This seemed like a fantasy for Michigan until the hiring of Jim Harbaugh, one of the best coaches at both the college and pro level. For a suffering Michigan fan base, it felt like getting a new Porsche for a 17th birthday.
The conventional wisdom says that Harbaugh will bring Michigan back to national prominence. And this is a good thing. Love or hate the Michigan program, college football becomes more interesting with the increased relevance of brand programs.
But will Michigan win many games this year? Here, we’ll use analytics to get a baseline expectation in 2015.
First, let’s take a closer look at the coach himself.
Stunning success as a coach
To understand the excitement in Ann Arbor over the hiring of Harbaugh, let’s look at what happened during his time at Stanford.
This visual shows a 30 year history of Stanford football. The rating in the bottom panel is an expected margin of victory against an average FBS team according to my computer calculations of team rankings.
Harbaugh took a team that went 1-11 the year before he arrived and turned Stanford into an elite college football team. He brought a culture of toughness and physicality to the program. It also helped that he recruited QB Andrew Luck, a future number one overall NFL draft pick.
The Harbaugh culture lives on at Stanford even years after his departure for the San Francisco 49ers. The program continues to win despite the questionable decisions made by current coach David Shaw.
Why is Harbaugh a good coach? Many articles have been written about his complete devotion to coaching football. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham wrote that “everything that isn’t coaching football is a distraction” to Harbaugh, which makes him seem rude at times.
However, there’s more to Harbaugh’s greatness. He also understands people. Consider this story about his wife Sarah from a recent Sports Illustrated profile.
People often ask Sarah what it’s like when Jim yells at her, and she tells them, “He’s never yelled at me.” She yells sometimes, but he doesn’t yell back. He just tells her the real reason she is mad, and he is usually right, and yes, that can be maddening. Sometimes it would be easier if he just yelled.
Great coaches can motivate their players. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t create innovative basketball strategies. Instead, he gets people and what makes them tick. Same for Phil Jackson.
Can Harbaugh make a difference in 2015? Let’s estimate the talent he has to work with.
Michigan in The Power Rank’s preseason rankings
In 2014, Michigan went 5-7, which led to the firing of coach Brady Hoke. While the firing seemed justified, I don’t know how many coaches survive a season with a -16 turnover margin (takeaways minus giveaways) and a senior QB Devin Gardner whose performance regressed.
While my preseason model doesn’t account for Gardner, it does consider the turnover margin. There’s a lot of randomness in turnovers, which implies that teams with large negative (or positive) values in this statistic are unlikely to have such extreme values the next season.
There is no guarantee in this regression to the mean. In the three years that Rich Rodriguez coached Michigan, the team had a turnover margin of -10 or worse. But by the numbers, Michigan is unlikely to perform worse than -16 in turnover margin this season no matter who coaches them.
In addition to turnovers, the preseason model also considers a program’s performance over the past four seasons and returning starters. Despite the simplicity of the model, which does not consider coaching changes, it has predict the winner in 70.4% of games since 2005. In addition, the higher ranked team has won 60.2% of bowl games from 2005 through 2014.
Michigan is 34th in my 2015 preseason rankings, almost exactly what SB Nation’s Bill Connelly expects.
They’re not in the same class as Ohio State (2nd), or even Wisconsin (14th) and Michigan State (16th) in the Big Ten. However, Michigan sits between Nebraska (32nd) and Penn State (38th).
Michigan is better than many of the other Big Ten opponents on their schedule. This will impact their expected win total.
For the full preseason rankings, click here.
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The most important player in 2015
Heading into the 2015 season, Michigan fans are stressing about quarterback. Devin Garnder struggled last year, and the offense ranked 71st in yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule, The Power Rank’s primary metric for evaluating offense and defense.
With the graduation of Garnder, rising sophomore Shane Morris looked like the best quarterback in spring practice. However, he showed the same inaccuracy in the spring game (11-24) that has plagued his career. While the 135 passing yards looks good, he got most of those throwing against a running back attempting to play cornerback (Dennis Norfleet).
I agree with Brian Cook of mgoblog.com that Morris will almost certainly lose the QB job to Jake Rudock, the graduate transfer from Iowa. Rudock started two years and completed 60.3% of his passes, almost the exact same percentage as Gardner. However, Rudock will most likely be better reducing turnovers, as he threw interceptions on 2.6% of his passes, much less than the 4.1% of Garnder.
It’s becoming cliche to say that Rudock raises the floor for Michigan in 2015. However, the most important player should be high ceiling talent that allows the team to exceed expectations. For Michigan, that’s Jabrill Peppers.
Peppers was the top ranked cornerback recruit in 2014. As the third ranked recruit overall that season, recruiting guru Sam Webb thought he was vastly underrated. He played a few games last season before getting injured and will move to safety this season.
Peppers has the potential to take a Michigan defense ranked 17th by adjusted yards per play last season up into the top 10 or 5. Throw in some lucky bounces that turn into takeaways, and the Michigan defense could carry this team above expectations.
Breaking down the schedule
To determine how games Michigan will win, let’s break the schedule into four tiers.
- Almost certain wins: UNLV (97.3%).
- Very likely wins: Oregon State (82.2%), BYU (67.2%), at Maryland (75.2%), Northwestern (77.7%), Rutgers (83.3%), at Indiana (74.0%).
- Toss up games: at Utah (40.4%), Michigan State (45.5%), at Minnesota (53.9%), at Penn State (46.1%)
- Unlikely wins: Ohio State (23.5%)
Unless an earthquake swallows the Big House, Michigan will beat UNLV. They have greater than 66% chance in another 6 games, which results in 4 or 5 more wins. If they can win two of four toss up games, that’s 7 or 8 wins for the season.
Adding the win probabilities in Michigan’s 12 games gives an expected win total of 7.7, very close to the market total of 7.5. Simulations of the season give Michigan a 56% chance to win 8 or more games.
The expected 7.7 wins by my preseason model makes no adjustments for the Harbaugh factor. If he can establish his brand of physical football this season, Michigan can exceed these preseason expectations.
Michigan should also vastly improve on special teams. Harbaugh hired special teams coach John Baxter, who had a remarkable track record at Fresno State and USC. With a timely blocked kick, Michigan steal an extra game.
Want more Michigan content from a numbers point of view? I’m part of the MGoBlog Roundtable with Sam Webb, Brian Cook and Craig Ross on WTKA. The radio starts up again in August (Thursday mornings at 9am).