Why Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines Are Big Ten Contenders

Led by arguably the best defense in the nation, Jim Harbaugh's first season in Ann Arbor has already been a success.

Jim Harbaugh has had success everywhere he has coached, so it was reasonable to expect this to continue at Michigan.

Only the most diehard maize and blue fans, though, could have expected his Wolverines to be this good, this early.

Michigan is 5-1, and has outscored opponents by 139 points, while moving up to 12th in the AP Poll. The Wolverines are second to Baylor in our nERD power ratings, and would be expected to beat an average opponent by more than 27 points on a neutral field.

The nation’s top scoring defense has led the way, as Michigan has allowed 6.3 points per game and has shut out their last three opponents.

The Wolverines have also allowed only 3.1 yards per play, second in the nation to Boston College.

The offense has lagged behind a bit -- ranking 67th in points per game and 78th in yards per play -- but Harbaugh’s squad has inserted itself into the Big Ten race, along with arch-rivals Michigan State and Ohio State.

Michigan is 2-0 in the conference and has outscored opponents 66-0.

Another Great Harbaugh Defense

One of the hallmarks of the former quarterback’s teams has been a great defense.

The 49ers were a top-10 unit in yards allowed per play in each of his four years as coach, while his Stanford team ranked sixth in defensive S&P+ in his final season in Palo Alto (S&P+ is a metric developed by Bill Connelly that ranks units based around efficiency and explosiveness).

Even the University of San Diego, where Harbaugh began his head coaching career, ranked 10th and second in the FCS in scoring defense in his final two years with the school.

Michigan is continuing the trend, as the Wolverines are the top defense in terms of S&P+ this season.

They were hardly pushovers last year to be fair, ranking 18th in S&P+, and while much of the defense returned, leaders Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer, and Jake Ryan needed to be replaced.

It has not been a problem, as Michigan has been stout against both the run and pass.

In terms of our efficiency rankings, the Michigan defense is third in the nation in opponent-adjusted yards allowed per carry and ninth in opponent-adjusted yards per pass.

Frankly, the unit does not seem to have many discernible weaknesses, as it neither bends nor breaks. Per Connelly’s metrics, Michigan ranks fifth in defensive efficiency (as measured by success rate) and first against big plays (as measured by isolated points per play).

In terms of the high leverage situations, Michigan has excelled on third down, while rendering red zone performance irrelevant.

Opponents are 16-for-85 on third downs, tying the Wolverines with Boston College for the lowest conversion rate allowed. They have yielded a touchdown two thirds of the time in the red zone...but have allowed six total red zone trips, fewest in the country.

The secondary has allowed 3.9 yards per pass (tied with BC for best in the country), but the Michigan pass defense starts up front, where linemen Willie Henry (four sacks) and Maurice Hurst (three sacks, two hurries) lead a unit that is tied for 26th in the country in sacks (with 15).

The defensive backfield is led by corners Jourdan Lewis, who has two interceptions and eight pass breakups, and Jeremy Clark, who has three interceptions.

Against the run, lineman Chris Wormley has a team-high seven tackles for a loss, while Henry and Mario Ojemudia have six apiece, and Ryan Glasgow has added five.

Linebackers Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan lead the team in total tackles, with 38 and 36, respectively.

The unit has not allowed a point in 18 of the last 19 quarters it has played, and this run has more to do with Michigan simply stopping opponents from moving the ball than relying on turnovers, inherently fluky events.

The Wolverines have only forced eight turnovers and have still been tremendous on defense, lending support to the idea their success on this side of the ball is sustainable.

A Less Impressive Offense

Harbaugh will need his defense to keep up its stellar play because his offense hardly stands out

Michigan comes in at 83rd in our adjusted yards per pass rating and 63rd on the ground and ranks 46th in S&P+.

The results have been mixed for quarterback Jake Rudock, as the Iowa transfer has completed 106-of-171 passes for 1,135 yards, 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.

His 62.0% completion percentage ranks third in the Big Ten, but he is eighth in the conference in yards per pass (6.6) and ninth in passer rating.

The Wolverines passing game has been slightly above average in terms of getting the yards it needs, as it ranks 45th in success rate. In terms of big plays through the air though, Rudock and company have struggled, ranking 80th in passing isolated points per play.

Michigan’s rushing attack has been better in both areas, ranking 33rd in success rate and 37th in isolated points per play.

De’Veon Smith leads the way with 390 yards on 77 carries (5.1 yards per carry) and is supported by Drake Johnson (128 yards on 26 carries, 4.9 yards per carry) and the explosive Ty Isaac (200 yards on 28 carries, 7.1 yards per carry).

Derrick Green has added 147 yards on 42 carries (3.5 yards per carry), and while he has not shown it yet this season, he can also be a key player in the backfield. In 2014, he averaged 5.7 yards per carry, rushing for 471 yards on 82 attempts.

The Wolverines will face their biggest conference test so far when they host Michigan State this Saturday. The Spartans come into the game ranked seventh in the AP Poll but 68th in our nERD ratings, and are 8.5-point underdogs.

If Michigan can avoid the upset this week, great things could be in store. The Wolverines will not play a ranked opponent again until the last week of the regular season, when they face off against Ohio State.

It did not seem likely at the start of the year, but a berth in the Big Ten championship game could be on the line in the rivalry game.