Can you think of a worse time for the second bye week? It's not like the two game stretch of Cincinnati and Maryland were so tough that the players need time to rest and get over minor injuries. Instead, they'll be rewarded by not getting a week off for the rest of the season.
The schedule isn't that daunting, but Penn State, Indiana, Michigan, and (obviously) Michigan State aren't easy wins, either. It seems fairly likely that the Buckeyes would be on their way to a playoff berth if they can get make it through the rest of the season unscathed. But before you make hotel reservations for a Playoff semi-final, it's worth noting that the Buckeyes are improving, but still have yet to beat an opponent ranked higher than 52nd in the F/+ rankings. And that was Navy.
So let's check in on our neighbors to the north.
Why is Michigan losing so much?
I think it boils down to three things:
- Inefficient passing offense that hampers ability to sustain long drives
- Declining pass defense with inconsistent play even from veteran players
To start off, the rushing offense hasn't been anything better than average (53rd in Rushing S&P) and will likely get worse now that Derrick Green is out for the season with a broken clavicle. De'Veon Smith is nearly as capable, but didn't see as many carries as Green, was used primarily on first and second down, and doesn't have many explosive rushes. He also has yet to make a reception this season.
Without Green, Hoke and Nussmeier will need even more out of Devin Gardner, who has been even more inconsistent than expected. As frequently argued in the media and among fans, Gardener gives this team the best chance to win, but the problem is that those chances simply aren't very high. Passing efficiency is already low (104th), but the offense doesn't have much of a chance at all on passing downs (118th).
While third down conversion percentages have been average, any time the offense gets a little behind schedule on first and second down it's almost impossible to overcome. It's no wonder that the Wolverines are also 118th in the country in the FEI's Offensive Methodical Drives rating and 99th in Value Drives. Funny enough (except to Wolverine fans) Michigan is actually second in the country in red zone touchdown percentage -- which is generally a really meaningful stat -- but they're also 111th in the country in red zone attempts, with only 15 trips inside opponents' red zones this season (as a comparison, Ohio State is 10th, with 28 trips). It's like if a team scores the first touchdown of the college football season and then brags that they're ranked first in scoring offense.
Continuing the passing woes theme, the Wolverines also have a Jekyll and Hyde defense that is eighth in Rushing S&P but 73rd in Passing S&P and Passing Downs S&P. And those pass plays are usually the result of schematic breakdowns, leading to an 84th-ranked IsoPPP.
Finally, and probably most importantly, the Wolverines are second-to-last in the country in turnover margin at -13. Interceptions have stalled drives and wasted opportunities, led to poor field position (87th in Field Position Advantage), and given opponents (like Notre Dame) extra possessions.
Looking ahead, however, it's possible that some of these issues can be corrected. If you're a Wolverine optimist, the team rallies in face of adversity, corrects its turnover issue, and matures in the secondary. If you'll remember The Game last year, you know that Gardner is capable of slinging it around against a below-average secondary. Gardner also had turnover issues throughout last season, but can also be effective when told to just let it rip. Unless this team just decides to fold and fires Hoke mid-season, don't assume that The Game 2014 will be an easy win just yet.
How good is Michigan State really?
So there's a new Big Ten leader in the F/+ rankings. The Buckeyes rose to 13th, ahead of the Spartans to rise to 14th. But I'd caution against assuming Nov 8 will be a cakewalk now that J.T. is breaking Ohio State passing records.
For one, there is a huge difference between the S&P+ and FEI in their opinion of Michigan State. Where S&P+ sees a top ten squad, FEI has them barely in the top-40 (it's the same story for LSU, and the opposite for Arizona, in case you're interested). I agree more with the S&P+'s ranking at this point. The Spartans have the best win of any Big Ten team (which, frankly, may not be saying all that much).
The Spartans have seen some measure of defensive regression from their stellar 2013 squad, but it's still a great group. We're in the last week of unadjusted stats from Football Outsiders (so next week's rankings should better account for the Oregon game), but the most surprising stat so far is that the Spartans are 123rd in the country in Defensive IsoPPP. For your early Nov. 8 preview, get ready for Herman to unleash Michael Thomas, Devin Smith, and even Elliot in the passing game.