Michigan is winless against ranked teams on the road in three seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh is relying on former Ole Miss Rebel Shea Patterson, his third transfer quarterback while at Ann Arbor, to find success.
Patterson is the biggest reason why Michigan, which opened as two-point underdogs on the NCAAF odds board, is favored at some sportsbooks, while others still have Notre Dame as small chalk. On the surface, Patterson's stats look appealing. But,13 of his 17 touchdowns came against South Alabama, Tennessee-Martin, and Vanderbilt. He had a field day against Auburn … after falling behind 35-3 at halftime when Auburn took the foot off the pedal. Conversely, he failed to achieve 50% completion and threw zero touchdowns to five interceptions against LSU and Alabama, the only defenses he faced that ranked in the top 80 in opposing quarterback rating. The Irish ranked 41st in the category and return their entire secondary minus one backup.
Patterson floundered despite having an offensive line that ranked higher than Michigan's in opposing sack percentage — and his tendency to run backwards in the face of pressure couldn’t have helped that statistic. He also got to play in a scheme which suited him and enjoyed a stacked receiver crew with arguably the nation’s best receiver, A.J. Brown.
Injuries and incompetence at quarterback carry only some blame for Michigan’s poor offense last season. Michigan’s young receiving crew was slow to develop. Right through the bowl game, the receivers were inconsistent in terms of drops and route running and they weren’t helpful enough in 50-50 balls. The most polished one was Tarik Black. He had led Michigan receivers through three games until he got injured and he will also miss the opener due to injury.
UM’s o-line ranked 115th in sack percentage. Inexperience will characterize both tackle positions and Cesar Ruiz will make his first start at center. Even if new offensive-line coach Ed Warriner works a speedy miracle, the film of Patterson throwing in a clean pocket worries me the most. He failed to execute simple inside slants and repeatedly threw into areas where there was no open window even though he had all day to deliberate. He threw nine interceptions. Three of them came on throws to the middle of the field and seven on throws between zero and 19 yards. Patterson’s inability to read coverage — after all, he only had seven starts last year — is worrisome because the short passing game is the way to beat Notre Dame’s pass defense. The Irish ranked 15th in opposing yards per pass attempt, but 48th in opposing completion percentage.
Patterson will have to finally do well against a strong defense despite a qualitative downgrade (compared to his Ole Miss teammates) in pass protection and wide receivers. In a largely new system, he’ll need to improve his football IQ and go through progressions and he’ll need to develop chemistry with new receivers. For comparison’s sake, 2015 quarterback transfer Jake Rudock needed until November to find his groove despite already being a solid fit for Harbaugh’s pro-style offense.
Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush is ahead of Patterson. Wimbush is in his second year as starter, meaning that offensive coordinator Chip Long can dig deeper into his playbook. Against defenses that ranked in the top 30 in efficiency, Notre Dame went 2-1 before November (when Notre Dame collapses every year) — the one loss coming against eventual national runner-up Georgia in a nail-biter — largely because Wimbush could, at worst, avoid turnovers, at best, dominate the likes of Michigan State. The key difference between him and Patterson is, besides proven success against top defenses, the ability to avoid turnovers. Patterson threw nine interceptions in seven games while Wimbush threw six in 13.
Wimbush's losses at wide receiver include an often disinterested Equanimeous St. Brown and a disciplinary basket case in Kevin Stepherson. Based on catch rate, returning receivers Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin actually had a higher catch radius and still showed deep-play potential. A superstar at running back departs. But historically, running back exercises a minimal influence on s&p and the Irish o-line returns 65 starts. Plus, Wimbush is a threat with his legs, accruing 803 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. He can succeed against a Michigan defense that allowed the respective quarterback of Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State each to run for over 60 yards. Michigan’s defense was somewhat of a paper tiger compared to Notre Dame’s. It faced three teams that ranked in the top 40 in offensive efficiency — Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State — and suffered double-digit losses against them. Conversely, Notre Dame faced six top-40 offenses and held three of them to 20 points or fewer. It led Wake 31-10 at half, before taking its foot off the pedal, then suffered the usual Notre Dame November collapse against Stanford and Miami.
Upon first glance, the "under" seemed like the obvious NCAAF pick considering the question marks confronting each offense and the returning solidity on both defenses. But there is no value in the total. A Patterson fumble or interception or a Wimbush deep pass to Boykin against Michigan’s man coverage-inept safeties could quickly endanger it. Plus, both teams possess reliable pass catchers with significant height advantages that should make them scary red zone targets. Instead, I see the most value in the spread. if John O’Korn was starting for Michigan, Notre Dame would surely be favored, but Patterson won’t be the desired upgrade. In terms of chemistry with receivers, comfort in the system, and protection, Wimbush carries the definitive advantage over his counterpart.