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Ohio State vs. Michigan State preview: Buckeyes battle Spartans in biggest test yet

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The Buckeyes face the Spartans at home, with absolutely everything to play for.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The parallels between football and war are drawn too often, and ring too hollow, for it not to feel trite to preview Ohio State's upcoming game with such a connection. But in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, a fictionalized account of the last days of Simon Bolivar, lies an excerpt that may as well have been written about the Buckeyes' 2015 season:

He was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line.

"Damn it, he sighed. "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!"

Make no mistake: Ohio State's misfortunes -- a media circus, an inevitable regression from the dizzying heights of 2014's title run, the loss of offensive wizard Tom Herman -- are in a headlong sprint against their dreams. The dreams are on top, for now, but there's perhaps no player in college football more willing to shatter them than Ohio native Connor Cook, who is back for a final shot at the Buckeyes' throats.

Who could forget the black hole of despair that fell over Ohio State fans in early December 2013, watching Braxton Miller fail to gain a final yard on fourth down, enduring Jeremy Langford running up the middle and right over our hopes and aspirations as he galloped to the end zone, with Cook playing hero, to boot? (Who, too, could wipe from memory J.T. Barrett's coronation in East Lansing in November of last year, willing the Buckeyes to victory, showing the world that the word "freshman" doesn't mean a thing when you've got equal parts talent and cojones?)

This contest is shaping up to be one that keeps the tradition of dramatic finishes alive. Michigan State enters Columbus still reeling from a fateful Saturday tilt against Nebraska, one that smashed Sparty's perfect season and announced to the world that officiating incompetence knows no geographical bounds. Ohio State, meanwhile, still seems reticent to show the world exactly which Buckeye team is the real one. They've yet to take a loss, but they've looked awfully human against squads with a whole lot less ammunition than Michigan State has. Which Ohio State team shows up this weekend -- the version that demolished Rutgers, Virginia Tech, and Penn State, or the version that let Northern Illinois and Indiana hang around -- will be the difference between playoff dreams and narrative nightmares for Buckeye fans until next fall.

There's a clear path out of the Big Ten's labyrinth for Ohio State. But it's not an easy one to tread.

Data dump

Team Record CFP F/+ Rk Line
Ohio State 10-0 3 5 -13
Michigan State 9-1 9 15

Ohio State Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.31 40 1.27 75 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 47.8% 17 30.9% 4 40.3%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.5 7 24.9 1 29.8
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.13 35 3.63 10 4.65
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED -3.93 107 Turnover Luck (PPG):
+1.47
ACTUAL -1 79

Michigan State Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.31 37 1.24 64 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 42.1% 62 39.9% 57 40.3%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 32.9 18 27.3 24 29.8
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.22 36 4.29 40 4.65
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED 4.66 26 Turnover Luck (PPG):
+4.17
ACTUAL 13 3

Ohio State's Biggest Advantages

The sneaky-best running back in the country. He doesn't get the "highlights played ad nauseam" treatment like Derrick Henry. He's never been talked about as being so revelatory that he should consider sitting out a year before the pros, so as not to get hurt in college, like Leonard Fournette. But Ezekiel Elliott is quietly stringing together a Heisman-worthy season: fifteen consecutive 100-yard rushing performances dating back to last season, a 96% catch rate on his receiving targets, and a ferocious nose for pass-blocking that has bailed out several of his teammates in 2015.

He'll have his work cut out for him against the Spartans, who boast a defense that's 13th in the country at stuffing the run, and 17th in explosive run plays allowed. That last stat shouldn't be too much of a problem for Zeke. No. 15 is perfectly happy to make hay all afternoon on 6-8 yard bursts, grinding down opponents and opening up some opportunities in the passing game along the way. Shilique Calhoun, Riley Bullough and co. will be tasked with the unenviable job of needing to bring him down on Saturday, and it's entirely possible they won't be enough.

Urban Meyer's sleeves. Ohio State's mastermind has run a decidedly vanilla version of his offense the last few weeks. Is he out of ideas, or has he been doing his best not to show Mark Dantonio (and Jim Harbaugh, and Dabo Swinney, and Nick Saban) his hand? You can bet on the latter. Meyer has mentioned several times this season that he's working on wrinkles to his offense to get playmakers (particularly Braxton Miller) more involved, taking advantage of the unique skill sets his players boast.

Now that the stakes are this high, look for one or two plays against the Spartans that we haven't really seen so far this year. A Braxton Miller pass? A Miller-Jalin Marshall double reverse with a pass involved? Wheel routes?! The sky really is the limit, given all of the weapons in Meyer's arsenal.

J.T. Barrett, live and unplugged. Barrett is (again) the starting QB for the Buckeyes, and that should give Michigan State fans nightmares. Barrett played his best game of 2014 against a Spartan defense that was stingier than this year's version, racking up 386 all-purpose yards and a ridiculous five touchdowns. Now he's back from his suspension, and while he didn't light the world on fire against Illinois in his return to the field, he didn't really need to.

That won't be the case on Saturday. The Buckeyes will need Barrett at his best for plenty of reasons, not least of which is that this is the first real chance OSU has of proving itself capable of taking down quality opponents, something that could factor into the final College Football Playoff seeding. A repeat 300-yard performance against this year's Michigan State team would say an awful lot about the direction the Buckeyes are trending.

Michigan State's Biggest Advantages

Veteran leadership. Connor Cook is in his fourth and final season as a Spartan, and while his last year in East Lansing hasn't gone unspoiled, he's still one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the conference. He also has a victory over an Urban Meyer-led Buckeye team in his trophy case, something only two other quarterbacks can say.

While Cook's 2015 completion rate, a robust 56.3%, is far more Leidner-esque than the Spartans would hope for, he's still putting up dazzling numbers in other categories. He seems to make all the throws that count, as evidenced by his 21-4 TD-INT ratio, and he's tossed for almost 2500 yards so far this year. A shoulder injury took him out of last week's game against Maryland, but Cook says he's ready for the Buckeyes, and even a banged-up version of Sparty's signal-caller could give Ohio State some trouble.

4th quarter magic. One of MSU's most admirable traits in 2015 has been the way they've finished games on offense. By S&P+, the Spartans play their best ball in the final 15 minutes, a rating that climbs with each successive quarter. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, play their best defense in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. While a Michigan-Michigan State bizzaro-world style finish is highly unlikely, the Spartans are more than capable of getting up to some 4th quarter shenanigans that could keep things interesting until the final whistle.

To be frank, this is still kind of a mismatch in favor of the Buckeyes, in hard numbers if not in trends. At their best, in the 4th quarter, Michigan State ranks 53rd in S&P+, all the way up from 92nd in the 1st quarter. Ohio State, meanwhile, trends down between the 3rd and 4th quarters...but it's from 5th in defensive S&P+ to 18th. That's a mighty small glimmer of hope for Sparty.

Keeping the offense on the field. One place where it's not a stretch to give Michigan State a whole lot of credit? 3rd downs. The Spartans are 10th-best in the country on offensive 3rd downs, by S&P+, and that could spell trouble for the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer's team -- a paltry 25th at defending 3rd downs -- will need to do everything in their power to slam the door shut on Michigan State's drives if they don't want to get dragged into a shootout, and shootouts are precisely the kind of game the Buckeyes haven't yet proven they can win.

Summary

F/+ Projection: 35.2-20.8, Ohio State

Win Probability: Ohio State 80%, Michigan State 20%

Close as the teams might otherwise seem, the advanced stats really like the Buckeyes in this game. Of course, Ohio State has gotten mixed up in some unnecessarily close contests this season (they're just 4-6 against the spread), and this one could go much the same way. It certainly has all the right ingredients for a thrill ride: a former OSU assistant taking on his old team, a jilted Ohio-born QB taking one last shot at the school he wanted to play for, and the bizarre college football DNA that makes the game a slave to entropy.

One of the biggest questions the Buckeyes will need to answer on Saturday is this: how will an up-and-down offensive line stack up against a defense that's one of the best in the country at creating havoc? (That's not lip service, either: Havoc rate is a real statistical measure, used to gauge how often a defense can create a sack/TFL/interception/pass breakup, and the Spartans are 16th in the country at it.) Ohio State's right tackle, Chase Farris, was the subject of many a sidelong glance and collar pull among Buckeye fans last Saturday, and the rest of the line has had bad days too. They'll get their biggest test of the season against a defense that boasts world-destroyers in Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell, and Riley Bullough.

Still, there's an awful lot to like in Scarlet and Gray in this game. The Buckeyes are living and dying by Ezekiel Elliott and a suffocating defense, and if that unit can play at the level we've seen from them all season, the F/+ projection might just hit the nail on the head. We like Ohio State to walk away from this one victorious.

Predict the score: