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Column: Is Michigan’s defense really as good as advertised?

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Every year we hear how good the TTUN defense is, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like we have been being told that Michigan has a legitimately dominant defense for a decade now, but it has been over 10 years since TTUN has beaten the Ohio State Buckeyes, so how good could their defenses actually be? Even though we are now past having to hear about Don Brown’s “vaunted” man-defense and folks are now pumping up former Doobie Brothers lead singer new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s unit, I’ve learned my lesson.

I’ve been burnt far too many times to just blindly trust the college football intelligencia when it comes to the Mitten Man defense, because annually it seems like half of the CFB press is trying to pump up their stock enough to get it to ridiculous GameStop levels.

So, I’m going to try and figure this all out on my own. Now, as I often say, I’m an idiot, and anything with numbers confuses my tiny little word-centric brain. But, this is a public service, and I will venture to wade through the malarky as best as possible.

As of now, the Skunk Bears are rated as the No. 7 scoring defense in the country allowing only 16.3 points per game. Obviously that is an impressive ranking, but when you boil it down, maybe that number is not all it’s cracked up to be. Thanks to the less than impressive offenses in the Big Ten, the Harboys have not faced a scoring offense in the top 40 nationally and, in fact, their opponents’ average ranking is 82.64.

So, obviously, when your opponents collectively struggle to score, your scoring average is going to improve. TTUN’s big brothers, the Michigan State Spartans, are currently the No. 41 ranked scoring offense, and the Winged Helmet Wingnut defense gave up a season-high 37 points against them earlier this season; that deserves a Lincoln Riley eyeball emoji, imo.

TTUN’s Opponents’ Offensive (and Offensive) Ranks

Team Game Score Scoring Offense Rank
Team Game Score Scoring Offense Rank
Western Michigan UM 47, WMU 14 t-50
Washington UM 31, UW 10 106
Northern Illinois UM 63, NIU 10 t-50
Rutgers UM 20, Rut. 13 113
Wisconsin UM 38, Wisc. 17 76
Nebraska UM 32, Neb. 29 64
Northwestern UM 33, NU 7 124
Michigan State MSU 37, UM 33 41
Indiana UM 29, IU 7 121
Penn State UM 21, PSU 17 80
Maryland UM 59, Mary. 18 84
Ohio State TBD 1

Now, turnabout is — of course — fair play, so let’s also look at how Ohio State’s No. 1 scoring offense got to its lofty ranking. Though OSU has feasted on some pretty putrid defenses this year (Akron, Maryland, Indiana, I’m looking at you), they’ve also played their fair share of competent units as well.

Collectively, their opponents average a 60th national ranking in terms of scoring defense, and six of the 11 teams that they’ve faced have been in the country’s top-50 defenses. Against the nation’s fourth-ranked scoring defense — Penn State — roughly a month ago, Ohio State put up 33 points.

So, I’d say the advantage goes to the Buckeyes there.

OSU Opponents’ Defensive Ranks

Team Game Score Scoring Defense Rank
Team Game Score Scoring Defense Rank
Minnesota OSU 45, Minn. 31 13
Oregon Ore. 35,OSU 28 49
Tulsa OSU 41, Tulsa 20 75
Akron OSU 59, Akr. 7 124
Rutgers OSU 52, Rut. 13 44
Maryland OSU 66, Mary. 17 113
Indiana OSU 54, IU 7 104
Penn State OSU 33, PSU 24 4
Nebraska OSU 26, Neb. 17 38
Purdue OSU 59, Pur. 31 36
Michigan State OSU 56, MSU 7 60
Michigan State TBD 7

Out in Vegas, the oddsmakers have tended to lean into the idea that the game would be close. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, as of publication time, the Buckeyes are an eight-point favorite; which is a half-point more than where it opened up a week ago.

But let’s dive in a little deeper and get a smidge more analytical here. According to Brian Fremeau’s calculations, the Fighting Ferrets have the 13th ranked opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency ranking. They come in with a .67 rating, which means that they have a .67 point advantage as a defensive unit against their opponents per possession. Conversely, the Buckeyes — again No. 1 in the offensive efficiency rankings — have a 2.20 point edge on their defensive foes per possession.

To add a few more numbers that will likely confuse you, the Corn and Blue rank sixth in offensive efficiency with a 1.15-point rating, while OSU is 31st on defense at .43 points. If you put all of those numbers together, Ryan Day’s team would have a 1.29 point advantage per possession over their rivals. I don’t know about you, but with 25 combined possessions in their game against Michigan State last week, that equates to a 32.25 point edge for OSU for one game.

Now, I know that’s not how these stats actually work (I actually don’t know how they work, I am functionally illiterate when it comes to advanced analytics), but it is telling that despite how good of a season everyone is telling us that the Nervous Chickens are having, and how close the oddsmakers and stats geeks think the game tomorrow will be, the Buckeyes still have a decided advantage and I don’t think that the game will be all that tight on Saturday.