is that? Could it be because the 1997 offense was better? Actually, no. While the 1997 Michigan offense averaged 30.7 more total yards in its first seven games than this year’s squad, it averaged 28.1 points per game compared to 28.6 this year. So this year’s team has scored a field goal more than Lloyd Carr’s championship team at this point. Maybe this year’s offense turns the ball over more? Nope. This year’s offense has committed 10 turnovers through seven games, while the 1997 offense turned it over 13 times in that same span.

So what’s the biggest difference between the two teams? I think it comes down to turnovers forced. The biggest — and only — real disparity between the 1997 Michigan defense and the current one is the amount of turnovers forced. Led by Woodson, that defense forced 21 turnovers through seven games, an average of three per game. This year’s defense has forced just eight, 1.1 per game. Give this year’s offense 13 more possessions — and take away 13 potential opponent scoring opportunities — and we very well could be rooting for a top-10 or top-5 team in Minneapolis this Saturday.

In the first year of the Jim Harbaugh era, we are looking at one of the best Michigan defenses in recent memory, one that rivals what most Michigan fans consider THE best Michigan defense in recent memory. It likely won’t yield as many NFL draft picks, but with the exception of turnovers forced, it’s performing at an equal, if not higher, level.

Discussing Michigan’s NCAA Tournament outlook with 131 Sports

Monday, January 19th, 2015


Beilein vs Northwestern(Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

My good friend and fellow college basketball junkie Joe Cook (@JLeeC33) from 131 Sports agreed to do a Q&A about Michigan’s challenging season to date. Joe’s specialty is in predicting the NCAA Tournament field, and he has done an outstanding job in doing that over the past few seasons, as seen below. Given this expertise, I asked Joe some questions about the Wolverines’ skimpy resume, what it will take for John Beilein’s squad to rally for a berth in the Big Dance, and the overall state of the Big Ten. [Note: This interview was conducted before it was announced that Caris LeVert would miss the remainder of the season.]

Joe, let’s start off with the basics. You don’t have the Wolverines even sniffing a Tournament berth right now (in your latest bracket, Michigan doesn’t even crack the next four out). Just how far out are they from the field of 68?

I think you captured my feelings perfectly when you said that I don’t have the Wolverines “even sniffing” a berth in the big dance right now. It’s hard to really quantify just how far out of the field the Wolverines are because of how flat and wide the topography of the tournament bubble is this year. I think the easiest way to answer this question is to say that they are one marquee win away from at least being on the radar; think home game against Wisconsin with ESPN College GameDay in town on the 24th of January.

For those of us who are hoping that your projections are way off and Michigan is much closer than that, can you give us an idea what your projection model is based off and just how your projections have stacked up to the likes of Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm, and other so-called experts in the recent past – both in terms of correctly called teams and relation to actual seed line?

I’m an actuary by profession, so it’s really a part of my nature to try to find a way to numerically quantify any sort of sports analysis I perform; bracketology projections are no exception to this rule. Without revealing too much, I’ve developed a couple of minor algorithms using statistical regression that roughly project a team’s seed-line based on factors that the committee has used to seed teams in the past. In the seed projection process, I use this as a baseline measure, and adjust teams up or down based on my own personal “eye test”. As for how my projections stack up…

I’ll just say they stack up very well. You can see for yourself. The bracket matrix website aggregates the projections of all the bracketologists across the internet, and creates composite projections, while also ranking the bracketologists for accuracy. The blurb at the top of the aforementioned link explains the scoring and ranking process. Looking at the results, I have been the second most accurate bracketologist out of more than 100 over the past three years.

Obviously a lot has gone wrong with this Michigan team’s season so far, from a lack of quality to wins to some very bad losses, but if you had to pinpoint one thing holding the Wolverines’ resume back right now, what would it be?

It’s tough to really narrow it down to just one thing, but gun to my head, I would say it’s the lack of quality wins more than anything else. In general, I’ve noticed the committee is willing to overlook bad losses in the face of truly quality wins, because it demonstrates that a particular team has the potential to beat anybody. Michigan has played the likes of Villanova, Arizona, SMU, and Ohio State – four teams that are firmly in the tournament field. They’re 0-4 against these teams, with an average margin of defeat of more than 15 points per game.

What are the factors that you see contributing to these bad losses? Is there a player or two to blame? Is it bad coaching? Are injuries and/or inexperience taking a toll?

I would never say it’s bad coaching when Johnny B. is involved. In my one year as head coach of my former high school’s boys basketball junior varsity team (Yes, I played that card), I was (and still am) one of the firmest Beilein disciples you will find. I think you are on the right path in saying that injuries and inexperience are taking a toll on this team. It’s obvious to me that Walton’s toe injury is still plaguing him. His quick first step was one of his best weapons, and now that it has disappeared, he can’t generate as much space and respect from defenders as he needs to get off clean jumpers. Caris hasn’t taken on the lead “get me the ball and watch what I do with it” role quite like Nik did last season. The bigs are inexperienced and haven’t developed enough athletically to replace J-Mo and Horford.

As it stands today, what is Michigan’s best win and what is Michigan’s worst loss?

The best win has to be the early season W against the Orange, as that’s the only victory the Wolverines have over a team I currently have truly near the field. Frankly, that’s just grasping at straws, as Syracuse just lost a rather embarassing game at Clemson. I don’t think there is much of an argument from any fans of the team that the worst loss this season was the NJIT game.

Certainly the chances don’t look good for the Wolverines to storm their way into the NCAA Tournament, but is there at least a shot (outside of winning the conference tournament)? What is it going to take?

It’s going to take a miraculous finish that I currently don’t envision happening, but I think Michigan definitely still has a shot, albeit a long one, to make the tournament field. Even with the bad losses, I still think 19 wins is probably enough to allow Michigan to go dancing. That being said, I would worry if none or only one of those wins come against Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State, or Michigan State. As I mentioned above, quality wins tend to be a heavily-weighed factor in the committee’s mind when it comes to making a decision on a bubble team’s fate.

Last year, we saw just half of the Big Ten (six teams) go dancing, while the year before that saw a whopping eight (75 percent of teams) make it. In your latest projection, you have six Big Ten teams in the field (Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa). How many of those teams would you consider locks right now, how many Big Ten teams would you consider to likely make it, how many will be on the bubble, and how many will certainly be left out in the cold?

You can book it now: the Badgers, the Terps, the Spartans, and the Buckeyes will be in the tournament field in March. Some might question me putting the Spartans in this category, but I’ve seen enough from them to know that they’re going to have no problem getting to 20-plus wins. In fact, I see all these teams being on the 8-seed line or better when all is said and done. In all honesty, I don’t think I can put any teams in the “likely to make it” category, because I think the gap between these four and the rest of the league is distinct.

I’m going to skip to the locks to miss the tournament (i.e. the teams Michigan must win all remaining games against to have a chance to be dancing). Those teams include Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Minnesota. That leaves the Big Ten teams that are squarely on the bubble, and it’s half of the conference! Indiana and Iowa currently sit relatively firmly in the field, but one bad loss could change that in the blink of an eye. The boys from Champaign are right in the thick of things, but if the tournament started today, I think they’d be watching from home – just barely. Then you have the other three bubble teams, who fall into the category by default only because I’m not ready to say they’re locks to be out. This is where Michigan sits, along with Purdue and Penn State.

Both you and I agree on many things, but one area of college basketball that we’d like to see altered slightly is the pace of play. I, for one, like a slower game compared to the NBA, but has college basketball gotten too slow for your tastes? How do you think the powers that be should go about changing it and do you think pace of play can predict success at all?

When I initially heard rumblings of men’s college basketball potentially moving from its current 35-second shot clock to a 30-second shot clock, similar to women’s college basketball, I was definitively opposed to the idea. However, the more editorials I read, the more statistics I analyzed, the more college basketball I watched, the more I started to believe that the 30-second shot clock is right for the game. The tempo of men’s college basketball has become sluggish, and possessions per game numbers have consistently decreased since the turn of the century.

I feel that the NCAA missed an opportunity in recent years by choosing to increase focus on guaranteeing space for the offensive player in possession, rather than focusing on speeding up the pace of play. This misguided decision has led to officials blowing the whistle more on ticky-tack fouls, and players going to the free throw line more frequently than they deserve.

Thanks so much to Joe for his time and expertise in answering these questions, and be sure to check out his blog at 131 Sports and follow him on Twitter (@JLeeC33). You can always tweet your questions to me (@SamSedlecky), email me at sedlecky@umich.edu, or leave a comment. If you enjoyed this piece, let us know!

What’s wrong with Michigan basketball and what it will take reach the Big Dance

Thursday, January 15th, 2015


LeVert-Irvin-Beilein

Coming off an NCAA Championship game appearance and, last season, an Elite Eight finish that was inches from back-to-back Final Fours, Michigan basketball was thought to have climbed the hump from the scrappy opponent who gives the superior teams a run for their money now and again to a year-in, year-out bona fide contender.

After all, going into this season, it felt eerily similar to the start of the 2013-14 season that saw the Wolverines run away with the Big Ten title outright and earn a 2-seed in the Big Dance.

Yes, John Beilein would have to find a way to replace Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, but Trey Burke was the Wooden Award winner the year before that, and Michigan bounced back just fine.

And yes, Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan would no longer be donning the Maize and Blue, but McGary hardly played at all last year and Morgan was a solid, if unspectacular, big man who rarely wowed offensively.

And sure, Glenn Robinson III decided to pursue his NBA dreams after two years in Ann Arbor, but Little Dog never seemed to live up to his monstrous hype anyway and was an inconsistent shooter and competitor.

Certainly some new faces would be playing the majority of minutes and plenty of shots would open up, but Beilein has elevated this program to one that can simply reload, not replace — right?

It turns out that maybe we were all a little bit ahead of ourselves – national pundits, local journalists, and Michigan fans alike – in thinking that the Wolverines would once again dominate offensively with another incredibly youthful and inexperienced team. It’s not every year that you see players the caliber of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and, yes, even Jordan Morgan, sport your team’s colors.

Last year's Big Three formed one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (Detroit Free Press)

Last year’s Big Three formed one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (Detroit Free Press)

And Michigan fans are finally beginning to appreciate the glory those youngsters brought to the program rather than to expect it.

Today, the Wolverines find themselves well out of the NCAA Tournament picture at 10-7 overall and 3-2 in Big Ten play, with a couple of unbelievable losses and even fewer marquee wins.

So what went wrong?

In short, a lot went wrong.

The offense has disappeared for long stretches, the defense has been porous against lowly competition, and the replacements that were expected to be reinforcements have a lot of learning to do.

I don’t think there is any one player to point a finger at for all of Michigan’s shortcomings, and I don’t think John Beilein went from coaching the best offense in the country for two years straight to forgetting how to coach at all (resulting in an offense that’s outside the top 100 in offensive efficiency).

Instead, there are a bevy of problems coming from a number of different areas.

To start, let’s take a look at Michigan’s “Big Three” returning guards: Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr, and Zak Irvin.

Those three players were largely expected to take on the bulk of the Wolverines’ offense, and while they are contributing nearly 60 percent of Michigan’s points – a slightly higher percentage, in fact, than Michigan’s Big Three of Stauskas, Robinson III, and LeVert contributed last season – the points are down overall by a whopping eight per game. To put that number into a bit more perspective, this team is scoring more than 0.2 points fewer on every possession.

The reasons for that dramatic drop-off are numerous, but probably stem from the top. Michigan lacks a go-to scorer with a killer instinct. Scoring droughts have seemingly become the norm for this team rather than the rare exception, and that falls onto the veteran leaders of the team.

LeVert is certainly a capable scorer, and his 14.8 points per game are nothing to scoff at, but I think he is much better suited for the role of Robin to Stauskas’ Batman that he played so adeptly last season as opposed to the alpha dog spot. When Michigan falls down by a handful of points and starts struggling to score points of any kind – as they did the other night at Ohio State for the first seven minutes of the second half, effectively sealing their blowout – they need a leader to step up and demand the ball. But LeVert is not that kind of player. He’s a quiet assassin with no shortage of moves or skills, but a killer that doesn’t quite know exactly when or how to move in and take over.

When he does take matters into his own hands, the young junior from Columbus makes things happen. LeVert single-handedly kept Michigan alive against NJIT with 32 points and led the Wolverines with three straight crucial buckets to secure a big win at Penn State last week. But for as many times as LeVert has taken over, Michigan has gone on long scoring droughts that have buried them – against Villanova, Eastern Michigan, SMU, Arizona, Purdue, and Ohio State. With Stauskas at the helm and LeVert as a second option, that wasn’t an issue last year.

This year's Big Three has struggled with consistency and battled injuries (Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

This year’s Big Three has struggled with consistency and battled injuries, resulting in an offensive efficiency in the 100s nationally (Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

Irvin, like LeVert before him, was expected to go from freshman role player to sophomore sidekick. That transition has proved a bit tenuous for the former Indiana Mr. Basketball.

Undoubtedly, Irvin has taken his game to another level this season, upping his scoring average by nearly eight points per game and adding many inches to his vertical leap, but he is simply not the creator this team so desperately needs. Irvin was comfortable in his role as an off-the-bench sniper, and he thrived to the tune of 42.5 percent from downtown, even though opposing defenses knew he was only going to shoot threes. Now, Irvin has attempted to shoulder a bigger load and his shooting has suffered. He’s still capable of big, efficient scoring nights – take, for example, his first four games in which he poured in 20.3 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting from downtown – but the pressure and increased usage have seen his three-point shooting percentage drop more than six points while his overall field goal percentage is down nearly three points.

Lastly, Walton looked to improve on a very solid freshman campaign to become more of a scoring point guard this season, but a toe injury suffered early in the season is clearly hampering the Detroit native’s play all over the floor. Last year, Walton’s quickness and deft play on the break were crucial to Michigan’s ridiculous offensive output, but this year, Walton is a step and a half slower because of his toe. If you don’t believe me, watch Michigan’s win at Ohio State from last season and then re-watch the Wolverines’ loss at Ohio State from a couple nights ago. Like Irvin, Walton’s shooting numbers are drastically worse than last year, but the cause is much different.

With these Big Three struggling to produce with the same efficiency as last season, Michigan’s role players would need to pick up the slack, but that’s been far too big a task for Spike Albrecht and a company of freshmen who were probably forced into action before they were ready.

Kam Chatman, the jewel of Michigan’s six-man recruiting class, was expected to come in and seamlessly replace Glenn Robinson III. That, more than anything, has turned out to be the biggest single shortcoming on this squad. Robinson III, though sometimes inconsistent from long range and almost always quiet in his ways, was an incredibly efficient and reliable scorer and a terrific finisher around the basket. Chatman, on the other hand, has been almost the exact opposite, to the point where Beilein has decided to replace him in the starting lineup with the 5’11” Albrecht.

The Portland native was seen as a high four-star from most recruiting publications, and his basketball savvy was projected to translate into a solid, if unspectacular, freshman season. But Chatman has struggled to pick up the offense, his confidence appears to be wavering, and his shooting has been downright miserable – mothers, cover your children’s eyes – to the tune of 31.5 percent on twos and 25 percent on threes for 4.1 points per game. Contrast that with Robinson’s freshman season (65.2 percent 2-pt, 32.4 percent 3-pt, 11 ppg on nearly three shots more per game) and you see where things really start to go awry.

Robinson’s biggest strength was his ability to finish everything around the bucket with his strength and athleticism. If GRIII caught a pass sitting open within five feet from the hoop, it was two points guaranteed. If he rebounded a teammate’s miss, it was an easy deuce for him. If he received an alley-oop, there was no doubt about the finish. The same cannot be said of Chatman, who doesn’t have the strength or hops to work magic in the lane like his predecessor at the 4-spot and whose confidence is waning (never more clearly than in a missed alley-oop layup attempt against Penn State in which there wasn’t a defender within 15 feet of him).

Fellow wing man Aubrey Dawkins has had one shining game against Illinois, but he’s also been fairly quiet the rest of the way despite flashing signs of tantalizing potential, while Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is just starting to get consistent playing time and looks to be a couple seasons away from being an offensive threat.

Down low, Ricky Doyle has performed admirably for a freshman big man, but his defense has certainly made Michigan fans yearn for the days of Jordan Morgan manning the post, and his free throw shooting has been curiously poor of late. Doyle also needs to work on improving his hands, fighting for rebounds, and learning the offense (as does every other freshman). Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal has gone from starter to backup, and while he’s also shown some nice glimpses, he’s probably a season or two away from being a consistent scorer. Lastly, D.J. Wilson – my pick for freshman MVP – was unimpressive early on before falling prey to the injury bug, making a redshirt season (pretty please!) seem like a reasonable outcome for the high-potential California native.

As a whole, this Michigan team is lacking in more ways than could have been imagined, and while the defense is actually significantly better than last season, the offense has collapsed into a rocky mess. What was expected to be around a top-20 squad competing in the Big Ten once again looks instead to be a team that has a steep and treacherous path to simply earn a ticket to the Big Dance.

The good news for Michigan is that there’s still a long way to go until March, and anything can happen in the wonderful world of college basketball – especially when your average player on the court has just over one year of experience. And of course, there’s always the chance to win an automatic bid with the conference tournament, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on the Wolverines’ chances there.

Instead, the Maize and Blue will need to quickly improve on a resume that sports two black eyes and little muscle. Michigan has two terrible losses – NJIT and EMU – that are really hurting and only two top-50 KenPom home wins – Syracuse and Minnesota (neither of which is in the top 40) – that leave much to be desired. Right now, Michigan’s players are certainly kicking themselves over those two December losses, but perhaps even more crucial was the neutral court game against Villanova that the Wolverines let slip away after a crazy comeback. Change that L into a W and Michigan is squarely on the bubble already.

So what exactly will it take from here on out for the Wolverines? I think to have a realistic chance at being solidly on the bubble, Michigan needs to go 8-5 the rest of the way and win at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament.

Which eight games do those have to be? I’m not sure if that makes a huge difference. Michigan obviously needs to take care of their matchups with conference cellar dwellers (Northwestern,  at Rutgers, Nebraska, at Northwestern, Rutgers) and win a few marquee games as well. If the other three wins are Iowa, at Indiana, and at Illinois, I’d be a little concerned. To be safe, I think Michigan needs to take at least two from some combination of Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan State, and Ohio State.

With five games left against that group, the opportunity is there. Will the Wolverines seize it?

You may want to temper those expectations again.

Can Michigan’s offense improve? A case study on in-season improvement

Thursday, September 25th, 2014


Michigan offense(MGoBlue.com)

Michigan’s offense has been the subject of great concern through the first third of this season. It looked great against Appalachian State in Week 1, but of course, that was against Appalachian State, a first-year FBS school and a team nowhere close to the three-time FCS champion team it was when it beat Michigan in 2007. The offense was exposed against Notre Dame in Week 2, failing to reach the Irish red zone or score a single point, resulting in Michigan’s first shutout in 30 years. While it sputtered a bit in the first half against Miami (Ohio) in Week 3, the end result showed a solid performance. But the problems came back last week against Utah as the offense once again failed to reach the red zone or score a touchdown.

So what gives? Is there any hope for a turnaround as the season goes on, or is it simply a lost cause? Let’s take a look at a recent comparison that could provide a sliver of hope.

Offensive Comparison through four games
Team 1 Team 2
22.0 Offensive points per game 20.5
10 Offensive touchdowns 10
1,363 Total yards 1,617
340.8 Total yards per game 404.2
748 Rushing yards 844
187.0 Rushing yards per game 211.0
4.6 Rushing yards per carry 5.6
615 Passing yards 773
153.8 Passing yards per game 193.2
6 Turnovers 12

We need to look no further than our friends 60 miles up Interstate-96 for a recent example of an inept offense turning things around over the course of a season. A year ago at this time we were all mocking the Michigan State offense for its inability to move the ball and find the end zone.

In the chart above, Team 1 is last year’s Michigan State offense through its first four games. Team 2 is this year’s Michigan offense through its first four games. As you can see, they compare rather favorably. Both offenses scored 10 touchdowns, but Michigan State made two more field goals than Michigan’s has. Michigan’s offense averaged 64 more yards per game, 24 more rushing yards, a whole yard more yard per carry, and 40 more passing yards. The main difference is that Michigan’s offense turned the ball over twice as many times as Michigan State’s did.

But how did the quality of opponents compare? I’m glad you asked. Actually, the four teams Michigan has played this season have been tougher than the four Michigan State opened with in 2013. Michigan State played Western Michigan, South Florida, Youngstown State, and Notre Dame, four teams that finished the season with a combined record of 20-29. Essentially, three cupcakes and Notre Dame.

Youngstown State was an FCS program and can be compared to this year’s Appalachian State. Western Michigan, which finished 1-11, can be compared to this year’s Miami (Ohio). Notre Dame is obviously the only shared team, although this year’s Notre Dame is likely a little bit better than last year’s. So that leaves last year’s South Florida compared to this year’s Utah. South Florida went 2-10 last season with wins against Cincinnati (26-20) and UConn (13-10). They lost to McNeese State and Florida Atlantic. Utah is a top-25 caliber team that would likely be in the top third of the Big Ten this season. Much better than last year’s South Florida.

So now that we’ve established that Michigan’s offense has actually been better than 2013 Michigan State’s through four games, and has done so against better competition, let’s look at three factors that could bring about improvement.

1. New quarterback

It appears that Brady Hoke will turn to sophomore Shane Morris this Saturday. Morris has one career start under his belt — the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He completed 24-of-38 passes for 196 yards and an interception. In spot duty so far this season, he has completed just 7-of-20 for 79 yards and two interceptions. Those numbers don’t suggest much, but given the start to the season, it can’t hurt to give him a shot as the starter and see if he can provide a spark.

One of the main keys to Michigan State’s offensive turnaround last season was the progress of quarterback Connor Cook as the season went on. He didn’t begin the season as the starter, but once he officially won the job, he took it and ran with it. After that Notre Dame game, the job was fully his, and he finished the season with 200-yard passing games in seven of the final 10 games, including back-to-back 300-yard passing games against Ohio State and Stanford.

Nussmeier admitted the offense is still in its infancy and should continue to grow throughout the season (Leon Halip, Getty Images)

Nussmeier admitted the offense is still in its infancy and should continue to grow throughout the season (Leon Halip, Getty Images)

We know that Devin Gardner is capable of putting up big numbers (see: Notre Dame, Indiana, Ohio State in 2013). But we’ve also seen him struggle with consistency, decision-making, and footwork, which have led to turnovers galore. Whether his issues are physical or mental, perhaps it will help him to watch from the sidelines for a bit. Morris doesn’t have the baggage that Gardner has — three different offensive coordinators in five years, switch to receiver, beaten up thanks to a porous offensive line last season — and thus, could show the same type of progression throughout the season that Cook showed a year ago.

2. Growth of Nussmeier’s offense

After three years of Al Borges running the offense, Hoke fired him and brought in Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The early returns on his offense have been underwhelming, but the towel shouldn’t be thrown in just yet. Keep in mind that it has only been four games. Everyone wants to win and win now, especially after the last six years, but installing a new offense takes time.

“[The offense is] still in infancy stages here, we’re still learning to play consistently well,” Nussmeier said after the Notre Dame loss. “It’s about 11 guys on every play, doing the right thing…If it’s 10 guys doing the right thing, and one guy doing the wrong thing, you’re doomed. We’ve got to get 11 guys, on every play, doing the right thing.”

The offense has shown that it can move the ball, but it has been plagued by untimely mistakes — a sack here, a holding penalty there — that have stalled drives, created third-and-longs, and led to turnovers. As Drew Hallett pointed out this afternoon, every team in college football in 2013 combined to score either a touchdown or field goal or reach the red zone 69 percent of the time they crossed midfield. Based on that data, the odds of an offense crossing midfield 12 times and failing to score or reach the red zone 11 of those times was 0.002 percent. Yet that’s what this Michigan offense has done against Notre Dame and Utah.

Eventually, that’s going to improve. As players get more comfortable with the offense and it continues to expand throughout the season, drive-killing mistakes won’t continue to happen — at least with as much frequency. And as that improves, Michigan will score more points.

We’ve already seen Derrick Green show improvement from last season. He has 391 yards through four games. Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford, who finished last season with 1,422 yards — fifth-best in the Big Ten — had just 268 through his first four games last season. In addition, we know the explosiveness Devin Funchess can bring, but much of Gardner’s problems had to do with locking onto Funchess. Perhaps Morris will go through his progressions more than Gardner has and find receivers other than Funchess, which is important for the offense to continue to grow, and allow fellow receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh to take on a larger role. Keeping with the Michigan State theme, no one thought much of Michigan State’s receivers heading into last season, but Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, and Keith Mumphrey played a big part in their success as the season went on.

3. Turnovers evening out

Michigan has averaged three turnovers per game so far this season. It’s impossible to beat good teams when that happens. To make matters worse, the defense, as solid as it has been, only has two takeaways, which means it isn’t setting the offense up with field position that it can take advantage of. Michigan currently ranks last nationally in turnover margin (minus-10). Those numbers are bound to even out during the final two-thirds of the season.

Interceptions are, most of the time, the fault of the quarterback, but which team recovers fumbles is largely a result of luck — the luck of the bounce or being in the right place at the right time. Michigan has lost four of the six times it has fumbled and hasn’t recovered either of the two opponent fumbles. So that’s six of eight fumbles that have bounced the wrong way. Turn those around and the turnover issues aren’t quite as grim. That’s why, as the season goes on, the numbers are bound to equal out.

Conclusion:

Of course, Shane Morris might end up being farther behind than we hope, the team might not get a good grasp of Nussmeier’s offense, and it might continue turning the ball over and failing to force turnovers defensively. And just because Michigan State’s offense turned around last season, it doesn’t mean Michigan’s will follow suit. But at the very least, there is recent precedent for it happening and signs that it could. As long as Michigan’s defense continues to play at the high level it has been, any improvement by the offense as the season goes on will give Michigan a chance to win every remaining game.