How has Michigan fared after its other 4-0 starts?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Let's take a look back on how the Wolverines have fared after starting a season 4-0. Further, I'll try to find any parallels between this and any other season in Michigan's history.

After an undefeated -- albeit, stressful and sometimes ugly -- start to the year, I decided to take a look back through every one of Michigan's previous 133 seasons and look for any trends related to 4-0 starts. The first, and main, restriction is that I only studied seasons with at least 8 games, meaning that the following years are ignored: 1879-90, 1906-07, 1909-10, 1912-13, and 1918-22. So that means I'll be considering 111 seasons instead of 133. And before you read any further, let me say that there will be no fancy, advanced statistics, even though I wish I had time to examine everything at a higher level. This will be more of a "face-value" analysis.

Part I: The 4-0 Starts

To start off, let's take a look at all of the other seasons when the Wolverines started 4-0. There have been 46 instances of a 4-0 start prior to this year, which means 4-0 starts have occurred about 41.4% throughout history (again, excluding seasons under eight games). Granted, seasons haven't always started with four non-conference games (there's only been five other seasons that have: 2002, '03, '10, '11, and '12), and the talent level of opponents hasn't always included FCS teams as well as low-level FBS teams to start the season. Below, each year of a 4-0 start is listed, including the season's final record, the score of the first four games, Michigan's finish in the Big Ten, and how they fared in any bowl games as well as their end of the season ranking.

Season Final record Scores of first four games Big Ten finish Bowl/Ranking
1895 8-1 34-0, 42-0, 64-0, 30-0 Independent N/A
1896 9-1 18-0, 44-0, 28-0, 66-0 2nd place tie N/A
1898 10-0 21-0, 29-0, 39-0, 18-0 1st place N/A
1899 8-2 11-0, 26-0, 17-0, 12-0 3rd place tie N/A
1900 7-2-1 29-0, 11-0, 24-6, 11-6 5th place N/A
1901 11-0 50-0, 57-0, 33-0, 29-0 1st place tie W Rose Bowl, 49-0 over Stanford/National Champions
1902 11-0 88-0, 48-6, 119-0, 60-0 1st place tie National Champions
1903 11-0-1 31-0, 76-0, 79-0, 65-0 1st place National Champions
1904 10-0 33-0, 48-0, 95-0, 72-0 1st place tie National Champions
1905 12-1 65-0, 44-0, 36-0, 23-0 2nd place tie N/A
1911 5-1-2 24-0, 15-3, 19-0, 9-8 Independent N/A
1914 6-3 58-0, 69-0, 27-7, 23-3 Independent N/A
1915 4-3-1 39-0, 35-0, 28-6, 14-3 Independent N/A
1916 7-2 38-0, 19-3, 54-0, 26-0 Independent N/A
1917 8-2 41-0, 17-13, 69-0, 14-13 8th place tie N/A
1923 8-0 36-0, 3-0, 23-0, 37-0 1st place tie National Champions
1925 7-1 39-0, 63-0, 21-0, 3-0 1st place N/A
1926 7-1 42-3, 55-3, 20-0, 13-0 1st place tie N/A
1927 6-2 33-0, 21-0, 14-0, 21-0 3rd place N/A
1932 8-0 26-0, 15-6, 14-0, 32-0 1st place tie National Champions
1933 7-0-1 20-6, 40-0, 13-0, 28-0 1st place tie National Champions
1939 6-2 26-13, 27-7, 85-0, 27-7 4th place tie AP #20
1940 7-1 41-0, 21-14, 26-0, 28-0 2nd place AP #3
1941 6-1-1 19-7, 6-0, 40-0, 14-7 2nd place tie AP #5
1947 10-0 55-0, 49-13, 69-0, 49-21 1st place tie W Rose Bowl, 49-0 over USC/AP #1
1948 9-0 13-7, 14-0, 40-0, 28-0 1st place AP #1
1953 6-3 50-0, 26-7, 14-13, 20-12 5th place tie AP #20
1955 7-2 42-7, 14-7, 26-2, 14-2 3rd place AP #12
1970 9-1 20-9, 17-3, 14-10, 29-0 2nd place tie AP #9
1971 11-1 21-6, 56-0, 38-0, 46-0 1st place L Rose Bowl, 13-12 to Stanford/AP #6
1972 10-1 7-0, 26-9, 41-7, 35-7 1st place tie AP #6
1973 10-0-1 31-7, 47-10, 14-0, 24-0 1st place tie AP #6
1974 10-1 24-7, 31-0, 52-0, 27-16 1st place tie AP #3
1976 10-2 40-27, 51-0, 70-14, 31-0 1st place tie L Rose Bowl, 14-6 to USC/AP #3
1977 10-2 37-9, 21-9, 14-7, 41-3 1st place tie L Rose Bowl, 27-20 to Washington/AP #9
1978 10-2 31-0, 28-14, 52-0, 21-17 1st place tie L Rose Bowl, 17-10 to USC/AP #5
1985 10-1-1 20-12, 34-3, 20-0, 33-6 2nd place W Fiesta Bowl, 27-23 over Nebraska/AP #2
1986 11-2 24-23, 31-12, 20-18, 34-17 1st place tie L Rose Bowl, 22-15 to ASU/AP #8
1995 9-4 18-17, 38-14, 24-7, 23-13 3rd place tie L Alamo Bowl, 22-20 to Texas A&M/AP #17
1996 8-4 20-8, 20-13, 20-14, 38-9 5th place tie L Outback Bowl, 17-14 to Alabama/AP #20
1997 12-0 27-3, 38-3, 21-14, 37-0 1st place W Rose Bowl, 21-16 over Washington State/AP #1
1999 10-2 26-22, 37-3, 18-13, 21-16 2nd place tie W Orange Bowl, 35-34 over Alabama/AP #5
2006 11-2 27-7, 41-17, 47-21, 27-13 2nd place tie L Rose Bowl, 32-18 to USC/AP #6
2009 5-7 31-7, 38-34, 45-17, 36-33 10th place tie Unranked
2010 7-6 30-10, 28-24, 42-37, 65-21 7th place L Gator Bowl, 52-14 to Mississippi State/Unranked
2011 11-2 35-10, 35-31, 31-3, 28-7 2nd Legends W Sugar Bowl, 23-20 over Virginia Tech/AP #12

From the above table, here's some observations:

  • Out of the 46 seasons, only one ended with the Wolverines below .500, and that happened in 2009 during Rich Rod's middle year. Further, outside of '09, there have only been six other seasons with Michigan finishing with more than two losses. That means that about 84.8% of the 4-0 starts finished with the Wolverines losing two or less games.

  • 13 of the 46 seasons watched Michigan finish undefeated.

  • All but one of Michigan's National Championship seasons occurred after a 4-0 start (the lone exception being 1918, which is only excluded due to my restrictions: the Wolverines finished the season 5-0, so they did in fact start 4-0). This isn't surprising at all, since a National Championship almost always means an undefeated season. But it never hurts to remember that a championship is still on the table.

  • Half of Michigan's 42 Big Ten Championships (either outright or a share) took place after a 4-0 start, making half of these seasons successful in terms of the B1G (I tossed out the five independent seasons for this calculation). Eight more seasons saw the Wolverines finish either alone or tied in second place. If you ignore both the independent seasons and 1917 (when Michigan finished 8th after going 0-1 in conference play), the Wolverines have finished in either first or second 72.5% of the time after starting a season 4-0.

  • The Wolverines have an all-time losing record in bowl games (20-22), and they haven't fared all that well after a 4-0 start with just a 6-9 record in postseason games. This isn't shocking since only one Michigan coach holds a winning record in bowl games, assuming he coached in more than one: Gary Moeller with a 4-1 record (Bo went 5-12, Carr went 6-7, Rich Rod went 0-1, Hoke is 1-1, and Yost-Crisler-Oosterbaan-Elliott each went 1-0).

Part II: The Other Starts

I'm not going to list all of the non-undefeated starts through four games, but I will make a few, short comments on the 65 seasons that Michigan has not started 4-0 (again, this excludes the seasons with less than eight games):

  • 50 seasons ended with Michigan having a winning record, 12 with a losing record, and 3 with an even record. The Wolverines finished 28 of the winning seasons with a winning percentage over .700.

  • After not starting 4-0, Michigan has been slightly above even in bowl games, going 14-13. Take that for what you will.

  • Two of the 65 seasons watched Michigan go undefeated: 8-0-1 in 1930 and 9-0-3 in 1992.

  • Michigan finished first in the Big Ten 18 times and second 11 times during these seasons. Excluding five independent years, that means that 48.3% of the not 4-0 starts ended in a top two finish within the conference.

  • 12 of Michigan's 13 losing seasons came after not starting 4-0 (again, assuming a season of at least eight games; Michigan's had four losing records in shorter years).

Part III: Comparisons to 2013

After reading through every season, and making the fun facts you see above, I dug a bit deeper to try and find any years that parallel Michigan's start in 2013. In other words, has Michigan stumbled during victories against lesser opponents before in the first four games of a season? Here's three seasons that are kind of similar:

1953: Michigan started the season with four home games: a 50-0 rout against Washington, a 26-7 victory against Tulane, and two close calls against Iowa and Northwestern. Heading into the Week 3 Iowa game, the Wolverines were favored by two touchdowns, but after turning a Michigan fumble and interception into two touchdowns, Iowa led at halftime by a score of 13-0. However, the Wolverines woke up in the second half to score two passing touchdowns to win 14-13. After the close call against the Hawkeyes, Michigan reversed roles and led 13-0 against the Wildcats at halftime. But Northwestern worked like Iowa, turning a fumble and interception into 12 points in the third quarter. With their lead down to one point, Michigan added another score in the third and squeaked by with another victory, 20-12, to start the season 4-0. As for the caliber of Michigan's first four opponents in '53, Iowa was the best, finishing 5-3-1 (their first winning record in six years), while Northwestern finished 3-6 (their second losing season in a row), Tulane finished 1-8-1, and Washington finished 3-6-1 after a 7-3 finish one year prior.

1999: The Wolverines kicked off '99 with a classic, final moments victory against Notre Dame. After the Irish took a 22-19 lead, Tom Brady took control of Michigan's offense with 4:08 to play, conducting the 58-yard game-winning touchdown drive to give Michigan a 26-22 victory. Week 2 saw the Wolverines dominate the Rice Owls 37-3, which brings us to Week 3. Ranked #6 in the nation after their 2-0 start, Michigan traveled to New York to face the Syracuse Orangemen. Late in the third quarter, the game was tied 13-13, until the Wolverines forced an intentional grounding call on the Orangemen in the endzone. The safety ended up being the game-winning points for Michigan as they won 18-13. After the near loss, the Wolverines traveled to Madison for a showdown with #20 ranked Wisconsin. Michigan eked out another victory by a score of 21-16. From a strength standpoint, Wisconsin was the hardest matchup since they ended up winning the Big Ten in '99. Rice and Syracuse have never been a powerhouses, and even though Notre Dame was ranked #16 at the time of the Michigan game, their season ended in disappointment at 5-7. However, I should mention that Syracuse was in the middle of their most successful period in history. They won the Big East Championship in '96 and '98.

2010: As far as I could find, this is the only season during which Michigan won a game and dropped in the rankings afterwards. The Wolverines started 2010 with a solid, 30-10 win over Connecticut in Denard's first career start, followed by the exciting, comeback victory against Notre Dame. However, Michigan stumbled after the emotional win in South Bend against their average FCS opponent, the UMass Minutemen. True to the common trends of the Rich Rod years, Michigan's defense struggled to stop the Minutemen's offense, surrendering 20 points in the fourth quarter. If the final onside kick hadn't gone out of bounds, there's a decent chance UMass finishes the comeback to win the game. After the 42-37 win, Michigan fell one spot from #20 to #21 in the AP Poll but stayed put in the Coaches' Poll at #22. In Week 4, the Wolverines capped their 4-0 start with a huge, 65-21 win against Bowling Green, who ended up finishing 2-10 that season.

Part IV: What does all this mean?

If the Bowling Green game had been closer in 2010, that season would almost perfectly mirror 2013. The '53 season saw Michigan almost blow two games against lesser opponents due to turnovers, like Akron and UConn this year, but neither Washington or Tulane were on the same level back then as Notre Dame is today. '99 contained an exciting game against Notre Dame, but the schedule was tougher to start '99 than it was this year. Michigan had to play Wisconsin, who ended up winning the conference, and they only struggled against one inferior opponent instead of two, Syracuse. Three years ago, Michigan saw themselves fall in the polls after a win, similar to 2013, but like I said before, the Wolverines only struggled against UMass while handling UConn and Bowling Green.

So, taking all of this into consideration, it doesn't seem like Michigan's ever been in a position quite like this before. But if we choose to only look at the 4-0 start, based on history, the Wolverines have almost an 85% chance of finishing the season with two or less losses and an almost 73% chance of finishing in the top two of the Big Ten (granted, there's now the Big Ten Championship Game to consider). Losing either of the two games against Akron and UConn would decrease those odds, and at this point in 2013, the Wolverines need any help they can get, regardless of whether its only looking at previous trends. Since Michigan's never faced this exact situation before, it's hard to make any definite conclusions, but after looking at the past, a 4-0 starts tends to mean more good things than bad (ignoring bowl games).

And as for Minnesota, Michigan's played the Golden Gophers 32 times in the 46 seasons that they've started 4-0. The Wolverines overall record in those games: 24-6-2. History seems to bode well for Saturday.

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