Can Michigan's Big-Play Offense Win the Playoff?
NCAA Conference Championship - College football games are rarely decided in the first quarter, but the Big Ten Championship Game may well have been called for the Michigan Wolverines over the Iowa Hawkeyes less than 10 minutes into the contest. On Michigan's second offensive possession, running back Blake Corum dashed through the Iowa defense and down the sideline for a 67-yard score with the assistance of excellent downfield blocks. Iowa went three-and-out on its next drive, and the Wolverines immediately struck again with an exceptionally well-executed lateral and a 75-yard bomb from Donovan Edwards to Roman Wilson to take a 14-0 lead. Against an Iowa team that had no explosive potential of its own, it sure felt like the game was over in that moment. Michigan rolled the remainder of the night to a 42-3 victory, securing the program's first berth in the College Football Playoff field.
FEI has been high on the Wolverines throughout most of the season. A 63-10 victory over Northern Illinois capped off a 3-0 start and vaulted Michigan into the FEI top five way back in mid-September. The national polls hadn't yet bought in at the time—the Wolverines ranked 19th in both the Associated Press and AFCA Coaches polls at the same point in the year. Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical as well. Michigan had a very efficient offense and defense out of the gate this year, but would those units hold up as well against the more challenging schedule it would face over the remainder of the season?
Michigan's offense has faced three opponent defenses rated among the top 10 in opponent adjusted efficiency over the course of the season. They scored 38 points against Wisconsin (DFEI No. 3) on October 2. It remains their worst yards per play game of the season (5.04), but Michigan did showcase its big-play capability with a 34-yard touchdown pass to open up a 7-0 lead and a 56-yard touchdown pass to cap that game in the fourth quarter against the Badgers. On November 13 against Penn State (DFEI No. 8), Michigan was only able to muster 21 points on offense, but again made chunk plays matter most, including a 47-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter to grab the lead and secure the win. It was the same big-play offense that speared victory against another very efficient defense in Iowa (DFEI No. 4) in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Michigan leads the nation in plays of 50 or more yards this season, totaling 17 such explosive plays in 13 games. Ten of those plays went for 60 or more yards, and six of them went for 70 or more yards. The Wolverines have produced some eye-popping scores, and in terms of big-picture production, they have been efficient as well. Michigan ranks seventh nationally in points per drive and fourth nationally in opponent-adjusted offensive drive efficiency. But unlike the teams ranked ahead of them in OFEI, Michigan's consistency on offense is more questionable.
The Wolverines rank 32nd nationally in first down rate, measuring the percentage of drives that earn at least one first down, and they rank 52nd in busted drive rate, measuring the percentage of drives that earn zero or negative yards. Aside from the pair of long touchdown plays against Iowa, Michigan's other first-half drives were ineffective, generating three three-and-outs, four punts, and a pair of interceptions (including one on a heave to the end zone as time expired in the half). Again, the Wolverines didn't need consistent production to take control of the game against the Hawkeyes, but will such a boom-or-bust offense be tripped up in the playoff or is this model sustainable in the postseason as well?
Michigan's semifinal opponent is a Georgia defense that rates as the most dominant in college football this season (DFEI No. 1), and still one of the most dominant since 2007 even after surrendering 41 points against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Dominance over the course of the season did not translate into dominance against the Crimson Tide. The Bulldogs were victimized by big plays in their conference championship game loss, allowing a play of at least 40 yards on three of Alabama's four offensive touchdown drives in the game. The Georgia defense had allowed only one explosive drive (defined as a drive that averages at least 10 yards per play) in 99 opponent non-garbage drives coming into the game. Alabama had three such drives on their first seven possessions on Saturday.
Perhaps the only way to actually find a success against an elite defense is to strike big on the handful of moments in a game available to do so, and Michigan has unlocked that formula several times this year. Perhaps also the matchup between an exceptional offense and an exceptional defense isn't a fair fight. The defense needs to be extraordinary on nearly every down and solid on the rest of them to meet the standards of elite defensive excellence in a game, whereas the offense can turn only a few timely bursts of success into a winning game plan.
Michigan does not have quite the same offensive firepower as Alabama, but they have proven to be able to find and exploit big-play opportunities against otherwise stout defenses in big moments. Their next big moments will come on December 31, with a chance to play for a national championship on the line.
2021 FEI Ratings (through Week 14)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage each team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantages for each team unit against an average opponent.
Preseason projected ratings are progressively phased out over the course of the season. Expanded ratings for all teams include overall, offense, defense, and special teams efficiency ratings. Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.