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Predicting Ohio State's 2014: Special teams and field position

This is the third part in our advanced statistical preview of the 2014 season. See our preview of the offense and the defense as well.

Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

After Braxton's season-ending injury it seemed like the fates of the 2014 team rested all on position -- the quarterback. According to most, the once (favored) playoff-bound Buckeyes will now have to wait until 2015 to have a real shot at a championship. Even Buckeye optimists acknowledge that the Buckeyes will be just "fine", which roughly equates to a 10-2 season.

No one knows how J.T. Barrett will actually fare on August 30, but Buckeye faithful can take solace in the fact that football teams are made up of more than just the quarterback. And lucky enough for Ohio State, those other players are actually pretty good!

So we'll continue on with our advanced statistical preview of the 2014 season. We might need to go revisit our "offensive juggernaut" predictions, but the point is that there is still a lot to like about this 2014 Buckeye team.

The most important play in football

From the beginning of Urban's tenure at Ohio State, we realized his overall philosophy wasn't drastically different from Tressel's. From his rejection of "basketball on grass" and his embrace of "power football in spread sets" to his love of field position, most Buckeye fans thought it was a fairly easy transition.

For instance, Bill Livingston wrote this in August 2012: "In the team meeting room of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, behind a screen that had been pulled down for use in film study, is a board on which is written Meyer's victory formula: '1. Play great defense. 2. No turnovers. 3. Score in the red zone. 4. Win the kicking game.' 'How do you play great defense? No turnovers,' said Meyer, meaning control field position."

Meyer has largely accomplished the latter three points of his victory formula. The advanced statistics from Football Outsiders illustrate just how dominant the 2013 Buckeyes were in terms of field position. Brian Fremeau's Field Position Advantage (FPA) metric is used to rate which team controlled field position in a game. Equal field position between the two teams in a game results in an FPA of .500.

He calculates FPA by first placing a point value on each yard line, using a regression of national scoring rates to see the expected points by an average offense against an average defense. This number (which is called Field Position Value or FPV) increases as the offense nears an opponent's endzone. By summing all of the FPVs of all offensive series and adding in a full touchdown value for each non-offensive score earned by the team, Fremeau can calculate each team's share of the total field position at stake in a game.

The resulting score, FPA, is highly predictive. An FPA over .500 (equal field position) win 67% of the time, while teams that play with an FPA of over .600 win 90% of the time. In short, Tressel and Meyer's instance on the importance of field position is extremely justified.

Luckily, the Buckeyes have continued to excel at Field Position Advantage under Meyer, with a .550 FPA in 2013. While that's not up to the lofty .600 FPA that averages a 90% winning rate, it was good enough for eighth in the country overall. With Cameron Johnston at punter and Meyer overseeing special teams, you can expect a similar ranking in 2014.

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"

The above quote was also from Meyer's early days in Columbus. While he respects how special teams contribute, he'd much prefer to get seven points instead of three in the red zone.

The 2013 Buckeyes' overall special teams score -- an aggregate measure that is greater than just field position -- was excellent as well. Ohio State's Special Teams F/+ was 3.9% in 2013, good for fifth in the country. Just as with field position, Meyer's insistence on blocking punts, having dynamic returnmen like Dontre Wilson, covering kickoffs with speed guys like Devin Smith, and winning the field position battle again set Ohio State up well for 2014.

But don't turn the ball over

However, it's not all rosy for the Buckeyes. The turnover margin -- particularly Football Outsiders' Adjusted Turnover Margin -- was extremely low in 2013.

The raw stats wouldn't say the same story. The basic turnover margin (i.e. turnovers forced minus turnovers lost) was positive at +5 for the year. The Expected Turnover Margin -- what we might have expected given the opportunities for turnovers forced and neutral luck -- was +8.6. That left the Adjusted Turnover Margin, which compares a team's actual turnover margin with what we'd expect from the Expected Turnover Margin, at -3.6. That -3.6 was 90th in the country for 2013.

That means that the Buckeyes had somewhat bad luck. There's a difference between the way the ball randomly rolls during a fumble or how it ricochets during a pass break up and a team putting itself in positions to a) not turn the ball over in the first place and b) force turnovers. However, it looks like the Buckeyes had worse luck than might have been expected given the number of opportunities they had for creating and recovering their own turnovers.

Bill Connelly explains this more in his Five Factors posts on turnovers: "Over time, you're going to recover about 50 percent of all fumbles, but in a given year, you might recover 70 percent, or you might recover 30. The same goes with passes defensed; on average, you can expect to intercept about 22 percent of the passes you defense. (Passes defensed = interceptions + break-ups.) This is a bit mushier a concept, as we'll discuss below, but over time a particularly butter-fingered year will be balanced by a sticky one."

What's reassuring for the 2014 squad is that "there is almost no correlation regarding the number of fumbles a team forces from one year to another." So, there's potential for the Buckeyes' turnover woes to rebound in 2014. It all comes to putting the team in position to force turnovers (i.e. getting sacks), avoiding them on offense with proper ball carrying technique and smart quarterback play -- and then some luck, too.

So, feel optimistic about the defensive line and secondary forcing turnovers and feel hopeful about an upturn in Buckeye luck. However, we just don't know enough about Barrett's ball security -- especially with four new offensive linemen -- to say definitively how the team will fare overall with turnovers.

Regardless, there are a multitude of reasons to feel optimistic about this 2014 Buckeye football team, even without Braxton at the helm.