To say 2014 was a special year for Ohio State is probably the understatement of the most recent history of Buckeye football. That squad had the distinction of listlessly beating a Navy team in Baltimore, before losing a heartbreaker at home to a Virginia Tech team that had not only the distinction of beating Ohio State in Columbus, but also this gem here. Then the Buckeyes ran off 13 consecutive wins, truly threatened only in a double overtime win in State College against a better-than-advertised Penn State team, en route to winning the first ever College Football Playoff.
2015's version of Buckeye football didn't have to deal with an early season derailment, as Ohio State rolled into Blacksburg and won maybe their most impressive game of the season until their final one. Unfortunately, again, these Buckeyes slipped at home, but at the worst possible time -- the penultimate game of the season against eventual Big Ten champions Michigan State. Goodbye playoff, goodbye repeat, hello Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day.
The eye is a valuable tool in judging how a team's play looks; passing the eye test used to be one of the unspoken metrics of the BCS-era of college football, and the 2014 team, after the loss to Virginia Tech, passed the eye test with flying colors each week. The 2015 team, however, struggled to find itself for most of the season, looking sub-par even in big wins (see: Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota).
It's fair to say that the 2014 team likely bested the 2015 in the eye test in every way, especially in the hardware department at season's end. But were the teams really that different in the record books? We at SB Nation and Land-Grant Holy Land are big fans of advanced stats, but I want to get away from those and take a look at the raw statistics from the 2014 and 2015 teams, and the raw statistics for how opponents fared against both years' defenses.
Let's dive in:
|Metric||2014 Buckeyes||2015 Buckeyes|
|Scoring||44.8 ppg||35.0 ppg|
|Total Offense||6.98 yds/play||6.38 yds/play|
|Rushing||5.75 yds/att||5.66 yds/att|
|Passing||9.06 yds/att||7.63 yds/att|
|3rd Down Conversion %||52.02%||38.96%|
*All statistics here are for the games Ohio State has played, which means 2015 statistics still need one game to be complete, and will still be short two games compared to 2014. Grain of salt.
These metrics tell us a story that we're all pretty much aware of at this point. The Ohio State offense last year was a behemoth in almost every way, averaging 10 points more than the 2015 team (and with three games in hand!) and out gaining, rushing, passing, and scoring the 2015 team as well. This wasn't a team that anyone realistically expected to be a factor in the first College Football Playoff (with some "pundits" writing them off entirely after the Virginia Tech game). But J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott ran roughshod through the Big Ten, and Cardale Jones and Devin Smith took over in the post-season.
The other thing that stands out is just how balanced the 2014 offense was, and how punishing, too. If you could keep the 2014 Buckeyes at bay on the ground, then you would simply get beat through the air, and at an impressive clip. The 2015 statistics take a noticeable dive in the passing game, which looked pedestrian for long stretches of the year, depending on who was throwing the football (which is another topic worth discussing all together). A lot of the blame for that was placed on not having the home run threat of Devin Smith, but the bigger focus might be how much Tom Herman brought to the table for the Buckeyes, running the office like a Swiss watch.
Defense (based on opponent's statistics)
|Metric||2014 Buckeyes||2015 Buckeyes|
|Scoring||22.0 ppg||14.0 ppg|
|Total Offense||4.98 yds/play||4.39 yds/play|
|Rushing||3.95 yds/att||3.35 yds/att|
|Passing||6.09 yds/att||5.67 yds/att|
|3rd Down Conversion %||33.95%||34.67%|
*Same caveat here, as above.
This is where things get interesting for comparison's sake. The 2015 Ohio State defense was, by almost every statistical measure, a better unit than their predecessors. The scoring average is most notable here, as the 2014 national champions almost look like a sieve compared the 2015 defense, which is almost a touchdown better by comparison. Oddly, the only measure that the 2015 team wasn't better at is opponent third down conversion percentage, which is most strange since I think Virginia Tech just converted on the 2014 team again just now.
With a sometimes lethargic offense, the 2015 team had to rely on its defense in several games, namely against Northern Illinois and in a valiant if ultimately unsuccessful effort against Michigan State. Give credit to a few people: Luke Fickell, certainly, but also Chris Ash, who helped create a defensive scheme that allowed many other to get involved while All-American Joey Bosa was often asked to move a metric ton of offensive linemen to get to the ball-carrier. Losing Ash to Rutgers hurts, sure, but hopefully his replacement will be able to make up for it.
There will be a lot of talk, especially after the Fiesta Bowl, as to whether the 2015 season was a success. In a lot of ways it was -- beating the hell out of Michigan in the Big House tends to put a bit of shine on any Buckeye season. But before that question is asked, and before that Fiesta Bowl is played, it's worth noting how important Ohio State's defense was in getting a team that struggled on offense throughout the year.
Had the offense played just a mediocre game against Michigan State (instead of playing at "tire fire" levels), then the conversation would probably be different. As we learned this year, if you have a good defense, you have a few things. But in 2015 if all you have is a good defense, you don't have enough to play for another title.