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Friday, August 31, 2007

Special Teams

Return Game
Rating: 3?

Oh, Steve, go to work.

Yes, Michigan will miss Steve Breaston even if the team's maddening refusal to double the gunners limited his effectiveness. (Breaston's PR average dipped from 13.8 as a freshman to two years around 12.2 and finished at 11.4.) Why worry about Breaston making the third guy miss instead of the first? This is a preview, not a grumble-filled review. I should move on.

At punt returner, Johnny Sears sits atop the depth chart in Breaston's stead; Greg Mathews is behind him. No one knows what to expect from Sears -- he's never returned a punt -- but if that athleticism is for real he seems like as good a choice as any. Mathews, on the other hand, is an obviously safe choice, a guy who will not pull a Whitley but also will be happy to gain ten yards and get tackled. I would prefer someone with higher upside.

Brandon Minor is listed as the top kick returner, which might be okay. He showed quite a bit of speed as a freshman and might be suited for the north-south shallow cuts that seem most effective on kickoffs.

Carlos Brown is a wildcard. A top-50-ish speed back out of high school, one of the reasons Brown stuck around was the promise of a long look at both return positions. His ill-timed broken hand stripped him of the last couple weeks of camp and may hold him out of the Appalachian State game, but when he returns he'll be tried at both.

Rating: 2.

Everybody is nervous about kicker. Redshirt freshman Bryan Wright, a scholarship kid, has a big leg but struggled with his accuracy so much that walkons threatened and took his job. Jason Gingell is the new guy. KC Lopata and Sam Buckman are also kicking around. How will they perform? It is MGoBlog policy not to speculate on kickers, but... obviously this is uncomfortable.

One note: Wright did win the kickoffs job, which is significantly more important this year what with the kickoffs from the 30 and all. Michigan might get a couple extra yards of field position out of it if Wright's leg is as big as they say.

Zoltan The Inconceivable returns for a sophomore year of punting. Last year he alternated the boomers that will win him the Heisman and the Space Emperor-dom some day with meh liners and a Ross Ryan-esque effective duck. Though ZTI managed a respectable 38th in gross punting (41.6 per), the net was good for only 57th. Some of this has to do with Ross Ryan's 14 punts, which averaged only 33 yards. But while I'd like it to be clear that I'm not criticizing ZTI in any way, lest my pitiful unworthiness draw attention from his terrible visage, it should be clear that his choice to occasionally zing a liner did not help matters. Most of Ryan's punts weren't returned, and yet Michigan allowed 27 returns on 64 punts. Zoltan punts were returned at an approximately 50% clip; though AJ Trapasso is obviously an inferior punter not even worthy of Zoltan's spit he managed to keep that down to around 25%.

Clearly this was all a ploy to lure others into a false sense of security, but improvement would be helpful to Michigan's endeavors this year.

Special Teams in Summary

BLEAH. Returners like Breaston don't come around every day; a major step back is in the offing. Kicker terrifies. There are three of them! The last time there were three they were Brabbs, Neinberg, and Finley. I recently downloaded the 2002 Washington game from MGoVideo, which at this moment in time is the most unpleasant possible win to expose yourself to. I will pray to Zoltan for good fortune in this area.

Zoltan himself is flawless, but his punting remains erratic. Major upside here and the downside is MOTS, which was still pretty good. Punting remains in good (flawless!) hands.


Appalachian State is hot hot hot and maps and stuff.

Oregon scares the everloving crap out of me. I take heart in a run defense that was pretty bad last year and their quarterbacks' tendency to toss three interceptions a game, but when they aren't making errors they are rolling up yards like whoah. This game will be no joke.

Notre Dame, a small Catholic school of no importance in northern Indiana, is next. The same offense-defense matchup that ended last year's game before it started persists, except the one matchup that clearly favored Notre Dame (Abiamiri versus Riley) is kaput. Both teams turn over the other side of the ball extensively, but ND has no receivers and will have a QB in his third game (or less if they switch).

The Big Ten schedule opens up at home versus Penn State, which has a more experienced offensive line and a senior Anthony Morelli, but no Tony Hunt or, um, defensive line. (As time passes I get more leery about the PSU DL and sort of regret the optimism expressed in that preview.) A tough, losable game.

Michigan ends up @ Northwestern next. I didn't preview the Wildcats, but no losing here.

Eastern Michigan is worse than Appalachian State.

Purdue returns to the schedule after a two-year absence. This is not a gimme. Purdue is better suited to attack our secondary than anyone on the schedule save perhaps Oregon and returns a ton of starters. Their defense would have to improve vastly to stay in contact, though. Should be a comfortable win; could be dangerous.

Then it's @ Illinois. I dunno... will Juice Williams hit the ground in three tries? Can their defense stand up to Juggeroffense?

Minnesota will be a disaster area this year.

@ Michigan State. Decent offense, worst defense on the planet.

Playing Wisconsin @ Wisconsin looks to be the toughest test of the year. Though I believe the offense likely to founder, especially in the run game, the Wisconsin defense will be difficult to do anything against. I do think this is a spot we are fortunate to get them at, as they're a more veteran team and the season runup to this will help our highly touted but young players acclimate and get better. If Justin Boren and Steve Schilling had to deal with the Badger front seven in the Big Ten opener, serious concern would be had. As it is there is still concern but not overwhelming.

Ohio State is The Game.


Turnover Margin

The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.

2006Int + Fumb +Sacks +Int -Fumb -Sacks -
1.08 (4th)12143.23 (4th)8
1.85 (52nd)

Ut-oh? Maybe. There's no way you can reasonably expect Michigan to maintain that ridiculous turnover margin. Sacks will probably go down significantly, reducing the number of turnovers forced, and twelve giveaways in a season is not replicable. Michigan is marked as overrated in this category.

But!... there's reason to expect Michigan to remain significantly above average. Mike Hart, who everyone will tell you hasn't lost a fumble since the Iowa game his freshman year*, will receive the vast bulk of the carries. Chad Henne's thrown only eight interceptions over the past two years. Some of this safety has come at the cost of more effective offense and Michigan will be more likely to risk danger with experienced hands all around, but if there's one team in the country that can be expected to keep its giveaways down, it's the one with four-year starters at running back and quarterback.

A step back is likely, but turnover margin will still be significantly positive at year's end.

*(this is a technicality. A Ball State defender punched the ball out and forced a first-half safety, but apparently that doesn't count.)

Position Switch Starters

Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.

None unless you want to count Justin Boren's shift from guard to center... which is pretty harsh by the standards of this category. There are also similarly minor moves from possible (but not probable) starters: Obi Ezeh moves inside from the strongside at linebacker and Charles Stewart goes from corner to safety. Generally corner to safety moves are given a pass; it's the safety to corner thing that raises red flags.

None of those is alarming. One that was until recently: Andre Criswell from fullback to tight end. Carson Butler's return pushes him down to third on the depth chart, but unless there's a major surprise Michigan goes two deep at TE for 2007.

Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview

Just because.

Actually... there's nothing that egregious. Good job, CFN?

Flickr Says...

This is Sam's and I've posted it before (and put it in a book) but...

An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt

Worst Case

Oregon is losable, so are Penn State and Wisconsin and Ohio State and Purdue. But realistically Michigan should win at least two of those games even in the cold-sweat nightmare scenario and go 9-3, because that's historical imperative.

Best Case

12-0, obviously.

Final Verdict

Perhaps this is foolish, but I believe the Michigan offense will come fairly close to living up to all the hype. This is not likely to be reflected in the stats as Michigan will never go all Louisville on anyone and roll up a 73-10 victory, but in terms of meaningfully effective offense Michigan will be amongst the best in the country. This was the case in Brady's senior year and Navarre's senior year and Henne should be no different. You can even argue that Henne's got better talent surrounding him than either of those players. (This goes out the window if we meet USC, because evidently we have it in our Rose Bowl contract that Pete Carroll rushers are not to be blocked. But other than that.) Obviously this assumes full health. That 12-point difference between a healthy Mario and an injured Mario is highly encouraging... assuming Mario is healthy. But predicting injury is a rube's game (rubes I tell ya!) and so all these previews blithely assume everyone remains healthy, even if they mention a certain player being injury-prone. This one follows that model, but it's worth pointing out that Michigan has more to lose if Henne goes down than Wisconsin would or Minnesota would or Northwestern would.

The defense should be okay, difficult to run against and prone to getting opponents in third and long but frustratingly yielding improbable conversions. Big plays against will increase but not that much: no Mundy. The run defense will seem awful but only because of last year's dominant unit. A cornerback or two will prove decent. A return to the bad old days is not coming.

9/1Appalachian State
Functional DNP
9/15Notre Dame
Probable Win
10/6Eastern Michigan
Functional DNP
9/22Penn State
Probable win
@ Northwestern
Probable win
10/20@ Illinois
Probable win
11/3@ Michigan State
11/10@ Wisconsin
11/17Ohio State
Probable win
Absent:Iowa, Indiana

Sometimes the binomial distribution bothers me. Like here. If you assume Michigan has a 90% chance to win all games -- which is pessimistic for a few but wildly optimistic for others -- it says:
Chance to win 12 games: .90 ^ 12 = 28.2%
Chance to win 11 games: 12c11 * .90 ^ 11 * .1 = 37.6 %
With a 90% chance to win every week! The binomial distribution is mean. It basically says to everyone except USC "never predict an undefeated season." So I don't, even when I am vastly overrating a particular Big Ten team that will go down in flames (Hi, Iowa 2006 and Purdue 2005.)

And I won't here for various reasons both arcanely mathematical and more practical. Like the cornerbacks. And the kicker. And the general bloody-mindedness of the universe. (This latter may not be so much "practical" as the immense paranoia of the Michigan fan circa 2007 but you'll never convince me of that.) Honestly, if you take a team with Michigan's talent and put it up against this schedule and play it 10,000 times the median record is probably going to be 10-2. There are too many potential hurdles, too many losable games, too much youth in key positions and too much vulnerability should any one of a number of players go down. Life in college football is hard.

(How does one justify this while simultaneously ranking Michigan in the top five? Everyone else's median is even more likely to be 10-2 or 9-3 or worse. Anyone in the top five is set up to fail unless they are a true juggernaut like USC or have a Florida State-in-the-90s schedule with no conference threats whatsoever.)

But... whatever. This is the reality of every season. Predicting the top three teams in the Big Ten to go 10-2 every year would probably be more accurate in the long run but it would also be a soulless exercise... and if college football has anything, it's got soul. Official on the record offering: 11-1. You have my permission to round up a posse and hunt me down if the team implodes.