What are Michigan's weaknesses as College Football Playoff race heats up?

Wolverines ride 9-game winning streak

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Life has been great for Michigan football fans over the last two months.

The Wolverines have won nine games in a row to rise to No. 4 in the country and first place in the Big Ten. Michigan is the only team in the conference that controls its own destiny for the College Football Playoff.

But there's still work to be done. After a home game against Indiana, Michigan will travel to Ohio State for the toughest game of the season. Jim Harbaugh's team appears to be clicking on all cylinders, but it still has a few flaws.

Here are three issues that could potentially burn Michigan in a close game.

Big plays on offense

Michigan's best win of the season came on the road against Michigan State, when the team debunked the narratives that it couldn't win on the road or beat its rivals.

The Wolverines completely dominated the game, racking up 395 yards compared to 94 for the Spartans. But with the clock winding down in the third quarter, the game was tied 7-7.

How did Michigan pull through? Shea Patterson hit Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 79-yard touchdown. The offense couldn't finish a drive to finish off MSU, so it took one big play to open the floodgates.

Donovan Peoples-Jones catches a pass and avoids the tackle of Tre Person before scoring against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

If Michigan finds itself in a similar situation, either in Columbus or in the postseason, can it count on another big play?

Michigan ranks 97th in the country in plays of at least 10 yards and 52nd in plays of at least 20 yards. The Wolverines are a solid 30th in plays of at least 30 yards, but many of the other elite teams, such as Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma, are ranked much higher.

Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Zach Gentry have big-play potential, and even Karan Higdon can break the occasional long run. Those home run threats need to become reality to take pressure off Patterson and the offense.

Field goal kicking

For a team like Michigan, which emphasizes defense and field position, it's important to be able to count on the field goal unit. But that's absolutely not the case for Harbaugh right now.

Michigan recruited Quinn Nordin because he has a huge leg and can connect from 50 yards and beyond. But the field goal unit has only executed 11 of 16 attempts so far in 2018.

Michigan kicker Quinn Nordin (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Nordin has missed a couple of kicks badly, most notably the one that went very wide left against Michigan State. But this isn't just on his shoulders.

Michigan has had kicks blocked because of missed assignments, and Will Hart had a costly dropped snap against Notre Dame.

It would be an easier issue to fix if there was just one problem, but when the blocking, holding and kicking are all shaky, it doesn't inspire much confidence in the unit as a whole.

Ohio State is going to give Michigan a battle, especially in the Horseshoe, so the Wolverines can't afford to miss out on scoring opportunities.

Red zone defense

It's difficult to find a weakness in the Michigan defense, but there is one area in which it has struggled.

The Wolverines rank 126th out of 130 teams in the country in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score on 15 of 16 trips -- 93.75 percent. Michigan is also 118th in touchdown percentage, allowing six points on 75 percent of opposing red zone attempts.

Even though these percentages are downright alarming, the problem isn't as bad as they suggest.

First of all, Michigan is tied with UAB for the fewest red zone attempts allowed in the country. Those are the only two teams in the country that have allowed fewer than 20 attempts.

Lavert Hill, Josh Metellus and Chase Winovich celebrate during Michigan's win over Nebraska. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Many of the red zone scores have also come in blowouts against Michigan's reserve players. Nine of the 15 scores came with Michigan up at least 20 points, and four came with Michigan up more than 40 points.

Michigan State's red zone touchdown came on a 7-yard drive because Michigan's offense fumbled inside the 10. The Spartans also needed a trick play.

The reason for concern stems from Michigan's red zone defense on the road.

Michigan has faced six red zone opportunities on the road this season. All six have turned into scores, including five touchdowns. Five of those scores came with Michigan tied or losing, so they certainly weren't flukes. Those were the fault of the starting defense.

The sixth score was the Michigan State score referenced above, which came with Michigan up by a touchdown.

No, Michigan isn't the terrible red zone defense the numbers suggest, but there is certainly reason for concern, especially on the road. For the No. 1 defense in the country, that's as close as it gets to a weakness.

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