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How good are Ohio State and Clemson?

This is part one of our advanced stats preview series for the Fiesta Bowl

Ohio State vs. Clemson is the best possible bowl match up Buckeye fans could have hoped for.

On one level, there are plenty of storylines: revenge for the 2014 Orange Bowl loss, J.T. vs. Deshaun, and Meyer vs. Swinney. But the advanced stats also show two teams that couldn’t be more similar, both in quality in overall profile.

Ceilings and floors

Ohio State and Clemson are ranked 3rd and 4th in the S&P+, 2nd and 5th in the FEI, and 2nd and 4th in the combined F/+.

S&P+ Rk S&P+ Volatility FEI Rk F/+ Rk
Ohio State 27.6 3rd 25.6 .295 2nd 66.3% 2nd
Clemson 22.7 4th 18.9 .253 5th 55.5% 4th

A couple of things from that chart. First, in all of these advanced metrics, Ohio State is a slightly higher-ranked team, but both are considered obviously playoff caliber. The starting Vegas spreads, which were around 3 to 3.5 points, seem about right based on these numbers.

Second, the S&P+ margin (the first column of data) is the average expected points margin for a game against a hypothetical average opponent. In the S&P+, that's actually a fairly big gap. For instance, Alabama and Michigan are nearly equal at 31.5 and 31.3 margins. Then Ohio State is essentially its own second tier at 27.6, almost four points below the top two. Then there's almost a 5 point gap between the Buckeyes and Clemson at 22.7. If S&P+ tiers are teams in the same ~4-point range, then Alabama and Michigan would be one tier, Ohio State would be its own tier, then Clemson, LSU, Washington, Louisville, USC, Florida State, Oklahoma, and Auburn would all be in the third tier. There's a smaller difference between Ohio State and Alabama than between Clemson and Ohio State, and 8-4 Auburn is closer to Clemson's S&P+ margin than Clemson is to Ohio State.

However, the Buckeyes have shown that they're capable of wide swings in their play, as seen in the S&P+ volatility numbers. These haven't been updated for post-championship weekend yet (that's coming!), but it still gives you a sense for how wildly variable Ohio State is compared to Clemson, and gives you a sense for their relative ceilings and floors. Because the Buckeyes have almost a touchdown higher volatility, their floor is actually almost two points lower than Clemson's. But Ohio State's ceiling is also much higher -- 53.2 compared to 41.6 for Clemson.

I want to stress that these are very rough estimations of a team's floor and ceiling, but it nevertheless gives you a sense for possible outcomes: by far the most likely outcome is a close win for either team, but there's also a (much smaller) chance of an Ohio State blowout. A Clemson blowout isn't impossible, but much less likely.

Win likelihood

Ohio State currently has a 61% win probability against Clemson, with a projected margin of about 4.9 points. So while the S&P+ would like Ohio State to win 6 out of 10 games against the Tigers, that's still 4 times that the Tigers would win.

When you consider Ohio State's volatility, just about any score besides a 14+ point win for Clemson wouldn't surprise me.

Performance baselines and poor showings

For each game Bill calculates a percentage performance. This number compares the team's single game performance to their statistical resume to say whether they were playing to their potential or not.

This season Ohio State has averaged a 76% performance and Clemson has average a 75% performance. However, Ohio State also has four games with a +95% performance and two games below 25% (including a 5% performance against Michigan State). Clemson has two performances over 95% and just one below 25% (18% against Pitt). That's just another way of showing Ohio State's wider ceiling and floor, which likely results from the larger percentage of first time starters for the Buckeyes.

Clemson has had three games with a sub-50% performance -- next we'll dig in to what happened in those three games to try and pin down Clemson's weaknesses.