Bruce Feldman of the Athletic recently released his “freaks” list, which is always a fun read. No. 1 on the list is Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye, which I found striking particularly in light of how much talent has been passing through Ann Arbor since Jim Harbaugh took over.
I noted as much on Twitter:
This drew some major push back, which you can find in the replies.
Amongst most of the college football commentariat, as well as a sizable chunk of the Michigan fanbase, the perception is that the Wolverines simply can’t keep up with Ohio State in recruiting and consequently can’t keep up with them on the scoreboard either. This doesn’t line up well to the other big standard in college football commentary today, which is that “blue chip ratio” is the threshold for championships and that beyond that other factors take hold.
Blue chip ratio means having a roster that is 50% or better former blue chip recruits (at least 4-stars). Michigan hit 60% last year, as did Penn State and Clemson, LSU was at 64%. Ohio State was at 81%. The obvious conclusion from these numbers is that the Buckeyes didn’t really draw that great of an advantage from being so much higher than everyone else. When they needed depth of talent most, it didn’t save them.
Clemson defeated them, they didn’t even reach LSU, and Penn State lost to Ohio State in a tough fought, 28-17 game while losing their quarterback to injury during the game. Michigan lost to Ohio State 56-27.
In the draft that followed, Michigan had 10 players selected.
Cesar Ruiz, center. 1st round
Josh Uche, outside backer, 2nd round
Ben Bredeson, guard, 4th round
Khaleke Hudson, safety/linebacker, 5th round
Mike Danna, defensive end, 5th round
Michael Onwenu, guard, 6th round
Donovan Peoples-Jones, wide receiver, 6th round
Jon Runyan, guard (tackle for Michigan), 6th round
Josh Metellus, safety, 7th round
Jordan Glasgow, linebacker, 7th round
Notice anything about that list? There’s a few notable missing components. One obvious one is Shea Patterson, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by Kansas City and has already been released. Another is that Josh Uche and Mike Danna, the star pass-rushers for Michigan, struggled to get on the field because of the team’s scheme up front and the presence of other star defensive ends like Aidan Hutchinson and the aforementioned Kwity Paye.
Finally, there’s the lack of cornerbacks or defensive tackles. Michigan had a talented infrastructure except at the positions of defensive tackle and quarterback, and lacked…a space force to match up against Ohio State. This has been the case for some time now.
Blue chip ratio champions
Hat tip to Bud Elliott who always compiles these lists and numbers and has been posting them on SB Nation, The Banner Society, and now at 247.
Alabama and Ohio State have been hoarding talent for the entire decade, however their share of the national championships has been deeply cut into by Clemson in particular and now LSU as well.
As a reminder, the 2014 playoffs featured an Ohio State-Oregon final and the Oregon Ducks had a blue chip ratio of 41%. But the Oregon Ducks also had Marcus Mariota and some pro-spread dimensions to their offense.
The 2015 playoffs concluded with Alabama facing off against the Clemson Tigers. The Tigers’ blue chip ratio was 47%, just south of the supposed threshold for winning a title, but they beat Oklahoma and dropped 550 yards on Alabama before losing late 45-40.
In 2016 Clemson returned with a blue chip ratio of 52% and crushed Clemson 31-0 and then overcame Alabama en route to their first national title. For 2017 Clemson had Kelly Bryant, who couldn’t execute the pro-spread as well and they focused more on spread-option tactics, which could not overcome Alabama.
The Buckeyes were floundering with J.T. Barrett and their own spread-option offense and squandering their blue chip advantages. In 2018 Clemson boldly replaced Kelly Bryant with freshman Trevor Lawrence in order to get back to their pro-spread championship gear. They pounded both Notre Dame and Alabama as a result.
I was one of a very few that picked Clemson to beat Ohio State in the 2019 playoffs, because I knew Ohio State’s blue chip ratio advantage didn’t matter relative to Clemson’s superiority in the pro-spread passing game. Things got shaky when both of Clemson’s star receivers were hobbled by injury and struggling against a phenomenal Ohio State secondary, but the Tigers pulled it out thanks to their embrace of flyover defense and by their adjustment to throw to the star running back while Ohio State kept handing off.
Then they went down against LSU, who obviously had also embraced pro-spread passing to an even greater extent and had already extinguished Alabama’s light before the playoffs even started.
The story of the playoff era in college football is that top notch space forces punch above their weight in total recruiting. Overall across the game, what happens on the perimeter is having a greater impact than the trenches.
The story of “the game” is similar. Yes Ohio State has stockpiled more talent than Michigan over this period, but the Wolverines’ consistent defeats against Ohio State are not due to their inability to match Ohio State’s overall talent levels. That hasn’t stopped Clemson and other programs from consistently derailing the Buckeyes’ track to titles over this period.
Michigan’s space force in the Jim Harbaugh era
The story of Michigan’s time under Jim Harbaugh is well exemplified by the numbers on the 2019 team above, a squad stocked with a lot of overall talent but lacking both the pieces to win with infrastructure and the components to out punch their talent with an elite space force.
The 2015 Wolverines were solid at quarterback (Jake Rudock) and receiver with Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson as well as space force dreadnought Jake Butt. But at tackle they had future center Mason Cole and future UDFA RT Erik Magnuson. The 2016 Wolverines brought back a similar core with Wilton Speight and a tackle tandem of future UDFA NFL guard Ben Braden and Magnuson again. In 2017 they played three different quarterbacks due to injury, lacked top receivers, and had a future NFL tackle in Grant Newsome but then he destroyed his knee and Mason Cole had to bump back outside.
The 2018 and 2019 Wolverines relied on future NFL guard Jon Runyan and a rotating cast of right tackles to protect Shea Patterson while he failed to maximize a number of talented receivers and tight ends.
Meanwhile on defense they brought in “Dr Blitz” Don Brown, who installed a number of man coverages and man blitzes that tended to overwhelm most of the Big 10 before hitting a wall against Ohio State’s offensive line and the inability of the Michigan defensive backs to cover the Buckeyes’ spread receivers in man coverage. Crossing routes in particular tortured Michigan in 2018 and 2019.
The 2018 debacle against Ohio State also included the Buckeyes’ cast of future NFL defensive ends destroyed Runyan and the Michigan pass protection. In 2019 the Wolverines had that figured out but were torched on the perimeter again and also inside where transfers and misses had left them lacking the defensive tackles to execute their normal schemes against Ohio State’s loaded interior O-line.
Michigan hasn’t had a strong or cohesive enough infrastructure to beat Ohio State in the trenches and they haven’t had the strategy, the quarterback play, nor the space force to move the game to the perimeter and try to defeat them there.
So the problem in Ann Arbor isn’t a lack of talent or inherent inability to field teams that can compete with the Buckeyes. The Wolverines have lacked an offensive system designed to make the most of their tight ends and skill players on the perimeter, steady quarterback play to execute it, and the necessary protection at left tackle. On defense they’ve tried to win games in the trenches where they don’t have advantages against the Buckeyes while deferring stress to the back end, which is how you give up 50+ points when a bad matchup snowballs on you.
Today’s focus in the media on recruiting rankings flattens multiple issues into overly simple analysis. Yes Ohio State recruits more overall talent than Michigan. They recruit more overall talent than anyone save for Alabama, but it hasn’t been the Tide that have stopped them from winning championships.
Michigan recruits better than the vast majority of college football and as well or better than other schools that have had better results against Ohio State and the nation’s other elite programs. There’s no reason Michigan can’t adjust their strategies (and they slowly are) to move from trying to bang their heads against the nut to the South but instead find the weak spot in the shell and pry it apart.
There are diminishing returns to trying to recruit the most talented team in college football and it’s not necessary in order to win. Michigan isn’t facing overwhelming disadvantages in talent, they’ve made the issue harder than it has to be by failing to recruit top talent at the most essential positions and failing to embrace the right strategy.
Read more on how spread tactics which have taken now over the game of college football evolved in the Big 12 conference in my book: