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Ohio State vs. Alabama: Comparing skill players' advanced stats

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Bill Connelly analyzed college receivers and running backs according to various advanced stats metrics -- how do the Buckeyes' skill players fare?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State lost 65.3% of its total offense, and 59.9% of total rushing yards, with the graduation of Carlos Hyde and the loss of Braxton Miller this season.

Both redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett and true sophomore Ezekiel Elliott were more than up to the challenge, but exactly how did the pair fare in terms of advanced stats? Further, how did the new receiver rotation -- which included significant contributions from Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, and Corey Smith -- compare to last season's Corey Brown/Devin Smith combo?

Bill Connelly recently analyzed the performances of the top running backsreceivers, and rushing quarterbacks over at Football Outsiders, including Elliott, Barrett, Marshall, Smith, Thomas, and Wilson ... and some Alabama skill players, too.

Advanced rushing stats

Name Height Weight Rushes Yards Hlt Yards Hlt Opps Hlt Yards/Opp Opp. Rate Team Opp. Rate
Elliott 6'0" 225 149 863 293.7 74 4.0 49.7% 52.8%
Barrett 6'1" 225 100 720 322.2 59 5.5 59% 52.8%
Henry 6'3" 241 111 554 159 47 3.4 42.3% 47.4%
Yeldon 6'2" 221 135 686 224.6 64 3.5 47.4% 47.4%

* These statistics are from November 14th.

Definitions:

  • Opportunity Rate: "It is the percentage of carries (when 5 yards are available) that gain at least 5 yards, i.e., the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak. I'm using Opp. Rate for a couple of different purposes right now. In all, it gives you a pretty good idea for how the line is blocking, but it also gives you an idea for how well a running back is hitting his holes. A future system of running back ratings might in some way compare a running back's Opp. Rate to his teammates', or something to that degree."
  • Highlight Yards: "A few months ago, FO introduced the idea of "Second Level Yards" and "Open Field Yards" for NFL running backs. These were the remaining yards that were left after each break in the baselines for Adjusted Line Yards. I've done the same thing here for college backs, with two differences. First, we're adding together both "Second Level" Yards (5 to 10 past the line) and "Open Field" Yards (11-plus past the line). Second, we're counting only half the Second Level Yards, just as the line gets half credit for these yards. We'll call this stat "Highlight Yards," because these longer runs are the ones that show up on the highlight shows. A 3-yard run gets zero Highlight Yards. A 70-yard run gets 63 Highlight Yards. The more Highlight Yards, the more explosive the runner was, and the less his overall yardage and POE totals were due to the offensive line blocking for him."
  • Highlight Yards per Opportunity: "Defined by dividing the runner's Highlight Yards by the number of highlight opportunities, i.e. carries that go at least 5 yards (when 5 yards are available)."

From the table above, the only categories that an Alabama running back leads in are height and weight -- i.e., Derrick Henry is a big dude. While Barrett won't play in the Sugar Bowl, and Cardale Jones is a different style of runner (worse vision, better strength, probably less agile), but he's still an efficient 6.32 yards per rush. What sticks out most comparing all four rushers is that the Buckeyes have significantly higher highlight yards per opportunity and more highlight opportunities overall. Both the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide offensive lines are highly ranked in terms of Adjusted Line Yards (measuring their run blocking) and Opportunity Rate (Ohio State is 2nd and Alabama is 6th in Adjusted Line Yards), but the Buckeyes have gotten more explosive runs out of their backs this season.

Advanced receiving stats


Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Yds/Target Target Rate RYPR WR Rank
Amari Cooper 146 103 1573 70.5% 10.8 38.7% 300.1 1
Smith 40 26 662 65% 16.6 12.8% 144.7 25
Thomas 56 40 639 71.4% 11.4 17.9% 139.7 29
Marshall 37 26 356 70.3% 9.6 11.8% 77.8 4 (RBs)
Wilson 34 21 300 61.8% 8.8 10.9% 65.5 8 (RBs)
Elliott 28 26 208 92.9% 7.4 8.9% 45.5 18 (RBs)

Definitions:

  • RYPR: "RYPR = (receiving yards / total team plays) * Passing S&P+. Again, it's not bad. It gives a single player too much credit for his team's Passing S&P+ overall, but the initial goal here isn't to produce the perfect receiver measure -- it's simply to answer the four questions listed above. As soon as I give myself the time, we'll take this further."

For the purpose of Connelly's receiving stats, Wilson and Marshall are both classified as running backs as opposed to wide receivers (and they're third- and fourth-leading receivers on the team anyway). In case you didn't believe it before, Alabama's Amari Cooper is an out-of-this-world receiver. Cooper has over a third of the team's targets on the season, and catches over 70% of the passes that come his way. For comparison, Michael Thomas has Ohio State's highest target rate at under 1/5 of all passes.

As the top-ranked receiver in the country in terms of the advanced stats, Cooper is probably the biggest offensive threat that Lane Kiffin's Alabama offense has. While he's a big-play threat, Cooper is featured on a variety of quick passes that he takes for big plays, rather than a run-past-you deep threat like Devin Smith (for the most part; Cooper has the athletic ability to play most any receiving role). The advanced stats reflect this: Devin Smith averages almost six yards per target more than Cooper, and the most of the receivers featured. Interestingly, Connelly also writes that, "The most successful receiver with 50 or fewer targets: Ohio State's Devin Smith." Smith is 25th in his receiver rankings, but had received only 40 targets as of December 5th (right before the Big Ten Championship). Cooper owns the top spot in the other rankings, except in catch rate, where the reliable Michael Thomas has the slight edge over Cooper.

Just looking at receivers and running backs, Ohio State compares favorably to Alabama. Ezekiel Elliott has a better Opportunity Rate and higher average Highlight Yards per Target than either Derrick Henry or T.J. Yeldon. Amari Cooper is clearly the top receiver in the country, but that does make Ohio State's defensive strategy a little more clear: shut down Cooper, and shut down the Alabama offense (for the most part). Take the Arkansas game, where Cooper was held to just two catches for 22 yards -- the Tide were held to their lowest point total of the season (14).