College football fans around the country know that Michigan is good - that it’s back. But if you asked a casual fan about the Wolverines, the first names you’d hear would be Harbaugh, Jabrill Peppers, and Jourdan Lewis. The fact that Michigan is averaging 48.7 points a game - a dramatic up-tick from last season’s 31.4 - has largely flown under the radar.
There are reasons for this. First of all, if you look at how many yards the team is piling up - that’s usually the eye-catching stat - Michigan is sitting back at 28th. Some of that discrepancy between yards and points can be tied to non-offensive touchdowns, and even more to the unheralded job that Jabrill Peppers has done to control field position and give Michigan a manageable number of yards to get a score.
Plus, Michigan is just so damn deep at every position - nobody is putting up All-American numbers. It’s been, essentially, a quiet assault.
Almost eight hundred miles away, Alabama head coach Nick Saban is working in a very similar situation as Jim Harbaugh. The Tide have been masterful at non-offensive touchdowns - they’ve scored twelve of them during a 8-0 start, contributing to Bama’s 43.9 points a game - and the offense relies heavily on the running game. Just like Michigan, Alabama is slowly breaking in a first-year starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts.
But, unlike Michigan, the quarterback they’re relying on has been a critical part of the running attack.
“He’s getting better every week,” said Nick Saban after a 49-10 demolition of Tennessee the other week - a game where Jalen Hurts threw for 143 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, and also contributed 132 yards and three scores on the ground.
“Obviously his ability to run is something that gives defenses a lot of problems. If we can continue to improve in the passing game because of the level of the skill guys that we have, I think that would be something that would make a big impact on what we can do offensively.”
Alabama has always leaned on a dominant ground game - their last ‘down year’ under Nick Saban was his first in Tuscaloosa - and even when Blake Sims ran the offense in 2014 they worked within a pro-style system. This year’s version, though, is very different.
Something strange happened on Alabama's second snap of the second half Saturday at Tennessee.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts took the shotgun snap and handed it off to Damien Harris. That's it. Just an old-fashioned pistol, off-tackle run. Three yards.
It was the second and final traditional handoff Alabama used in its historic running output in the 49-10 whipping of Tennessee. Every other running play in the 438-yard running performance was rooted in the read option, jet sweep -- occasionally both.
The motioning receivers and Hurts' ability to handoff or take off has created a misdirecting, modern version of a triple option.
There are reasons for this, again. A pro-style system takes a lot of coaching to perfect, and roster turnover makes it difficult to maintain a high level of play year in and year out as guys leave early for the NFL or transfer for more playing time.
Until this year, Saban had never started a quarterback that wasn’t in his third year in the program. But that’s getting harder and harder to do. Between Jalen Hurts’s ability, the youth Alabama has had to work with on offense, and the nature of winning and recruiting in the SEC, it was a perfect storm for Saban to change his offensive philosophy drastically this year.
And while that is all well and good, 2016 could be a bumpy ride as Saban acclimates his true freshman quarterback to hitting the long ball and doing other quarterback things. Option-heavy offenses are always susceptible to teams that can win one-on-one matchups, and Bama will find teams like that in the playoffs. It will be important to have a good QB, and yet it’s also a lot to hope that a true freshman, dual-threat QB who’s the team’s second-leading rusher will also be able to grow into a good passer in his first season.
And Bama is running out of time.
Michigan’s biggest weakness on offense has been the deep passing game. But against Illinois on Saturday, Michigan completed 7 different passes for 20-yard gains, and that merely complemented the 10 different runs of 10 or more yards - signs that the pro-style offense was clicking. At quarterback for the Wolverines was a guy who, while inexperienced and still improving, has been in college for three and a half years.
Michigan’s experience relative to teams like Bama, Washington, Clemson or Ohio State hasn’t gotten much attention. But that experience bodes well on offense as the team comes together in the second half.
There is one last thing I’ll talk about today. Michigan has shown a lot of exciting formations this year, from Jabrill Peppers at quarterback to their caterpillar I-formation. They haven’t leaned on any of these heavily, because they don’t have to. This was about practice, and building versatility in the playbook for sometime down the road.
Putting Jabrill in at quarterback offers the offense some of the benefits of an option offense - specifically, it challenges defensive lines that are stout enough to stop the run and linebackers that blitz the gaps. The caterpillar-I challenges defenses’ readiness and ability to identify mismatches near the goal-line, but it also takes something that’s easy to scout (opposing team’s tendencies in the red zone) and creates schematic weaknesses with a little planning.
Plus, Michigan has a few other ‘secret’ offensive weapons. Khalid Hill has started to get some notice for his 8 touchdowns on 15 carries; even more than that, though, his power success rate is a staggering 91%. Basically, with two yards to go to get a first down or a touchdown, he’s only been stopped once, and he punched it in right after that one failed attempt. So it’s not much of a stretch to say that nobody has been able to stop him all year.
Another weapon has been Karan Higdon, who’s put up terrific numbers overall (8.3 yards per carry, 359 yards, and 6 touchdowns) but especially in the red zone. Opportunity rate - which measures how often a runner gets at least five yards - usually goes down dramatically when the field shrinks close to the goal-line, but Higdon’s shiftiness and speed has been a huge asset in that department. His team-leading opportunity rate (55.8%) actually goes up in the red zone (to 66.7%), and he’s averaging 6.1 yards a carry on plays inside the 20.
So, what does this all add up to? Michigan may have a boring-looking pro-style offense, but that ground and pound is one of the best in the country - and a veritable house of horrors for opposing defenses. Michigan is only improving, thanks to both a deep and versatile roster full of talent, and the players’ ability to implement a complicated playbook. Happy Halloween, in other words.