The last time Ohio State played in the Sugar Bowl, Soloman Thomas became the game's hero after intercepting a last-minute Ryan Mallett pass on a beautiful zone blitz. It was the Buckeyes' first victory over an SEC team in a bowl game -- until the win was vacated due to the Tatgate fallout. But in that game, the Buckeyes were balanced, if not prolific, passing for 221 and rushing for 225. The only turnover of the game for either team came when it really mattered.
The Buckeyes get another shot to take down an SEC team in the Sugar Bowl, only this time the opponent is top-ranked Alabama, and a win means that it's not the final game of the season for Ohio State.
Alabama is the top-ranked team in the country in a number of categories -- Playoff rankings, Overall F/+, Defensive S&P+, defensive line Adjusted Line Yards -- but they are not perfect. In fact, the margin between the Tide and the second-ranked overall team (Ohio State) is just 1.9% in the F/+, compared to 5.2% in 2012 or 7.1% in 2011.
Earlier we compared Buckeye and Tide skill players, but now we will take a look at how the Ohio State offense is projected to fare versus the stout Alabama defense.
Ohio State's offense versus the Alabama defense
|Field Position Advantage||3||87|
|When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Adj Line Yards||2||1|
|Adj Sack Rate||69||94|
There is a lot to digest in the table above, so here's a quick primer in all of the stat definitions:
Success Rate: "A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down."
IsoPPP: "An explosiveness measure derived from determining the equivalent point value of every yard line...and, therefore, every play of a given game."
"Success Rate and PPP combine to form S&P, an OPS-like measure for football. Then each team's S&P output for a given category...is compared to the expected output based upon their opponents and their opponents' opponents. This is a schedule-based adjustment designed to reward tougher schedules and punish weaker ones."
FEI: "A scoring rate analysis of the remaining possessions then determines the baseline possession efficiency expectations against which each team is measured."
Offensive/defensive line stat definitions are here.
Clash of the titans
As you can tell from the chart above, statistical advantages are few and far between for either team. Overall, the Ohio State offense is ranked fourth in Offensive F/+ and the Alabama defense is 2nd. The Crimson Tide and Buckeyes have the top-ranked rushing defense and offense respectively, and the corresponding top- and second-ranked lines in Adjusted Line Yards. Both teams are top-26 in every category except for Adjusted Sack Rate.
These statistics and rankings are opponent-adjusted, meaning that they should give us a rough idea of how the two teams would fare against common opponents or each other. With similar rankings in so many categories, it's much more difficult to determine decisive advantages for either team, and the number of potential outcomes is larger. A good or bad performance by an individual player or a fluke turnover could mean the difference in the entire game. However, as we'll see in the defensive preview, the Buckeyes will need the offense to be nearly as efficient as it was against Wisconsin.
One of the most important even matchups is in rushing efficiency. The Buckeyes and Crimson Tide are top overall in rushing offense and defense respectively, and second and first again in offensive line Adjusted Line Yards. If Ezekiel Elliott can maintain his surging efficiency levels -- powering the third-ranked Success Rate -- then the Buckeyes certainly have a chance. That was a big issue in last year's Big Ten Championship, as the Buckeyes fell behind in terms of Opportunity Rate, and faced more third-and-longs than they would have liked.
No pressure, Cardale
But actually, a lot relies on how well Cardale performs. The Crimson Tide's worst defensive statistical ranking is in passing efficiency, where they are just outside the top-25 after allowing Auburn's Nick Marshall to throw for 456 yards in the Iron Bowl. Alabama shuts down pro-style offenses, but has struggled somewhat with mobile quarterbacks and Air Raid passing offenses. In the Iron Bowl, for instance, Auburn had two recievers break the 100 yard mark, with Sammie Coates totaling five catches for 206 yards and Duke Williams snagging seven catches for 121 yards. Those are yards per reception averages of 41 and 17 yards, respectively, which are insane totals against the second-ranked overall defense.
Cardale Jones will need a similar performance to lead an upset of the Crimson Tide. True, Jones looked the part against Wisconsin, throwing clear over Badgers defensive backs for similarly-insane numbers to Devin Smith, but there is also a stark difference between the quality of the Alabama and Wisconsin cornerbacks. Often, Jones relied on the receivers to do much of the work -- putting the ball where Devin Smith or Michael Thomas (or a Badgers defender) could make a play. However, Jones did show commendable pocket presence, evaded pressure while he looked downfield, and rifled the ball on each throw. Though the Buckeyes are ranked first overall in passing efficiency, there's really not enough data here to accurately say whether Ohio State can count on this advantage against Alabama.
Tresselball lives here
Nick Saban, Jim Tressel, and Urban Meyer all preach the importance of special teams and field position, but in the Sugar Bowl, only the Buckeyes can really lay claim to an elite special teams unit. Ohio State is second in average starting field positon and first in average opponent starting field position, while Alabama is 85th and 27th in those categories. Ohio State has taken advantage of short fields -- averaging just 64 yards to the end zone on typically offensive possessions -- to fuel fast starts this season. In contrast, Alabama has averaged 71 yards to go, or approximately seven more yards to drive on a typical offensive possession.
In addition to working on a shorter field, Alabama's poor Field Position Advantage is affected by a worse-than-expected turnover margin. Alabama is -1 on the year in turnover margin, due in part to 12 fumbles. If the Buckeyes win the turnover margin (they are +9 overall this year), then that significantly shifts the playing field in their favor.
As you can see, Ohio State's primary advantages are in field position, turnover margin, and passing efficiency (though it's tough to tell about Cardale's passing effiency based on a single game), with most other statistical comparisons going as a draw. The offensive line can really be the difference in how well Ohio State performs. While we haven't seen Cardale play enough to count on his performance necessarily, the offensive line has been consistently great. If they can open holes consistently for Ezekiel Elliott, then that can balance Ohio State's likely plan of shooting for high-reward explosive passing plays.