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The advanced stats say Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech could be ugly

Can Ohio State exact revenge on the only team to completely stop their juggernaut offense last season? We'll take a look at the numbers.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Before we go deep in to anything else, yes, there is a path for Virginia Tech to win this game and upset the defending national champion Buckeyes again: successfully limit Ohio State's base run game efficiency, prevent explosive run plays and force the Buckeyes to pass horizontally, enjoy home field advantage and crowd noise, force turnovers on defense, use running back depth to take advantage of Ohio State's relatively poor defensive line rush defense.

It would require a little bit of luck and likely some mistakes from on the Buckeyes' end, but it could happen. According to Football Outsiders' College Football Almanac, this is the second-most difficult game of the Buckeyes' season, giving Ohio State an 83% win expectancy.

But I think, based on the personnel, last season's advanced metrics, and our best statistical projections, that the Buckeyes get their revenge in Blacksburg.

All advanced stats definitions can be found here.

Ohio State on offense

S&P+ FEI Success Rate+ IsoPPP+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ Adj. Line Yards Opp. Rate
OSU 1 7 1 1 1 2 2 1
VT 10 2 2 10 16 2 7 28

It's night and day for the Ohio State offense from where they were a year ago. The offensive line transformed from a disjointed, young mess to the top overall unit in the country in terms of run blocking. They went from having no quarterback with meaningful playing experience to two that could contend for the Heisman this season. Ezekiel Elliott was inefficient and didn't break an explosive run against the Hokies last year, but ran for 200+ yards against Alabama, likely the toughest front seven in all of college football. And maybe most importantly, the offensive staff figured out what to do about opposing Bear fronts.

We've talked about it before, but Virginia Tech's 46 Bear cover zero completely dominated the line of scrimmage last year, erasing running back holes and cut back lanes, forcing an inexperienced quarterback to pass. The result was three interceptions and a completely ineffective base run group of plays.

But after every subsequent opponent copied Bud Foster's approach, Urban and Herman began to very successfully implement a series of Bear-beating blocking schemes, whether in the form of wide receiver crack blocks, wham blocks, pulling tackles and guards, or just the explosion of the passing offense thanks to a more experienced Barrett.

Virginia Tech returns largely the same defense as the one that stymied the Buckeyes last year, but armed with Bear-beaters, a host of talented skill players, and still the best offensive line in the country, the Buckeyes are ready. We don't know right away what counter Foster will employ against Warinner's Bear-beaters, but it's safe to assume he'll have something up his sleeve. And with Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson, and Jalin Marshall suspended, a number of young and inexperienced receivers will need to join Michael Thomas to balance the Buckeye run game and stretch the field vertically and horizontally. Without some receiving threat, there's very little reason for Virginia Tech to shake the cover zero look.

However, there is really only one chink in the Virginia Tech defensive armor: explosive run defense. The Hokies were 41st in rushing IsoPPP+, an opponent-adjusted measure of explosive run plays. While the Hokies rarely had problems with this (41st is decent after all), running backs could turn a few missed tackles near the line of scrimmage to big gains thanks to safeties playing closer to the line.

Ohio State on defense

S&P+ FEI Success Rate+ IsoPPP+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ Adj. Line Yards Opp. Rate
OSU 11 7 23 12 42 8 47 73
VT 85 93 93 104 108 86 98 93

When the Silver Bullets take the field they'll meet a Hokies offense that was underwhelming at best and downright terrible at its worst last season. You may remember Virginia Tech and Wake Forest going scoreless through regulation last season.

However, three things make me think that the Hokies could still be improved on offense this coming year. First, Michael Brewer has another year as a Hokie. Generally the numbers suggest that quarterbacks make their greatest improvement between their first and second years of college. Since Brewer transferred, however, this is just his second year under Scot Loeffler, so I could imagine him improving just for that continuity.

Second, his offensive line was pretty darn bad, ranking 98th in adjusted line yards, 93rd in opportunity rate (percentage of carries that gain at least five yards), and 102nd in adjusted sack rate. However, three members of that group are now gone, so it's possible that there may be some addition by subtraction -- it's hard to say.

Finally, the Hokies do have the services of a fleet of running backs that were all definitely held back by poor offensive line play. While none of them were particularly explosive or efficient, there are five backs on the roster that were four-star recruits in high school.

As you can see from that list, there's a lot riding on the offensive line this year. Which is why it's a shame that Joey Bosa is suspended, as the Buckeyes really could capitalize on the apparent statistical advantages between the Ohio State front seven and the Hokies offensive line. As it is, expect a fairly aggressive game plan against these three new starters. It's easy to imagine Darron Lee, Hubbard, Holmes, and Lewis all edge rushing hard to try and get to Brewer early and often.

Given the Hokies' offensive numbers from a year ago, their best game plan is probably to ride the defense, create turnovers, and try to take advantage of short fields while rotating tailbacks against the weakest part of the Ohio State defense -- allowing efficient runners. That's the worst case scenario, because allowing an effective rusher could potentially open things up for Brewer and force the defensive ends and linebackers from pinning their ears back.

Key factors

  • Can Ohio State's defensive get pressure without Bosa given the Hokies' 102nd ranking in adjusted sack rate?
  • Will the Virginia Tech offensive line improve their abysmal rushing efficiency ratings (98th in adjusted line yards, 93rd in opportunity rate)?
  • Will whichever quarterback starts for the Buckeyes find any success in the passing game with so many receivers suspended and against the second-overall passing S&P+ secondary?
  • Can the offensive line improve pass blocking (Ohio State was 74th in adjusted sack rate) against the 6th overall havoc rate defense?
  • Will Ezekiel Elliott be able to break any explosive runs since that seems to be the one non-elite advanced stat metric for the Hokies?

My prediction

I think the Buckeyes do get their revenge, but it won't look good for four quarters. Continuity on offense means that Virginia Tech's offense is a little more effective than last season's stats would lead you to be believe. Any mental error, unlucky bounces, or beginning-of-season mistakes could be pivotal keeping it close for the Hokies. However, I think ultimately Ohio State wins after a few uncomfortable quarters before the Buckeyes offense finds its groove.