The Wolverine

January 2024

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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JANUARY 2024 ❱ THE WOLVERINE 65 INSIDE THE NUMBERS ❱ DREW HALLETT Unlike Past 15 Years, Alabama is Mortal Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at and follow him on X (Twitter) @DrewCHallett. Head coach Nick Saban has built a juggernaut at Alabama, but this year's team is not quite at the level of past seasons. PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA W hen ESPN revealed that No. 1 seed Michigan would face Alabama in the Rose Bowl in the College Foot- ball Playoff semifinals, the instant reaction of the Wolverine players, coaches and staff seemed to be shock. This author interpreted that shock to be the result of the CFP selection committee making the unprecedented decision to choose a Crimson Tide team with a 12-1 re- cord as the No. 4 seed over unbeaten Florida State. However, many oth- ers perceived Michigan's shock to be a sign that the Wolverines are scared to face the big, bad Tide. If Michigan was scared, the last 15 years clearly would underscore why. Alabama has been the titan of college football since Nick Saban arrived as its head man. From 2008 through 2022, the Crimson Tide are 187-21 (89.9 win percentage), have captured six national championships, secured eight SEC titles, finished in the top five of the Associated Press poll 11 times and finished in the top 10 every time. No other program has come close to accomplishing the level of success Alabama has had on the field. However, this Alabama team in 2023 is not like those teams from 2008 through 2022. This one is mortal. What is most astounding about Ala- bama's run of success the past 15 years is that, if anything, the Tide may have been unlucky that they did not win more national titles. Saban's relentless recruiting, turn- ing in top-ranked class after top-ranked class, brought hordes of talent to Tusca- loosa, and his ingenious schemes, par- ticularly on defense, transformed that talent into elite teams year after year. ES- PN's Bill Connelly created SP+, formerly known as S&P+, which is a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency. After being 10th in SP+ in 2008, Alabama finished no worse than third from 2009 through 2022, ranking first eight times, second four times, and third two times. They have far and away been the monster of the sport. This year, though? Alabama is not first, second or even third in SP+. They are also not fourth, fifth or even sixth. Nope. Alabama is currently seventh — tied with Florida State actually. The Crimson Tide are not seventh because other teams have caught up to their standard either. They are seventh because their quality has declined. SP+ creates a rating for each team that is the adjusted number of points per game that team is better than the average FBS team. After having an average SP+ rating of 31.5 from 2008 through 2022, and topping 30 points 11 times, Alabama's SP+ rating in 2023 is only 23.7. It is the Tide's worst SP+ rating since 2008 (23.0). It makes sense, too, when looking at Alabama's results this season. This was not like previous years when the Tide crushed every opponent they faced sans one weird defeat. The Tide deserved to lose the game they did — by 10 at home to Texas — and more. They needed a miracle down the stretch, including a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 31-yard line, to edge Auburn (6-6), beat Arkansas (4-8) by only three points, defeated Texas A&M (7-5) by only six, was tied with South Flor- ida (6-6) at halftime, and needed second-half comebacks against Ole Miss and Tennessee at home. Yes, Alabama toppled Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and is talented enough to beat any team in the nation. But that is only the Tide's ceiling. That is not their baseline. The truth is that Ala- bama has been very inconsistent throughout this season, more so than in a long time. And if any team has looked like the Alabama of the past 15 years this season, it is not the Tide. It's Michigan. It's the Wolverines that are un- beaten and the No. 1 seed in the CFP. It's the Wolverines that are first in SP+ — and most other ad- vanced metrics. It's the Wolverines that have crushed their opponents all year. The Wolverines have won 10 of 13 con- tests by at least 24 points and have not trailed for a single second in the second half. They were tied in the second half of only one game (Ohio State), and they responded by marching down the field for a Blake Corum score. And for all the success that Alabama has had in the CFP, it has never faced a team in the CFP with a higher SP+ rat- ing than Michigan (32.1). In fact, only once before has Alabama faced a team in the CFP with an SP+ rating greater than 30.0 (2021 Georgia: 32.0), and the Tide lost. So, the worst Alabama team in 15 years is playing arguably its toughest CFP op- ponent to date. Michigan is not and should not be scared to face Alabama. Can Michigan lose? Yes. But it would be more of a shock if Michigan does not beat the Tide. ❏

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