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Ohio State vs. Illinois preview: For all the Illibucks

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It's the 101st meeting between Illinois and Ohio State, and both teams are looking to prove doubters wrong.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing about college football in 2015 is easy to predict. At the beginning of the year, Auburn was supposed to win the SEC (but not the SEC West, because reasons), Oregon was expected to reload, Clemson was supposed to Clemson their way to two or three losses and Iowa was supposed to finally have a season that would allow the powers that be to spend money to give Kirk Ferentz the boot. At home in Columbus, Ohio State was supposed to run through its schedule with little or no effort, and put itself in line to repeat as College Football Playoff national champions.

How are those predictions going so far? Auburn is looking at a pre-New Years bowl game, Oregon is technically behind Washington State in the Pac-12 North, Clemson is undefeated and ranked first in every poll and Iowa - IOWA - is undefeated deep into November, and just on the outside looking in at a chance to make the Playoff.

The Buckeyes are undefeated and have looked great in a few games (Virginia Tech, Penn State, Rutgers) and much less so in others (Northern Illinois, Indiana, Maryland). The two-headed quarterback battle was won by Cardale Jones, but the reins were given to J.T. Barrett a few weeks ago. And then Barrett had himself a Halloween and had to sit for a week. Meanwhile, the Buckeye defense has looked down right nasty a few times, but is more than prone to give up a big play at an inopportune time. The expectations were through the roof for this year's edition ("best team on paper ever" was said by more than a few people), and so far the product on the field has not matched those lofty heights.

And then there's Illinois, tomorrow's opponent. Head Coach Tim Beckman didn't stay in that position through August due to some really, really shady practices in Champaign. Despite his best efforts, Mike Thomas, the school's Athletic Director, was ousted, too. And the product on the field hasn't been great (again). At 5-4, Illinois has its work cut out to make it to a bowl game with Ohio State this week, followed by a trip to Minnesota and a home date with a good Northwestern team.

College football is in flux right now. Ohio State is a mixed bag trending up. Illinois is a run-of-the-mill Big Ten team with a dumpster fire of an athletic department. Nothing about this year has been easy to call in any way at all. Even this weekend's tilt, which should be an easy win for the Buckeyes, setting up a two game set for all the Big Ten Marbles. And yet...you can't know that for sure. The only thing that we know, most likely, is that there will be some mention on the broadcast of a decades-old wooden turtle that most fans and players don't even care about anymore.

Welcome to The 2015 Illibuck Battle of Uncertainty.

Data dump

Team Record CFP F/+ Rk Line
Ohio State 9-0 3 5 -16
Illinois 5-4 NR 58

Ohio State Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.37 21 1.26 74 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 46.0% 26 31.4% 7 40.3%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.5 5 24.8 1 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.17 40 4.09 31 4.66
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED -3.05 103 Turnover Luck (PPG):
+1.14
ACTUAL -1 79

Illinois Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.22 84 1.26 73 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 39.5% 97 35.4% 21 40.3%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 30.3 57 30.1 76 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.30 99 3.98 25 4.66
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED 1.91 48 Turnover Luck (PPG):
+1.72
ACTUAL 5 24

Ohio State's Biggest Advantages

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Buckeye Offense, already in progress. With Barrett back in the fold, the expectation is for the offense to go back to its powerful Rutgers-level performance, with points coming in bunches, and offensive drives that amaze more than frustrate. Jones did admirably against a very stout Minnesota defense last week, and he should be commended for returning to his role as "Best Backup QB in the Country" so easily. It helps, of course, that Ezekiel Elliott gets to stand next to him before the snap and, occasionally, get the ball. Elliott is on an impressive streak of 14 games with 100+ yards to his credit, and that's enough to make any opposing defense tighten up against the run. In turn, the passing lanes open up, the field spreads a bit wider, and the Buckeyes move the ball down the field.

That's the theory, anyway. Against Minnesota, the lack of Barrett's legs as a threat made for some tough sledding for Elliott on the ground, and made using Braxton Miller as a wildcat option somewhat predictable. There are certainly weapons to spare for this offense, and Barrett seems to be the cog that makes them all work together. Illinois doesn't bring in a defense as apt as Minnesota's so, in theory, the Buckeye offense should return to form. But we all know how great theories have gone this year.

Fire the Silver Bullets. If there's a unit that's improved noticeably this year, it is the Buckeye defense. There were plenty of stupid mistakes in the first half of the year, including long plays given up against Virginia Tech, Indiana and Maryland that all resulted in, or directly led to scores. But the unit has tightened up in the last two games. Rutgers looked lost on the field offensively until finally breaking through in the last minute of the game (no truth to the rumor that the defense just wanted to see a cannon fire).

The improved effort has made the advanced statistics that we love (and most hate) shine a much rosier light on the Buckeyes. This was, at one point, a team that was on the cusp of no longer being undefeated, and was projected to lose to this week's opponent. The Buckeyes were 28th in those rankings at that point. Now they're fifth, and moving right along. This defense shuts down opposing runners (only 33 yards allowed against Minnesota), and is opportunistic as any in the country, accounting for four scores so far this year. Illinois is the next test.

The look ahead factor. This isn't an advantage for Ohio State, but it is something that can and may play a big role in the final outcome. Ohio State hasn't played an opponent that passes the "eye test", but all of that changes as soon as the Illinois game goes final. Michigan State is ranked and mad after losing to Nebraska. That Team Up North keeps getting better (and getting love from Advanced Stats), and no Michigan coach has lost their debut game against Ohio State. But that doesn't matter this week. The best part of being 9-0 is the chance to go to 10-0, and Ohio State doesn't get to play its Michigan counterparts until it is 10-0. If they look too far ahead, however, they might go go into those two games at 9-1. The mantra must be about beating Illinois, and not looking at what looms after.

Illinois's Biggest Advantages

Ferg and Vaughn. Is it a Netflix show? Is it an Indie movie about about the end of the world? Or is it two offensive players who are coming off of big weeks and may cause issues for the Buckeyes? It's the last one, of course. The Illini two-headed running attack ate Purdue for lunch last week (not entirely a difficult thing, but we'll forgive that in this space). Josh Ferguson had only 12 carries, but went for 134 yards. Adding six receptions, 41 yards and a touchdown through the air, and that's a very favorable stat line. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, the Illini Superfrosh, had an even better game, running 16 times for 180 yards, good enough for Big Ten Freshman of the Week. That's a dangerous combination, especially against a team that has a penchant for giving up big plays to talented runners. Completely stopping a dangerous running combo is difficult, but its more important to keep the big plays at a minimum - that should be the game plan.

Defending against the Buckeye attack. The Ohio State offense will get a lot of press, and a lot of credit, both deservedly so. That means that someone from the home team will have to try and put a stop to that. Enter Clayton Fejedelem. The senior DB is a leader on the Illini defense, and will be a key to keeping Barrett, Elliott, Miller, and company in check. He had quite a game against Purdue racking up 13 tackles, and two TFLs. SB Nation's Illinois blog says Vonn Bell is the only person in conference playing at his level (though that should probably be reversed), and while that's probably bit of an overstatement, his numbers are impressive. Fejedelem will get the tough task of defending the best of the best of the Buckeyes, but will have to play all over Memorial Stadium to make a big enough difference. But if there's an Illinois defender who can do it, it's probably Fejedelem. Be prepared to hear his name on Saturday.

CUBES! Bill Cubit took over for Tim Beckman at the end of August and led the Illini to big wins...over Kent State and Western Illinois, which isn't exactly playing the top of the SEC West to open your season. The rest of Cubit's interim stint as Illinois' head coach has been up and down, his squad beating the teams it should have, and losing to the teams it should have. Cubit was one of the first of many coaches to start in the MAC (eight years as Western Michigan's head coach) and move to a spot on a Big Ten coaching staff. As Illinois' offensive coordinator last year, the Illini were ninth in the conference. This year they're up to seventh. Baby steps.

There's no telling what will happen with Cubit's tenure as Illinois head coach, because there's no telling what is going on with Illinois's athletic department. But Cubit has shown he can coach upwardly, and improve situations desperately calling for it. It would be tough for whomever is hiring Tim Beckman's official replacement to blink at a man who coached a team past the undefeated Buckeyes.

Summary

F/+ Projection: 29.4 - 20.1, Ohio State

Win Probability: Ohio State 71%, Illinois 29%

And now we get to the prediction portion of our program, and the program is predicated upon predictions being impossible and/or worthless this year. But extrapolations are one of the points of a preview, and here we are. The advanced stats have progressively liked the Buckeyes more and more since the Northern Illinois win, and that has matched Ohio State's play for the most part. This isn't a team that has impressed each week, but has been impressive in big segments of each game. The Buckeyes start slow each week (they didn't score against Minnesota in the first half), but opened it up in the second half on. The same can be said of the team this season - Ohio State averaged 34.5 PPG in September, but were a touchdown better in October (42.5 PPG). Given the rest of the schedule, the Buckeyes will need to play at that high scoring level the rest of the way, and that starts against Illinois.

Those Illini are an up-and-down unit, to be sure, but looked dynamic last week. Then again, anyone can probably look like a world beater against Purdue, and Illinois sure did. But remember, even after a 48-14 win against Purdue, this is the same team that lost the week before at Penn State, 39-0, a team Ohio State boat-raced 38-10. There are playmakers for the Illini (mentioned above, with a few others), but there are probably two in scarlet and gray for every one in blue and orange. That should make things failry easy to predict.

Then again, this is 2015 Ohio State against 2015 Illinois in the 2015 college football season, where nothing is really as it seems. Clemson isn't Clemsoning anymore. Oregon isn't a contender. Alabama is not going away anytime soon. And Iowa is probably winning the Big Ten West, and will go to Indianapolis to meet one of Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan as an undefeated team. Who knows what could happen during a Noon kick in Champaign, Illinois?

Vegas likes the Buckeyes by 16, the advanced stats like the Buckeyes nine. Ohio State is a paltry 3-6 against the spread this year, while Illinois is a much better 5-4 (which stands to reason for a team that wins or loses pretty much according to plan). So what do we make of this game? Eventually the Buckeyes are either going to play the part (and look the part) of defending champions, or they won't. Eventually Illinois is going to beat a team they shouldn't, or they won't. It's doubtful that the Illini have the talent to take advantage of the Buckeyes and make the latter a possibility on Saturday.

Predict the score: