Originally found on CBS Sports:
Will the third time be the charm?
That’s the question dogging No. 1 Michigan ahead of the 2023 College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have won the Big Ten for the third straight time, which includes a trio of wins over rival Ohio State. Much like the last two years, the reward has been an invitation to the CFP. However, Michigan has yet to win a playoff game.
In 2021, the Wolverines were outclassed in every way by an ascendant Georgia team featuring one of the greatest defenses the sport of college football has ever seen. Last year, the Wolverines were upended by an underdog TCU team that took advantage of mistakes and refused to relent even as Michigan fought its way back into the game.
It has been a long and strange season in 2023. Coach Jim Harbuagh was suspended for the first three games of the regular season for NCAA violations and the last three games of the regular season due to a sign-stealing scandal that dominated the headlines. But throughout all of the distractions, Michigan won every game.
Can the Wolverines ignore the questions about their ability to win playoff games the same way? There are plenty of doubters, and they will persist until the Wolverines prove otherwise. If this is the year Michigan can get over the hump and win its first national title since 1997, these will be the reasons why.
1. This team has dominated opponents all year
You hear a lot about strength of schedule when it comes to comparing playoff résumés (hey there, Florida State). There’s validity to saying a team played an easier schedule, but I’ve always cared more about how a team plays rather than who it plays. History suggests it’s a better indicator of how a team will perform in the future than the strength of the teams it has beaten, all of which bodes well for Michigan.
Not only did the Wolverines go 13-0 and beat opponents by an average of 27.2 points per game — including the Big Ten Championship Game, they won their conference games by an average of 27.4 points per game — but they hardly broke a sweat doing so. Between offense and defense, the Wolverines were on the field for 1,535 snaps this season. They trailed for 42 of them. That’s 2.7% of the snaps they played.
For additional context, Texas finished with the second-fewest snaps played while trailing this season with 155. That’s 113 more than Michigan.
Taking it to another level, Michigan had a lead of 14 points or more for 897 snaps, or 58.4% of the snaps they played.
While the Wolverines didn’t sweat a lot, their hardest stretch came in the final three regular-season games against Penn State, Maryland, and Ohio State. Given two of those games were the toughest they’ve played all season, it’s only natural to believe they won’t find the sledding in the CFP as easy, but it’s not supposed to be at this point.
2. Michigan wins the turnover battle
Michigan isn’t the highest-scoring team in the country, nor does it rack up a lot of yards. It’s more deliberate than anything, choosing to lean on its opponents knowing it can overwhelm them over a full 60 minutes. One reason it can do so effectively is because it doesn’t turn the ball over.
Michigan turned the ball over seven times this season, tied for the third-fewest in the country. It forced 24 turnovers (T-10th), giving it a turnover margin of +17, which ranks second nationally. That’s great, but there’s more to it.
It’s one thing to force turnovers, but it’s a wasted opportunity if you don’t take advantage of them by putting points on the board. Michigan does not waste opportunities. The Wolverines have scored 112 points off turnovers this season, more than anybody else. Their points off turnover margin (points scored off turnovers minus points allowed off turnovers) of 103 is the best in the nation, too, sitting 11 points better than Penn State in second. On average, Michigan gains 7.92 points off turnovers per game. That’s a tremendous advantage that should serve the Wolverines well in the playoffs.
3. A defense heavy on pressure and light on mistakes
One of my favorite stats of the season was Michigan’s defense never finding itself in a goal-to-go situation. The Wolverines had given up points, but they were always the result of a team making a big play rather than putting together a long scoring drive. It wasn’t until the Penn State game — Michigan’s 10th of the season — that an opponent found itself in a first-and-goal.
While the stat was impressive, it was the result of everything that Michigan does well on defense. This is a well-coached unit with plenty of talent, even if it doesn’t have superstars, and can beat you simply by being better. But it combines that with discipline and limiting mistakes.
Michigan finished the season with a pressure rate of 42%, which ranks sixth nationally and is the highest among any of the four playoff teams. It did this despite blitzing only 30.3% of the time, which ranks No. 51 nationally. In other words, the Wolverines can get to the quarterback without bringing extra players, which allows them to leave more defenders in coverage.
That leads to opposing QBs making panicked decisions, which leads to turnovers and a lot of shorter passes. That’s why the Wolverines have an explosive play rate allowed of only 7.58%, which is the second-lowest in the country (Iowa is first at 5.58%). Another factor is Michigan doesn’t miss tackles. Its missed tackle rate of 8.9% is the best mark in the country.
So the Wolverines generate pressure, don’t miss tackles, don’t allow big plays and force turnovers (they forced a turnover on 16.7% of their defensive possessions, the second-highest mark nationally). All that adds up to a defense that makes life extremely difficult for its opponents.