Have you heard about Jim Harbaugh against top-10 teams?
Despite a good matchup for Michigan on paper, bettors early to the window are fading Harbaugh and the No. 19 Wolverines (5-2 SU, 3-4 ATS) as home favorites Saturday against No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1 SU, 4-2 ATS). According to Sports Insights as of Tuesday’s writing, 80% of tickets and 82% of dollars wagered are on the Irish, who opened as 4-point underdogs at Circa Sports on Sunday, with early action pushing the number to as low as 1 on some oddsboards.
Under Harbaugh, Michigan dropped to 1-10 straight up against top-10 teams following Week 8’s 28-21 loss to then-No. 7 Penn State as a 7.5-point underdog. The Wolverines were able to cover the spread in the “white-out” game and outgained Penn State 417-283, but it marked just the third time in 11 top-10 games Harbaugh was able to cover the number at Michigan.
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Saturday’s game (7:30 p.m. ET, 6:30 p.m. CT, ABC) has a total of 49.5, down from the initial offer of 53.5 at Circa. When Notre Dame and Michigan played last season in Week 1, the Irish won and covered as 2.5-point home underdogs, 24-17, a score that went well UNDER the 47.5 total. In that game, Notre Dame’s Front 7, featuring stars Jerry Tillery, Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, helped dominated the line of scrimmage, holding Michigan to just 1.8 yards per carry with seven tackles for loss and six QB hurries.
Thus far in 2019, Notre Dame’s defensive line has taken a step back, ranking 123rd nationally in opportunity rate (the percentage of carries in which the opposing offensive line produces at least five yards of rushing) and 104th in power success rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown). Michigan has the clear advantage in the trenches, per Football Outsiders, and you can expect plenty of carries for Wolverines backs after 41 totes against Penn State.
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The Irish’s traditional yards per carry allowed, 4.0, is skewed due to the defense ranking 14th in sack rate (sacks count as rushes in college football stats). Notre Dame’s poor advanced line metrics are one of the reasons its defense as a whole ranks 35th nationally, according to advanced data set SP+ — good, but not elite like Michigan’s No. 4 ranked SP+ defense.
Overall, per SP+, Michigan is 1.5 points better than Notre Dame on a neutral field. Factoring 2.5 points for homefield makes the Wolverines a 4-point favorite in SP+s’ eyes. A final score projection from SP+ gives Michigan a 28-24 win.
Remember, SP+ is a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency. Michigan’s defense ranks one spot ahead of Georgia’s unit, which held the Irish offense to a 39% success rate in a narrow 23-17 non-cover win in Week 4. Notre Dame was praised for its effort against the Bulldogs, but one of the Irish’s two touchdowns came after a Georgia fumble inside its own 10-yard line, and the other late in the fourth quarter with the Bulldogs playing prevent defense. The close loss to Georgia is even less impressive considering the Bulldogs’ loss to South Carolina.
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While Harbaugh gets knocked for being bad against good teams, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has won just four true road games in 15 attempts against ranked opponents, going 8-7 ATS overall. He’s 10-9 ATS coming off a bye, but the rest advantage for the Irish is baked into the point spread.
Unlike its dink-and-dunk passes against USC and Georgia, the Irish need to make explosive plays if they are to beat Michigan’s defense. Three of Penn State’s four touchdowns last week came on passes of 17 yards or more, and Michigan LB Cameron McGrone acknowledged after the game that big plays were a back-breaker for the Wolverines defense. Notre Dame will be the best passing offense Michigan has faced this season, and its speed (Braden Lenzy, Michael Young, Lawrence Keys III) could be the difference-maker.
Ian Book may inspire more confidence than Shea Patterson, but as The Athletic points out in their film study of the Penn State game, Patterson did a nice job of getting rid of the football decisively and sliding up in the pocket to avoid pressure. It could be argued coaching decisions (punting in Penn State territory, attempting a 58-yard field goal) led to Michigan’s loss to the Nittany Lions, and I was impressed with Patterson, who went 7-of-9 for 102 yards on third down, given Penn State’s havoc defense and crowd noise. If he escapes pressure and doesn’t turn the ball over against Notre Dame, then I like Michigan’s chances.
While Notre Dame remains in the hunt for a College Football Playoff bid, Michigan’s loss to Penn State nearly seals its fate. It’s fair to question Michigan’s motivation, but Harbaugh and his players are saying the right things, going as far to say the offensive has finally turned the corner despite six dropped passes and eight penalties in last week’s loss. Notre Dame-Michigan is a rivalry after all, and the Wolverines have an 11-game home win streak to defend.
The pick: Michigan -1