Earlier we took a look at how the Buckeye offense should fare against the Crimson Tide defense and now it's time to turn to the other side of the ball.
Ohio State is fresh off of a shutout against Melvin Gordon and the explosive Wisconsin offense, but they will need a repeat performance to defeat the Crimson Tide. In the Big Ten Championship, the Buckeyes held Gordon to a 44% Opportunity Rate and 2.9 yards per carry, with ten of his 26 carries going for no gain or a loss. It's no exagerration to say that the Buckeyes will need to perform just as well against Alabama's two running backs, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry -- especially since Alabama is not one dimensional like the Badgers.
Ohio State's defense versus the Alabama offense
|Field Position Advantage
|Adj Line Yards
|Adj Sack Rate
Just as a reminder, the first four statistical categories (Overall F/+ through Defensive F/+) are overall measures, not limited to the OSU defense vs. Alabama offense matchup -- they are included just for reference. For definitions of these and other stats, see the previous post here.
It hinges on the run game
Most of the commentary will undoubtedly focus on how well the Buckeyes can stop Amari Cooper. That is deserved, since Cooper was a Heisman contender who ranks first in the advanced metric for receiver value, RYPR.
However, the biggest statistical disparity between the Ohio State defense and Alabama offense is actually in rushing efficiency: both the Ohio State run defense (37th in Rushing S&P+) and defensive line ranking against the run (59th in Adjusted Line Yards) match up extremely poorly against the Alabama rushing offense, which ranks 8th and 6th, respectively.
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry are the two feature backs for the Crimson Tide. Both average over five yards per carry and are closing in on 1,000 yards, but the two of them together are what power the eighth-ranked rushing offense. You may be saying, "Well, if Ohio State can shut down Melvin Gordon, then they can certainly handle any other running back in the country," and you might be right. But while neither running back measures up to Gordon individually in terms of explosiveness (Yeldon is 86th and Henry is 91st in Highlight Yards per Opportunity, while Gordon is fourth), together they form one of the most efficient rushing duos in college football. Highlight Yards per Opportunity captures explosive potential, while Opportunity Rate is a measure of efficiency (Carlos Hyde was the standard for Opportunity Rate last season, for example), and both backs rank in the top 20 for Opportunity Rate (Elliott is third, for comparison). The Buckeyes should prepare for a pounding, successful run game led by arguably college football's most complete offensive line (ranking sixth and fourth in run blocking and pass protection respectively). The Tide do their damage by combining the run game's efficiency and the pass game's explosiveness.
However, if there's one bright side looking at the Alabama run game, it's that Alabama has struggled to hold on to the ball. The Crimson Tide's twelve fumbles are tied for 99th in the country and contribute significantly to their -1 overall turnover margin and poor Field Position Advantage.
But that Amari Cooper guy is pretty good too
Amari Cooper is the top-ranked receiver in RYPR, is targeted on nearly 39% of Alabama's passes, and catches 70.5% of the throws that come his way. Lane Kiffin has turned Alabama into a balanced and deadly machine that, like Urban's spread-to-run offense, seeks to get the ball into the star player's hands as quickly as possible. In that pursuit, Cooper is features on numerous short passes, slants, and tunnel screens that give him space in the open field. Doran Grant without question has a tough assignment, but he has quietly had one of the best cover corner seasons we could have asked for, leading the Buckeyes to the tenth-ranked pass defense.
It is only because of the pass defense's improvement under Chris Ash that the statistical focus isn't on Amari Cooper. Sure, Cooper can light up almost any opposing defense for 200+ yards, but it will be the ground game that is the key for the Tide. The Alabama offense is explosive, but top-40 explosive (36th in IsoPPP), not top-10. Because Cooper is featured on so many short passes, his yards per catch average can go down even if he is grabbing 10+ balls per game.
All in all, the Ohio State defense will have its hands full with Cooper, Yeldon (assuming he plays through his hamstring and ankle injuries), and Derrick Henry. The key will be keeping the running back duo to a low Opportunity Rate (sub-50% would be perfect) and limiting Cooper's yards after catch. If Doran Grant and the defensive line are up to that challenge, then it will just fall on Cardale Jones and the offense to create enough explosive plays for the Buckeyes to snag the upset.