As we all know by now, the Hawkeyes have not had a great season, and a lot of people are wondering whether or not they’ll win another game after last week’s clunker of a contest against the Nittany Lions. The offense is an immovable object, and the defense is so inconsistent week to week that no one can trust it. If fans were discouraged by the horror show that was the Penn State game last weekend, I recommend that you look away this weekend.
The Michigan Wolverines come to town, and they’re having a special season of their own. They’re sitting at 9-0 this season and are ranked #3 in the College Football Playoff rankings. No one has come particularly close to beating them and they absolutely obliterated the same Penn State squad that ran right past the Hawkeyes as though the Iowa players were doing the mannequin challenge. This week figures to be rough.
But how rough? To learn more about the Wolverines, I talked to Drew Hallett, who is an editor at Maize n Brew, SB Nation’s really good Michigan site. He answers questions on whether or not Michigan has any weakness the Hawkeyes can exploit, if the Wolverines are the best team in the country, and whether Jourdan Lewis or Desmond King is the best cornerback in all the land.
Without further ado, here are the questions and answers.
Max: Michigan has absolutely steamrolled just about every team that they've faced this season. Are they the best team in college football? Is Jabrill Peppers the Heisman? Is Jim Harbaugh a robot? WE NEED ANSWERS.
Drew: No. No. Maybe?
Okay, let's dive into each.
Michigan makes a compelling case to be the best team in college football. The Wolverines are a perfect 9-0 and have outscored FBS opponents by 37.3 points per game, which is the best average scoring margin by a considerable, well, margin (Ohio State is second with plus-31.0). Despite chatter to the contrary, those wins have not been against only scrubs. They own three wins against the CFP top 12 (No. 7 Wisconsin by seven, No. 10 Penn State by 39, and No. 12 Colorado by 17), and they're the only team that can make such a claim. They pair what most metrics consider to be the nation's best defense with an offense that is peaking (No. 8 in S&P+) as Wilton Speight is surging (70.8 cmp%, 11.9 YPA, 4:1 TD:INT in his past three games). And, given how consistent they have been as a soul-sucking death machine week to week, they show no signs of slowing down. Even S&P+, which many of my Twitter followers would attest is my official deity, lists Michigan as the nation's best team. I have every reason to say so.
Except one: Michigan's name isn't Alabama.
The Crimson Tide have been every bit as dominant as Michigan has been, and, though Michigan has more top-tier wins, the strength of the Tide's wins from top to bottom has been stronger. Plus, Alabama's defense is the only one that can challenge Michigan's for being the best in the land, while its offense (12th in S&P+) has been very efficient, particularly on the ground, behind freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. Ultimately, given the Crimson Tide's recent success and how well they have performed this season, it would be bold to pick against them. But Michigan is nipping at their heels.
As for Jabrill Peppers and his Heisman Trophy candidacy, he will receive an invitation to New York City if Michigan continues to win. Peppers has been the Wolverines' most important player, impacting all three phases of the game. On defense, he is the team's second-leading tackler (58) and tied for 11th nationally in tackles for loss (13.0), and his positional versatility has an even larger effect on the unit that statistics just don't capture. On special teams, he is one of the nation's most dangerous returners. He is second nationally in punt return yards (257) and fourth in punt return average (17.1), and when he isn't housing the return, which he has done once this season even though it should have been thrice, he is flipping field position in Michigan's favor. On offense, his role has been limited so far, earning only 19 touches, but he makes the most of it when he has the ball (8.8 YPC, 3 TD). And even when he doesn't have the ball because defenses pay him so much attention when he is on the field that he becomes the perfect decoy.
Peppers is a special player and one of the nation's best.
But Lamar Jackson has almost 4,000 yards of total offense and 45 total touchdowns through nine games. Everyone else is playing for second.
And, as for whether Jim Harbaugh is a robot, you will just have to determine for yourself on Saturday. Don't worry, though. ABC's cameras will pan to him so often on the sidelines that you won't need more evidence to decide.
Max: Two teams that had relative success against Michigan were Wisconsin and Michigan State. Iowa figures to be a bit more like Michigan State, so what did Sparty do that was so effective in keeping that game close?
Drew: The truth is that Michigan-Michigan State never really was close. The score was 27-10 Michigan at halftime and 30-10 Michigan after three quarters, and the Spartans had yet to exceed 200 total yards. With 10:43 remaining and 4th & Goal at the Michigan 17, Michigan State opted to kick a field goal, which would have made a three-score game still a three-score game. Mark Dantonio waved the proverbial white flag at that moment, hoping to make the final score more pleasant than what had transpired on the gridiron. Of course, Michael Geiger missed the 34-yard field goal anyway. In response, Michigan went ultra conservative on offense and prevent on defense, and the Spartans revved up the engines (and turned off holding penalties) to make it interesting in the final minute. But the result never was in doubt.
However, that doesn't mean that Michigan State didn't poke some holes in Michigan's defense. I'll get to those in my answer to Question No. 4 below.
Max: The Wolverines are able to move the ball on the ground and through the air, but the main players in the passing game are lesser known. Who are the receiving threats and how will they test the Hawkeyes?
Drew: Michigan has three senior receiving threats: wideouts Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt. Entering this season, Chesson was expected to be Michigan's No. 1 receiver. He had a dazzling finish to his 2015 campaign, using his top-end speed and tuned route running to haul in 32 passes for 574 yards and nine touchdowns in the final six games. However, coming off a knee injury he suffered in the Citrus Bowl win over Florida, he has been relatively quiet this season with 25 catches for 416 yards and two touchdowns. But Chesson flashed that he may have another second-half spree in store after grabbing five balls for 112 yards and a score against Maryland last week. Chesson is dangerous as a vertical threat, so, if Iowa has a difficult time keeping receivers in front of them, look for Wilton Speight to chuck the ball deep to a streaking Chesson down the sideline.
Nonetheless, Michigan's two best pass-catchers in 2016 have been Darboh and Butt. Darboh had been a perfect No. 2 receiver for Michigan, running strong routes underneath, catching passes in traffic, and muscling forward for first downs. During the offseason, the coaching staff heaped lots of praise on him, claiming he would be Michigan's best receiver. Fans were skeptical given how good Chesson was to finish 2015, but Darboh has proven the coaches right. He is sixth in the Big Ten in receptions (42), second in receiving yards (741), third in yards per catch (17.6), and fourth in receiving scores (6). He arguably has been the second-best wide receiver in the conference behind Northwestern's Austin Carr because, in addition to the skillset he brought from prior years, he has run crisper routes down the field and given the Wolverines a second deep target. And, with all the attention given to Chesson and Darboh, the middle of the field is open for Butt, who is one of the top tight ends in the country. Butt has posted 34 catches for 421 yards and four scores, and, last week, he became the Michigan all-time record holder for most catches and receiving yards by a tight end. That is because Butt runs excellent routes that allow him to gain separation from linebackers and safeties and gets his hands on any high ball Speight throws into what fans dub "The ButtZone." Butt will test Iowa's linebackers by running lots of crossing and mesh routes over the middle.
And the truth is that all three of them will be a challenge for Iowa's defense.
Max: Iowa's identity is a team that wants to run the ball first and mix in a few short passes throughout the game. Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels have been a pretty good one-two punch for the Hawkeyes, but the Hawkeyes have managed less than 80 yards in all four of their losses this season. Will they have any chance of running the ball, or are they better suited to try to air it out?
Drew: Iowa might as well forfeit if its strategy is to air it out. Michigan is first in Pass Defense S&P+, sixth in YPA, and fourth in passer rating because it has two lockdown corners in Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling. Opposing wide receivers have struggled trying to separate from Lewis and Stribling, and most passes headed in either direction have ended poorly for offenses. It would be one thing if Iowa's aerial attack had been humming along this year. But that hasn't been the case (71st in S&P+). C.J. Beathard's production (59.9 cmp%, 7.0 YPA, 13:5 TD:INT) has dipped slightly, and the Hawkeyes have lacked a go-to receiver since Matt VandeBerg was lost to injury.
Iowa's passing game will work only if the Hawkeyes can get LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley in a rhythm, and that is where they will have the best chance of offensive success against Michigan. Even though the Wolverines are second in Rush Defense S&P+ and sixth in YPC, they are more vulnerable on the ground than in the air. That vulnerability will be found on the edges. For as good as Stribling has been in pass coverage, he has been exposed as poor tackler in run support, and WILL Mike McCray, Jr. can suck in too close to the line of scrimmage and be beaten to the sideline. This is why I think Wadley, who is Iowa's speedier back, will be the biggest threat for Iowa. If the Hawkeyes call designed runs that get him outside the tackles, he has an opportunity to make Wolverines miss and sprint down the field for big gains. If that happens, that may open everything else for Iowa.
Max: Seriously, are there ANY weaknesses that the Hawkeyes can exploit on either side of the ball this coming Saturday?
Drew: What I just stated above really is Michigan's only defensive weakness.
Iowa's best chance to rattle Michigan's offense is to hit Wilton Speight early and often. Speight has been very confident and, in turn, very good the past three games. However, that has not been the case all season. In Week 3, he nearly was decapitated on a nickel blitz by Colorado, which led to a scoop and score for the Buffaloes. In the games thereafter until the bye week, Speight was unsure of himself, and his mechanics reverted to his old shotput form. He was short-arming throws, trying to guide them to his receivers rather than letting them fly. Speight used the bye week to get back on course, but, if he takes a beating or another crushing blow, he could start to panic, particularly in a hostile Kinnick Stadium. Getting to Speight won't be easy for Iowa because Michigan's offensive line has been great in pass protection (17th in adj. sack rate) and, at 6-6 and 243 pounds, Speight has a Ben Roetlisberger ability to shed sacks in the pocket. Nonetheless, if the Hawkeyes want Michigan's offense to stumble, that is the best way to do it.
Max: You asked me, so now I'll ask you. Who's the better cornerback: Desmond King or Jourdan Lewis?
Drew: I'll start by stating that both Desmond King and Jourdan Lewis are excellent cornerbacks, and Detroit should be proud for producing two of the nation's best at that position. However, one is better than the other. King likely will be selected higher in the 2017 NFL Draft because of his size, but I've been writing for the past year that Lewis is the better corner. Yes, King won the Jim Thorpe Award last season, but that mostly is because voters don't have access to the right stats to properly evaluate a corner's performance and, in turn, rely too heavily on interceptions -- King had eight to Lewis' two -- which are too volatile. Just look at this season, in which King has just one pick. Does that mean King has been worse this season? Not necessarily. It likely means quarterbacks are avoiding him and he hasn't had as many interceptable passes. However, Pro Football Focus has done a superb job tracking how often corners are targeted and surrender completions, which is a truer method in evaluating corners. And, in the past one-plus seasons, there has been no better cover corner than Lewis. He was Pro Football Focus' top-graded cornerback in 2015 after he allowed only a 46.3 passer rating, and, in 2016, he has allowed just four completions on 23 targets (17.4%) for 49 yards (2.1 YPA), no touchdowns, and nine passes defensed, including two picks. Lewis is in line to be named Pro Football Focus' best cover corner for the second straight season because he doesn't allow passes to be completed against him. Pure and simple. He shuts down one half of the field, and he doesn't need interceptions to get the job done. Plus, Lewis is a very good in run support on the edge as well and has proven he can be an all-around corner. But his coverage skills put him ahead of King.
Max: Alright, prediction time. Will Harbaugh try to throw 100 points on the Hawkeyes? Make your pick.
Drew: Jim Harbaugh won't put 100 points on Iowa, but I think this is a tough matchup for the Hawkeyes. Offenses need to be balanced to have a chance against Michigan's defense, and, even though Akrum Wadley and Leshun Daniels may be able to break off some long runs to the edge, C.J. Beathard will have a difficult time complementing that success consistently through the air against Michigan's stingy pass defense. On the other side, I expect Wilton Speight and Jake Butt to find open pockets in Iowa's pass defense in the middle of the field. Nonetheless, this will be Michigan's first hostile road environment outside the state of Michigan. I think that atmosphere will cause some hiccups in Michigan's performance before the Wolverines pull away in the second half for a comfortable win.
Michigan 31, Iowa 7
Thanks to Drew Hallett for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw six hundred points on your team. For more on Michigan football, check out Maize n Brew and follow them on Twitter at @MaizenBrew. You can also follow Drew on Twitter at @DrewCHallett. And as always, go Hawks.