For their part, last season's preseason S&P+ projections had the eventual national champion Crimson Tide at the top of the S&P+, followed by Ohio State at 2nd. This year, the Buckeyes come in at a disappointing 14th.
Thanks to Bill's individual rankings for each of the three components of the rankings, it's easy to see where that pessimism comes from. While they rank 5th in recruiting impact and 3rd in five-year weighted S&P+, the Buckeyes are 18th in returning production. It's much worse when you look at Bill's original article on returning production, where Ohio State was 127th, or second-to-last (the difference between the two rankings comes from applying returning production to last year's S&P+).
So let's dig in to this ranking -- is 14th too low or about right for the 2016 Buckeyes, who have to replace an astounding 71% of their production from the 2015 season?
Digging in to returning production
Bill wrote a little about the Buckeyes inauspicious 127th ranking in returning production:
Do you have Ohio State and Stanford in your top 10? Because if so ... well ... consider this a red flag. The Cardinal are under the 50 percent bar, and Buckeyes are one of five teams projected to return less than 40 percent of their production. That meant doom across the board last year, and while both of these programs could fall a couple of notches and still be quite good, you might not want to expect too much. That might serve as an alarm bell to many far-too-early prognosticators.
So that's not promising, and if it holds true, then people are bound to lose some money. But going a step deeper, Bill found that the highest position group correlations with offensive and defensive S&P+ were, in order: defensive backs, wide receivers, and quarterbacks. Obviously this doesn't control for offensive system, but it does speak to the potency of offensive passing attacks and the related need for strong defensive backs.
This is the most ominous area of concern for Ohio State. Despite being consistently successful under Urban Meyer, returning J.T. Barrett at quarterback, and recruiting extremely well at all three of these positions, Ohio State is losing Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, and Tyvis Powell from the backfield, as well as Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas, and Jalin Marshall at wide receiver.
Bill also found that defensive experience seems to matter more on defense, where returning production can account for 22% of a team's chance in defensive quality to just about 14% on offense. That means that the heavy defensive personnel losses -- which also includes Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, and Darron Lee -- make it hard to project the Buckeyes as a top team, especially on defense (oh, and they lost Chris Ash too, so they'll be breaking in Greg Schiano at co-defensive coordinator).
So yes, there's a slew of talented recruits waiting in the wings, and J.T. Barrett is back to lead the offense. But the major questions for the spring are easy -- and they're not about who will be starting on the offensive line. Rather, look for emerging wide receivers (looking at you, Torrance Gibson and Noah Brown) as well as who is slotted in at corner and safety.
Some reason for optimism
14th doesn't sound good -- Ohio State fans are used to better than that since Urban came to Columbus. But there's a big difference between S&P+ ranking and rating. That is, just looking at the rankings doesn't show the clusters of teams in the S&P+ and the actual quality differences between the ranked teams. The S&P+ rating on the other hand, does, and it's designed to show you how many points better that team is relative to the theoretical average college football team.
I took a look at the top-25 in the S&P+ and plotted the S&P+ ratings on a normal distribution. From this, teams 8-11 (USC, Tennessee, Washington, and Notre Dame) are the average top-25 teams. 18 of the top 25 teams are within one standard deviation from the mean. Oklahoma State, Auburn, and Texas A&M are two standard deviations below average in the top 25, while LSU, Clemson, and Oklahoma are two standard deviations above the top-25 mean. Alabama is off in a category by themselves at about three standard deviations above the mean for the top-25 S&P+ ratings.
Ohio State, at fourteenth, is roughly .7 points below the average of the top-25 S&P+ ratings. The highest-ranked team within a single standard deviation from the mean is Florida State, ranked fifth. So it's reasonable to assume that these teams are all around the same quality -- Florida State is projected to be around a field goal better than Ohio State right now, just outside the hypothetical preseason advanced stats playoff.
That's a sneaky-good place to be. The only issue is that Oklahoma is fourth in the projected S&P+ rankings and about five points better than the Buckeyes, going by the advanced stats. And the Buckeyes travel to the Sooners in just the third week of the season. But other than that tough game against the Sooners, Ohio State has a lot of potential and time to grow and develop throughout the season until 22nd-ranked Michigan State (a field goal worse than the Buckeyes) and sixth-ranked Michigan (about a field goal better than the Buckeyes) at the end of the season.