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Minnesota is not as good as you've heard

Digging deep into the advanced stats paints a different picture than the narrative.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It's come to my attention that we have not yet reached the point in the season when Minnesota gets its reality check. Credit the Gophers, who have gone from dreadful to mediocre, for prolonging that point in the year, and credit the schedule makers who got them to 4-1.

But unfortunately for the Gophers, they're still, well, the Gophers. Not because they're bound to mediocrity just because of who they are, but because when we look deeper inside the statistics they're being praised for, there isn't always a whole lot of substance to back that praise up. The defense is good — possibly even elite — but the offense is bad, and it's even worse than people are making it out to be.

Minnesota is not bad at football, but the Gophers also aren't as good as you've heard. Here's an attempt to shut down some of the narratives.

Minnesota is not a very good run team

Last year, Rodger Sherman made the excellent point that running the ball a lot doesn't mean you're actually good at it.

That was basically Minnesota last year. The Gophers had the 15th most rushing attempts per game in 2013, but they were very inefficient when they tried to run, finishing 72nd nationally in that category. It should also be noted that just because you're really bad at passing and a little better at running, you aren't necessarily good at running.

Anyway, the story is similar this year. Minnesota has a really bad passing game — it ranks 107th nationally, so we don't need to convince you that it's bad — and it has running back David Cobb back, so the national narrative surrounding the Gophers is that they're a solid running team. That's still not true any way you look at it, but on the surface, Minnesota at least looks like it's doing a little bit better.

Att. per game Rk Rush S&P Rk
2013 15 72
2014 22 57

That's obviously not great, but it's a solid improvement year-to-year for a team that wants to be a power running team, right? However, there's a chance that Minnesota might not actually be any better at rushing this year, since the rush S&P ratings aren't yet adjusted for opponent. And the Gophers haven't exactly faced murderer's row.

Opponent Rush def. S&P Rk
Eastern Illinois N/A (FCS)
Middle Tennessee 96
TCU 17
San Jose State 115
Michigan 8

The performances were about what you would expect.

Opponent Yards/Attempt
Eastern Illinois 4.55
Middle Tennessee 5.68
TCU 2.54
San Jose State 6.55
Michigan 4.38

So that's ...

  1. An average game (based on the national median of 4.315 yards/attempt) against a bad team
  2. A good game against a bad team
  3. A bad game against a good team
  4. A good game against a bad team
  5. An average game against a good team

The only time you can really say Minnesota did a commendable job running the ball is against Michigan. Some of that might be because the passing game opened up in that game, but Northwestern's pass defense is better than Michigan's pass defense, so banking on another solid performance based just off the Michigan game seems far-fetched.

David Cobb is a decent runner. Minnesota has a decent run game. But a good one, or anything close to resembling Wisconsin's? It's pretty hard to argue that when you dig deeper into the stats.

Is the defense elite? Maybe

Minnesota's defense is clearly better than its offense, and the Gophers have climbed up the national S&P rankings this season. In fact, they're ranked the best in the Big Ten. There is no arguing whether this defense is good or not, but there's still some gray area surrounding the unit. Since we aren't yet seven weeks into the season, opponent adjusted ratings still take preseason projections into account, and there are even more nuances to examine.

But first, let's take a look at the raw stats:

Opponent Off. S&P Rk YPP against Minnesota
Eastern Illinois N/A 4.26
Middle Tennessee 63 5.49
TCU 12 5.85
San Jose State 84 3.91
Michigan 46 3.23

Not surprisingly, Minnesota had its worst game from a yards per play standpoint against the best offense it faced. Still, it was pretty good in that game when you look at the raw numbers, since 5.85 YPP is only slightly over what the median team averages, and TCU is far better than the median team.

However, TCU was up 24-0 at halftime of that game and pretty much laid down. At halftime, the Horned Frogs were averaging 6.17 yards per play, which is better than they did against a solid Oklahoma defense in their win this past week.

This isn't to say Minnesota has a bad defense — in fact, it's pretty good, and I'd expect a low-scoring game this week. But I need to see a little bit more against good teams before I can call it elite, and the numbers so far don't suggest NU will be facing a defensive juggernaut on Saturday. Rather, they'll be facing a solid defensive team that hasn't been able to put things together on offense.

Northwestern could very well lose this game, but if you're going to pick the Gophers, beware of how the narratives — and even some of the raw numbers — might mislead you.