“We were dominated in every facet: their defense over our offense, every player, every play.”
Those were the words of a broken man and BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae. BYU had gone toe-to-toe with top-10 UCLA a week ago. In The Big House, they fell with a whisper to the Michigan Wolverines. BYU scored zero points. They managed just 105 total yards of offense.
A few days later, Las Vegas bookmakers had to take Michigan’s first Big Ten game against Maryland off the board. After opening up at minus-11.5, the line had already shifted to minus-16.5 on Tuesday.
Just about everyone expected some sort of improvement from Michigan this year. After all, one doesn’t bring in acclaimed coach Jim Harbaugh and expect regression. But most of the wishful thinking was instead placed on the offense.
Michigan’s offense had backslid into 79th in the F/+ rankings. F/+, a statistical measure created by combining the numerical rankings of Bill Connelly’s S&P+ and Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings, is the ultimate efficiency stat for college football. With Iowa transfer Jake Rudock coming in at quarterback, along with a bevy of talent in the backfield, it was logical to expect progression.
While their offense has come along — S&P+ has it ranked 48th through this week’s games — that hasn’t accounted for most of the improvement. (FEI won’t update offensive and defensive splits until Week 9.) Instead, it’s been the defense pulling the weight for Michigan. A unit that was decent under now-line coach Greg Mattison has improved under new coordinator D.J. Durbin’s tutelage. Michigan has gone from 18th in defensive S&P+ to fourth in 2015.
Or, in less fancy words: This is what happens when you hold three opponents in a row to seven or less points.
We came into the season expecting Michigan’s defense to be good-to-decent. They lost defensive linemen Frank Clark (Seattle) and Brennan Breyer (Balimore), as well as linebacker Jake Ryan (Green Bay) to the NFL. And while the defense as a whole was good, Clark was their most disruptive defensive lineman. They needed to find some new stars. Enter safety Jabrill Peppers, who spent his freshman season banged up.
Peppers has excelled in a role that is becoming more and more common in the NFL — the hybrid safety. He’s the rare defensive back with the physicality to play the run and the cover skills to hold somebody down from the line of scrimmage. And, as a true sophomore, Peppers is Michigan property for at least the next 16 months. Fellow defensive back Wayne Lyons, a graduate transfer from Stanford, has also helped solidify this group. The Wolverines were 45th in defensive passing S&P+ in 2014. In 2015, they’re 21st.
So far, that has come without much in the way of a pass rush. Michigan has only eight sacks in four games, and nobody on the team has more than two. But defensive lineman Chris Wormley has done yeoman’s work on run downs, with seven tackles for loss already. That may be a concern long-term against deeper teams. Having a dominant talent always helps along the process. But there are lines in much worse situations than having the kind of depth of established talent that Michigan enjoys. New defensive boss Durbin has helped with blitz designs and Michigan’s sack rate rises to 12.1 percent on passing downs — 16th-best in the nation.
This rise is the reason why Michigan can still find itself in playoff contention come the end of the year. Michigan won’t look past Maryland, but I will. Their next true test comes against Michigan State, a top-5 team in the polls led by star quarterback Connor Cook. But keep in mind that Sunday’s Oregon-Utah game made the earlier results for State and Michigan look a lot different. Allowing just 21 points to Utah now seems like an accomplishment for the Wolverines. The stock on Michigan State’s barely-win against Oregon is down.
The Big Ten sets up well for Michigan this year, with three home games against Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State. And given how Ohio State has played on offense thus far, that game is also not projecting to be quite as lopsided as it did in the preseason.
It’s hard to read too much into the first four games of a season. Flukes and small samples dominate college football statistical thinking early. But given what we know about the talent on hand and the new head coach, it wouldn’t at all be surprising for this turnaround to be real.
If Michigan does become a national playoff contender quicker than expected, it’ll be on the back of this dominant defense. One that, with Peppers, should be in good hands for the next two seasons.
Rivers McCown is a contributor to The Washington Post’s college football coverage. His writing has appeared on ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, Football Outsiders Almanac and SB Nation Houston.