Article on eSPIN by Brian Fremeau
The Michigan Wolverines capped their season Tuesday night with a 23-20 Allstate Sugar Bowl win over the Virginia Tech Hokies, giving them an impressive 11-2 mark in coach Brady Hoke's debut campaign. There is potential for some to view those results as a sign that Michigan has reclaimed its status among the college football elite. But let's not get ahead of ourselves and expect that reclamation to happen immediately.
The fans and media tend to spin bowl-game success into next-year momentum drivers, but it doesn't really work that way. Last season's BCS bowl game losers won more games in 2011 than the winners did. There are many more important success factors to consider, including recruiting, returning starters and schedule strength, which ultimately will determine the conference and national championship races in 2012.
The best teams build consistent success over time. Michigan is likely to receive some preseason love in the polls in the fall, and blue-blood programs like the Wolverines have demanding fan bases with high expectations and limited patience. But Michigan's program profile doesn't merit "it" status again just yet, and extraordinary expectations for this team in 2012 will only end in disappointment. Here's why.
The fundamental measure of our preseason projections every year at Football Outsiders is based on weighted five-year success rates. Both participants in the BCS National Championship Game in each of the past 10 seasons have been ranked in the top 20 in the drive-based Program FEI (PFEI) ratings heading into that season. Michigan won't be ranked in the top 30 heading into 2012.
That might put the Wolverines in the company of other recent programs that received premature preseason accolades. The Texas A&M Aggies were the most overrated team headed into the 2011 season (56th in PFEI) and stumbled to six losses. The Nebraska Cornhuskers were in the top 10 heading into 2010 (41st in PFEI) and ended up with four losses. The Ole Miss Rebels were overrated in 2009 (50th in PFEI) and lost four games.
The track record is solid for Program FEI to identify the "it" teams not quite ready for prime time. If the Wolverines get tagged heading into 2012, what will they need to address to avoid the same fate?
The biggest difference between the 2011 Wolverines and their underachieving brethren under previous head coach Rich Rodriguez was the defense. Michigan held opponents to only 1.6 points per possession in 2011, the 20th-best defensive rate in the nation and a dramatic improvement over the 2.9 points per drive it gave up in 2010 (106th-best nationally). Michigan was nearly a yard per play better on defense under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. The Wolverines held four of their first five opponents to 10 points or fewer and seven opponents in all under 20 points. With Michigan's offense, that kind of success will win a lot of games.
Where they may see regression is in generating turnovers after capitalizing on good fortune throughout the 2011 season. Fumble recoveries are expected to be a 50-50 proposition in football, but Michigan was unusually successful in collecting them this season with 19 total, second-most nationally.
Michigan was pretty good at preventing opponent big plays (27th nationally in plays of 10 yards or more allowed). But it did allow opponents to get them in bunches too frequently (13 percent of opponent drives averaged 10 yards per play or more, 63rd nationally). Michigan also will lose three senior defensive linemen to graduation, a recipe for early-season struggles in particular.
That's where the schedule becomes the biggest hurdle for Michigan. The Wolverines will face a national-championship-caliber program in the Alabama Crimson Tide in a neutral-site opener, host the Air Force Falcons' triple-option a week later, and travel to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the end of September. A home date with the Michigan State Spartans and road games against the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Ohio State Buckeyes will all be difficult later in the season.
If the 2012 version of the Wolverines' opponents is equal to their 2011 strength, Michigan would be expected to win 1.1 fewer games based on schedule alone. Many of those teams have the potential to be even better, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Wolverines get fewer lucky bounces next season, either.