Ohio State returns to action against who some have called the second-most dangerous opponent on the schedule behind Michigan State. Right now, I disagree with that assessment, but I suppose we'll see after Gunner Kiel comes to town.
While the media and fans have really built the Bearcats up as an elite opponent, their numbers are much more average. Ranked 65th in Offensive S&P+, 58th in Defensive S&P+, and 57th in F/+ overall, these numbers are nothing to really inspire that much Buckeye fear.
However, while the Bearcats' overall offensive numbers aren't all that remarkable (and their defensive numbers are all mediocre), it's their offense's passing efficiency that gives Cincinnati some upset potential.
When Ohio State has the ball
The Buckeye offense has weathered the Braxton/Hyde/O-Line storm well, considering they return only three starting players from a year ago.
The offense is 21st in the country on a per-play basis, but much lower (38th) when it comes to drive efficiency. This is because of the Buckeyes' startlingly low red zone touchdown percentage (68.75%). This comes just a year after the Buckeyes were first in the country by a mile (84.13%). It's really a combination of the lack of a real power run threat and J.T.'s bad habit of turning the ball over when he gets near paydirt (40% of his interceptions have been in the red zone).
Speaking of the power run, who would have thought that the passing offense would be more efficient (18th) than the rushing offense (62nd), even after just three games? Last season the Buckeye offense could be counted on to have high rushing and drive efficiency, average explosiveness, and to pass less efficiently than they ran. The story is a little different this year: a much better explosiveness rank (though it should be noted that most of these figures aren't opponent-adjusted), a much more efficient passing game (eighth in the country in passing yards per attempt!), and over twice as many 20+ yard pass plays than rushing plays (11 to 5).
Cincinnati, like I mentioned earlier, is unremarkable on defense. They are not great at producing negative plays (96th in tackles for loss with 16) and are fairly suscpetible to explosive plays. The Bearcats are fairly decent in red zone defense and preventing long passing plays, however.
The Buckeyes will probably try to stay balanced on offense, depending on what look the Bearcats present. However, if they load the box like Virginia Tech demonstrated, you might expect the Buckeyes to try and loosen them up with quick perimeter passes, then establish a run game inside, then hit the play action later in the game. Based on the Bearcats' likely defensive strategy and statistical weaknesses, that could be effective. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see a drive every now and then that stalls out as Herman adjusts to what Cincinnati gives him defensively.
In terms of exploiting any matchups, Michael Thomas is increasingly looking difficult for opposing defenses to scheme against and should have a big play or two. And the staff has certainly tried to make Corey Smith one of those big-play guys often enough that he and J.T. are bound to connect sooner or later. I'm interested to see how Ezekiel Elliot and Curtis Samuel perform here, as I don't think we've seen their best yet.
|When OSU has the ball||Defense||Offense|
When Cincinnati has the ball
The other side of the ball is (relatively) A-OK: the Buckeyes will score points. It's the Bearcat offense that has people worried. Somehow Cincinnati ended up with former five-star, number one pro-style quarterback Gunner Kiel, who after various commitments and decommitments, is starting for the Bearcats. And he's pretty good, too. Through two games Kiel is averaging 345 yards passing and only two interceptions.
But the Cincinnati offense has been kind of weird so far. They're +2 in turnover margin (compared to the Buckeyes' neutral turnover margin), but that was largely due to luck with three fumble recoveries. They're mediocre on a per-play basis overall at 65th in the country, but great in drive efficiency (18th in FEI) and in the top ten for passing efficiency. The Bearcats are also really excellent in the red zone, converting 80% of their red zone appearances into touchdowns.
So what brings them down to a mediocre overall offense? The really, really bad rushing game. In particular, how bad they've been running the ball on standard downs. The 114th-ranked rushing offense seems to be partly due to predictable offensive playcalling: "The Bearcats can have a passing game that continues to conflagrate every secondary it sees AND a running game that is capable of capitalizing on the spaces that comes with that. But for that to happen Eddie Gran needs to make a decision. Are the Bearcats going to be a spread first team? Or are they going to going to keep trying to muddle around with the spread while being a power running team on standard downs? You can't be both."
The Ohio State defense, mirroring the offense, has taken a step back in defending the run and improved its pass defense (though, to be fair, it's really difficult to separate the effects of the Navy game here). The Buckeyes are now the only team in the country to not allow a pass of more than twenty yards, but have allowed five 20+ yard rushing plays (79th in the country). The vaunted defensive line hasn't produced the sack numbers many expected (yet), but the Bearcats are a great test. They have the offense that you might be able to get some sacks against.
|When Cincinnati has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Field Position Advantage||47||16|
There's no denying that this will be a big test for the Buckeye defense. Every defensive unit has a particular challenge, from the defensive line (disrupt Kiel's rhythm and force turnovers), to the linebackers (aid in coverage while shutting down a previously-ineffective running game), and the secondary (win one-on-one battles against Bearcat receivers).
The Buckeyes should be up to the challenge, but I could absolutely see the score being close for most of the game. J.T. Barrett and company will likely have spurts of great success with some stalled drives mixed in. All in all, expect the Buckeyes by a touchdown.