The Wolverine

November 2018

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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NOVEMBER 2018 THE WOLVERINE 81 W ith a three-game stretch versus Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, Jim Harbaugh has an opportunity to de- finitively answer a question that has hounded him throughout his tenure. Can he win a big game? This is not a question many ex- pected to be asked about Harbaugh as Michigan's head coach. When the Wolverines lured him away from the NFL, the prevailing thought was he would vie with Nick Saban and Urban Meyer for the title of college football's best coach. Harbaugh had astounding success at each of his previous stops with San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers. To accomplish that, Harbaugh won many big games, and with the resources at his dis- posal in Ann Arbor, there was little reason to think he wouldn't win many more at Michigan. However, through Harbaugh's first three and a half seasons, Michigan has not won a division title, let alone a conference title, and after U-M backslid in 2017, the "big game" question has become incessant. The problem with this question, though, is that "big game" has no set definition, which Harbaugh's critics can exploit by framing "big game" in a way that most down- plays Harbaugh's achievements. First, it's that Harbaugh can't beat his rivals. When it's pointed out that U-M beat Michigan State in 2016, it shifts to "He can't beat his rivals when they're good," which also doesn't account for him being a bobbled snap and controversial spot away from two such wins. If it only matters when his rivals are good, then "big games" should include non-rivals when they're good, too. Harbaugh's critics are then quick to point out that, at Michigan, he is 3-8 versus teams ranked in the AP top 15 through Oct. 14. However, this is flawed for two reasons. First, the AP voters are too fixated on record, which does not always capture the true caliber of a team. Second, utiliz- ing rankings at the time of the game doesn't account for whether or not early season rankings are accurate. For example, using this method, in 2016, Wisconsin would have a ranked win versus Michigan State, who finished 3-9, and Michigan would not have a ranked win vs. Penn State, which finished 11-3 and won the Big Ten. This is clearly not the best method to use. The best method to use is to ana- lyze Harbaugh's record against teams based on final S&P+ rankings. S&P+ is a college football ratings system that is derived from play-by-play data, eliminates garbage time and adjusts for opponents. It dives deeper than a team's record and the scores of its games to evaluate just how good a team is. Then, by using the final rank- ings, one is using all the data gathered from the season to determine which teams are the best at the end. When one looks at this data, it's clear that Harbaugh has won "big games" at Michigan, having beaten five teams prior to the 2018 season that finished in the S&P+ top 30, in- cluding one in the top 10 (2016 PSU). However, the "big game" ques- tion hasn't appeared out of nowhere. Where there is smoke, there tends to be fire, and something is burning. Harbaugh has won "big games" but only in his first 18 games as Michi- gan's coach — until the win over Wisconsin (No. 16 in S&P+ as of Oct. 14). In that opening span, U-M was 5-3 versus teams that finished in the S&P+ top 30. In the 27 games since then prior to Wisconsin, though, the Wolverines were 0-8 against op- ponents that finished or are currently in the S&P+ top 30. Until the win over the Badgers, all of their wins since then have been against teams outside the S&P+ top 30. In fact, all of their wins since then have been ver- sus squads outside the top 40. To be fair, when Michigan has faced an S&P+ top 30 team during this span, that team tends to be the elite of the elite. Of those eight opponents, six finished or are currently in the S&P+ top 10, but these are the types of teams that people expected U-M to defeat routinely under Harbaugh. The Wolverines snapped the skid with an impressive 38-13 victory over Wisconsin, the school's best win since it outmuscled the Badgers in a 14-7 victory more than two years ago. U-M, now up to fourth in the S&P+ rankings, can continue to dis- pel the big game notion in upcoming tilts with Michigan State (No. 33, as of Oct. 14) and Penn State (seventh). A win against both of these teams would propel Michigan to an 8-1 (6-0 Big Ten) record and put U-M in position to win the Big Ten East. Then no one would ask if Har- baugh can win a big game. They would have their answer. ❏ INSIDE THE NUMBERS   DREW HALLETT Jim Harbaugh's "Big Game" Blame The Wolverines' 38-13 win over Wisconsin marked Jim Harbaugh's first victory over a team among the top 30 in S&P+, a detailed statistical analysis of college football teams, since beating the Badgers on Oct. 1, 2016. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett. Jim Harbaugh's U-M Tenure Span vs. S&P+ Top 30 vs. Outside S&P+ Top 30 First 18 Games 5-3 10-0 Next 27 Games* 0-8 18-1 * Prior to Oct. 13 win over Wisconsin (No. 16 in S&P+, as of Oct. 14)

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