I've decided that I should actually make an attempt at content instead of throwing takes and snowflakes. I have no idea how or if my super fancy Excel tables/images are going to go through as I begin to write this, so if it has to be edited later, my apologies. I hid a bunch of columns (basically all the raw data) to get a small image.
It was apparent to probably everyone that watched a Michigan Football game last year that our punt game was not great. I'm defining punt game as both punting and punt returns and not trying to separate the two. This brings fair catching (or allowing punts to bounce) into the equation and doesn't squarely put the decision to field or not field on the punter or the returner but just averages everything together. For a comparison, I also ran the same numbers for 2016. The main numbers I looked at:
Gross Punt Average Difference (GD) - Michigan gross average minus Opponent gross average, so a positive number is an M advantage and a negative number is opponent advantage.
Net Punt Average Difference (ND)- Michigan net average minus Opponent net average, so a positive number is an M advantage and a negative number is opponent advantage.
I'm aware that these are not fancystats by any means. I pulled all data from ESPN box scores.
General notes: Game by game info sometimes gives useful information, but the sample size is so low in most cases that a single bad punt or one big return heavily skews the numbers. For example, DPJ's 79 yard return against Air Force gives AF a 21.17 Net Average per punt, which is really bad and not really indicative of the 6 punts/231 yds/38.5 gross averages (not bad, but not catastrophic) - the one DPJ return reduces the net average by over 10 yards per punt.
Gross Punt Average Difference: -2.06 yards (39.91 UM - 41.97 Opp)
Net Punt Average Difference: -1.20 yards (37.31 UM - 38.52 Opp)
This actually turned out better than I thought it would. Michigan lost an average of 1.2 yards during every punt exchange. Major outliers were:
Florida (-19.7 GD / -13 ND) - Florida punter was bombing punts (54.7 gross average)
Air Force (-1.5 GD / 15.83 ND) - DPJ Return heavily skewed the net
Indiana (-3.5 GD / -11.07 ND) - Indiana return at end of game heavily skewed net
PSU (-10.7 GD / -15 ND) - Pretty much whupped in all phases, although PSU sample size was low at only 2 punts (insert sadface)
Gross Punt Average Difference: 2.72 yards (43.33 UM - 40.61 Opp)
Net Punt Average Difference: 4.54 yards (40.80 UM - 36.26 Opp)
UCF (13.2 GD / 20.67 ND) - M had a couple of partially blocked punts
Wisconsin ( 10.9 GD / 10.02 ND)
Illinois (-13.8 GD / -20.33 ND) - Low sample on M side
Iowa (-6.3 GD / -6 ND) - Damn you Ron Coluzzi.
Florida State (9.4 GD / 8.43 ND)
Note that the Colorado game was an absolute blowout in the punting game, but the way stats were put up on ESPN is a bit weird - it appears when a punt is blocked backwards that punt is not averaged in (even as zero gross yards) and the "return" starts where the ball is picked up (Perry was given a 15yd return + TD, all of the yards the ball travelled backwards...just disappear somehow).
Worth noting is the steep drop off in punt return yards after the first 4 games of the year, when teams stopped outkicking their coverage to Peppers, which he showed was a horrible idea in the first 4 games.
Games 1-4: 11 returns, 260 yards, 23.64 average
Games 5-13: 14 returns, 97 yards, 6.93 average
Also worth noting was the performance in close games. Against Wisconsin, M had a net advantage of 10 yards per punt, although the game is mainly remembered for Kenny Allen's missed FG's allowing Wisconsin to hang around. Against FSU Kenny Allen had a great day and it definitely felt like he kept us in the game during the offensive slog that was the first half. Against Iowa when both offenses struggled and both teams had 6 punts, M lost an average of 6 yards on every exchange - probably relevant in a 1 point game.
Finally, there were two games where Michigan did not punt at all (Maryland/Hawaii) so there are no comparisons for those games but the opponent punts are averaged in to the total.
Comparison 2017 to 2016
Gross Punt Average Difference: - 4.78 yards (-2.06 (2017) - 2.72 (2016))
Net Punt Average Difference: - 5.64 yards (-1.2 (2017) - 4.54 (2016))
I'm not saying this was as big of an issue as the offensive line/QB play/young WR's, but a 5.64 net loss per punt between these two years seems pretty significant - maybe even more so because the offense struggled and could've used a few extra net yards in each punt exchange. All of the main pieces were different in these two years - Peppers to DPJ and Kenny Allen to Will Hart/Brad Robbins. The much younger roster in 2017 also resulted in younger/less experienced players on special teams coverage. Based on the data however, the main difference is in gross yardage per punt which is mainly on the punter, although as I noted at the beginning, this will include failing to fair catch a punt that most of the time will roll away from the punter (going with basic physics).
The punt game in 2017 was a significant downgrade to 2016. With the new kickoff rule in 2018, it seems likely the punt game will be a bigger source of special teams yards with (again, likely) less kickoffs returned. Hopefully we see some improvement in this area.