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How Ohio State can beat Clemson

Let’s take a closer look at the math.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Fiesta Bowl has maybe the best matchup that college football fans could have hoped for.

Clemson’s strengths — Deshaun Watson, an incredible collection of wide receiver talent, and a fierce pass rush on defense — go up against Ohio State’s, including their absurd rushing efficiency, Curtis Samuel’s explosiveness, and a defense that stuffs the run and forces turnovers better than anyone in the country.

But these two consistently elite teams also have their weaknesses. For Ohio State, those are widely known. The passing game has struggled, or at least been hot-and-cold, for two years now. If the offense gets off schedule and forced in to too many passing downs, then holes begin to appear in the offensive line — like eight sacks allowed to Michigan and six to Penn State. Clemson, on the other hand, can get one-dimensional on offense, as the run game can disappear and the turnovers pile up.

Comparing Ohio State and Clemson

Metric Ohio State Clemson
Metric Ohio State Clemson
S&P+ 27.6 (3) 22.7 (4)
FEI .295 (2) .253 (5)
F/+ 66.3% (2) 55.5% (4)
Power Rank 17.9 (3) 16.9 (5)
Volatility 27.5 (116) 20.3 (46)
Ceiling 55.1 43
Floor 0.1 2.4
Avg Team Talent 91.43 89
Turnover Margin 16 0
Off. Exp. Rate 0.21 0.24
Def. Exp. Rate 0.16 0.17

Ohio State is consistently rated slightly higher than Clemson in the advanced stats. However, if the Buckeyes’ S&P+ is equivalent to their mean performance, their high volatility score represents the standard deviation of their possible performances. Ohio State is one of the most volatile teams in the country, with a high ceiling, but also a slightly lower floor the Clemson. The range of potential outcomes for Ohio State’s performance is wider than Clemson’s.

The S&P+ margin, volatility, ceiling, and floor numbers in the chart above can be read as the expected point margin against a theoretical average college football team. So Ohio State, at its worst, is essentially average — Clemson’s worst is about a field-goal victory over an average football team. Playing at their respective bests, Ohio State would beat an average team by nearly two touchdowns more than Clemson would.

Clemson’s volatility — at 20.3, over a touchdown less than Ohio State’s — is despite close games against teams like NC State, Pitt, Florida State, and the relatively poor performance against Wake Forest. Clemson’s worst performances were due to three main factors:

  • Shutting down Wayne Gallman, forcing Deshaun Watson to carry the load on offense
  • Turnovers due in large part to the resulting one-dimensional passing offense
  • A strong opposing rushing attack combined with taking advantage of matchups against linebackers and certain members of the Clemson secondary

The Herman Theory

Clemson and Ohio State split Tom Herman’s two stats — turnover margin and explosive play margin. Ohio State has a significantly higher turnover margin at +16, while Clemson is sitting at even turnovers allowed and gained. This is mostly due to the Tigers’ high interceptions — both lost and gained. For explosiveness, I added a few new numbers — offensive and defensive explosiveness rate. These are the number of 10+ yard plays produced and allowed divided by the total number of offensive and defensive plays.

Ohio State generates a 10+ yard play on a little more than a fifth of their offensive snaps — Clemson manages one on roughly a quarter. Ohio State’s defense allows opponents 10+ yard plays on 16% of defensive snaps compared to 17% for Clemson.

In bulk, Clemson has a higher rate of explosive plays, but also turns the ball over far more often than Ohio State does.

Finally, Ohio State’s average team talent is higher than Clemson’s. The Tigers are a little less talented than Michigan, but they’re the best comparison.

When Ohio State has the ball

Ohio State offense vs. Clemson defense

Metric Ohio State Clemson
Metric Ohio State Clemson
S&P+ 12 6
Rushing S&P+ 2 32
Rushing SR 54.1% (2) 37.5% (24)
Rushing IsoPPP 72 107
Adj. Line Yards 1 22
Opp. Rate 47.8% (2) 32.5% (12)
Stuff Rate 12.6% (3) 21.2% (39)
Passing S&P+ 54 4
Passing SR 38.1% (90) 33.2 (9)
Passing IsoPPP 94 32
Adj. Sack Rate 79 4
SD S&P+ 6 39
PD S&P+ 38 2
Success Rt+ 5 9
IsoPPP+ 25 16
Avg FP 33.3 (10) 27.9 (34)
Finishing Drives 5.04 (18) 3.81 (20)
Havoc Rate N/A 21.3% (4)

The key for the Ohio State offense is clear: establish the run and don’t get forced to pass.

  • For College Football Playoff teams, and Clemson is no different, weaknesses are all relative. That means that it’s rare for the Tigers (or Buckeyes) to have a low ranking in any advanced metric (at least opponent-adjusted advanced stat), so it’s more about finding small statistical advantages than exploiting glaring weaknesses. That’s the case with the Clemson defense. The Tigers rank sixth overall in defensive S&P+, so there aren’t too many big problems.
  • Despite the obvious quality, Clemson has been a little volatile on defense. The Tigers have seven games with an S&P+ defensive performance of 75% or below (Ohio State has three). Two of those games were performances in the 40%s — against Florida State and Pitt. These games are the ones to look at for a template for the Ohio State offense.
  • Ohio State should have a small but notable advantage on the ground. Just pulling out the rushing stats in the table above, Ohio State has sizable advantages in nearly every rushing category — from overall rushing S&P+ (2nd to 32nd) to adjusted line yards (1st to 22nd), stuff rate (2nd to 39th), and even explosive plays (72nd to 107th). Ohio State hasn’t been known for explosive runs this season — they have just ten runs of 30+ yards — but Clemson’s defense is even more vulnerable to big plays on the ground.
  • Ohio State’s offensive identity is built on that efficient run game, divided between Mike Weber, Curtis Samuel, and J.T. Barrett. It’s difficult to stop the run game altogether both due to numbers at the point of attack — when a quarterback read or carry is involved -- and because each one of those three runners is so good at their specialty. The archetype game here is Florida State, where Dalvin Cook had 19 carries for 169 yards, including a 70-yard run. Curtis Samuel is the most explosive and Cook-like runner, but Cook’s performance against the Tigers also demonstrated their (relative) weakness to efficient running as well -- besides his two 40+ yard runs, he still had a 58% rushing success rate (and FSU is just 13th in rushing success rate overall compared to Ohio State at 2nd). If you argue that even Curtis Samuel doesn’t match Dalvin Cook’s breakaway ability, Pitt’s James Conner is an example of efficient running — he had 20 carries for 132 yards, a 60% success rate, and a 50% opportunity rate. Those efficiency numbers should be achievable for any of Ohio State’s three primary ball carriers.
  • Clemson’s defensive focus will likely be first on stopping that base run game while also bringing a lot of pressure on J.T. Barrett. That’s not only due to Ohio State’s weaknesses (79th in adjusted sack rate, 90th in passing success rate with just 38%), but also Clemson’s defensive strengths — they create havoc better than almost everyone in the country (4th in overall havoc rate), primarily due to their pass rush (4th in adjusted sack rate). With Clemson’s explosive offense, Ohio State can’t afford another game where they allow 6+ sacks. Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins have combined for 63 quarterback pressures this season, via CFB Film Room.
  • This is a real advantage for Clemson. The template for opposing defenses has been to try and stop the run first so that Barrett is forced to pass to move the ball. Passing downs haven’t been good for Ohio State this season (38th in passing downs S&P+), and the Buckeyes’ deep passing game is very inefficient. According to CFB Film Room, Barrett is completing just 35.3% of passes thrown 20+ yard downfield.
  • It’s possible that Ohio State’s offensive staff doesn’t really try to change things up or worry too much about the lacking vertical threat. Clemson’s pass protection has mostly struggled in the middle of the field when their linebackers are forced into coverage mismatches. Expect Curtis Samuel to be obvious focal point of the passing offense, but don’t be surprised to see other H-Backs, tight ends, and running backs get involved to target the middle of the field -- especially if that area is vacated by by Clemson’s defense sending extra pass rushers on J.T.
  • Ohio State’s gameplan will likely emphasize early runs for J.T., passing on standard downs, efficient runs to Weber inside, Samuel outside, and J.T. everywhere, and passes 5-12 yards downfield. The key will be for the Buckeyes to win standard downs, where they have a 6th to 39th advantage in standard downs S&P+, while avoiding as many passing downs as possible, where the advantage is reversed — 38th to 2nd.
  • Finally, this one likely won’t be over until the very end of the game -- Ohio State is 28th in defensive S&P+ in the first quarter but averages 3rd for the last three quarters, but Clemson’s defense averages 9th for the first three quarters then ranks 53rd in the 4th. If Ohio State is behind but within striking distance starting the fourth quarter, don’t be too shocked.

When Clemson has the ball

Ohio State defense vs. Clemson offense

Metric Clemson Ohio State
Metric Clemson Ohio State
S&P+ 11 3
Rushing S&P+ 17 17
Rushing SR 48.4% (17) 34.3% (6)
Rushing IsoPPP 126 75
Adj. Line Yards 7 2
Opp. Rate 41.3% (50) 30.3% (3)
Stuff Rate 17% (38) 28.6% (1)
Passing S&P+ 8 5
Passing SR 51.5% (6) 35.1% (17)
Passing IsoPPP 74 45
Adj. Sack Rate 4 92
SD S&P+ 7 5
PD S&P+ 22 17
Success Rt+ 1 4
IsoPPP+ 20 6
Avg FP 32.7 (18) 26.5 (10)
Finishing Drives 4.91 (30) 3.33 (4)
Havoc Rate N/A 19.3 (15)

Just like Clemson’s defense against Samuel, Weber, and Barrett, the key is shutting down the Clemson run game.

  • Clemson’s offense is prolific, but can be prone to turnovers. The key to forcing those turnovers is to first stop Wayne Gallman and make the Tigers’ offense one-dimensional. Overall Clemson is 17th in rushing S&P+ and 7th in adjusted line yards, but they’re also 50th in opportunity rate and 38th in stuff rate (with 17% of runs going for no gain or a loss). That means that the Tigers’ ground game hits a fair number of mid-range gains, but is susceptible to losses and is relatively inefficient. To me, the key is the opportunity rate, where just 41.3% of Clemson’s runs are for 5+ yards. For comparison, Ohio State ranks 2nd in opportunity rate at 47.8% of runs. Clemson doesn’t really have an explosive threat either, with Gallman leading the way with just 4.1 highlight yards per opportunity and the 3rd-worst overall rushing IsoPPP rating. Ohio State, meanwhile, ranks 1st in the country in stuff rate (with nearly 29% of opposing runs going for no gain or a loss!) and 3rd in opportunity rate. Essentially, Clemson’s offensive weakness meets one of Ohio State’s main defensive strengths.
  • If Gallman is a non-factor, Deshaun Watson will be forced to pass. He’s an incredible quarterback and the central reason for Clemson joining the group of elite college football teams this season and last, but the double edged sword is his turnovers. Again going back to CFB Film Room, he has 9 interceptions on 121 attempts of passes 15+ yards downfield. The other side of the sword is when he’s passing to Deon Cain — on 22 passes of 20+ yards to Cain this season, roughly a third have gone for a touchdown. Mike Williams is their biggest pure receiver and leads the team in targets and receiving yards, but Cain (third on the team in receiving yards and targets) averages 5.5 yards per catch more than Williams. Clemson has mostly been an efficiency-based passing attack this season — 6th in passing success rate and 74th in IsoPPP — but Watson can definitely stretch the field with Deon Cain. And without creating turnovers, Ohio State’s secondary is still great (5th in passing S&P+), but somewhat vulnerable to big plays (45th in passing IsoPPP).
  • Don’t expect many sacks by the Ohio State defense. Clemson ranks 4th in adjusted sack rate to Ohio State’s 92nd. Ohio State may create pressure, which wouldn’t necessarily show in these numbers, but Watson likely won’t be taken to the ground many times.
  • Finally, Ohio State has to force field goals or stalled drives from drives inside their 40 yard line. They look to have an advantage in finishing drives, ranking 4th to Clemson’s 30th (averaging 3.33 points allowed per scoring opportunity to Clemson’s 4.91). Ohio State may allow Watson to rack up passing yards, and that will be fine as long as they lock down the red zone and force an interception or two.

The four most important stats

  1. Rushing opportunity rate. Ohio State has to maintain its biggest offensive advantage — efficient rushing. Without an efficient run game, Ohio State will be forced into obvious passing situations, heavily benefiting Clemson.
  2. Ohio State’s sacks allowed. The biggest mismatch for the Ohio State offense -- outside of the passing game overall — will be the offensive line in pass protection against Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. It’s unlikely that Ohio State will win allowing 6+ sacks again.
  3. Interception margin. Deshaun Watson will find some success passing -- he’s too good not to, no matter what secondary he’s facing — but the key will be creating at least one interception. Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, and Gareon Conley have to play their absolute best against this loaded Clemson passing offense.
  4. Wayne Gallman’s rushing success rate. For Ohio State to slow the Clemson offense down, they’ll need to completely remove Gallman from the offensive gameplan. As good as Watson is, stopping the run should be the first goal. Ohio State has to force Clemson to doubt whether they can rely on Gallman to pick up critical short yardage -- and as it is they’re 86th in power success rate.

Picks

S&P+: Ohio State 29, Clemson 25. OSU win probability 61.2%

F/+: Ohio State by 4.2

Power Rank: Clemson by 1. OSU win probability 53%

My pick: Ohio State 27, Clemson 24