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Ohio State’s secondary will be challenged out of the gates in 2016

The Buckeyes have to replace nearly their entire starting secondary -- just in time for three pass-heavy teams to start the season.

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Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at two of the Buckeyes’ biggest weaknesses – the defensive line’s explosive run-stopping ability and the receivers’ explosive play potential – and now we’ll dig in to what may be their biggest weakness: the secondary.

The secondary will break in three new starters, which should make it the biggest worry spot on the defense, considering that the percentage of returning passes defended by defensive backs is the metric with the highest correlation with defensive S&P+. Out of all of the position groups hit by NFL departures, it should be the secondary that is hurt the most.

So far we’ve seen that the Buckeyes face a number of elite pass defenses, but don’t see too many elite running backs. How does the schedule work out for the secondary in 2016?

Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability 2015 Passing S&P+
Bowling Green 60 16.5 83% 20
Tulsa 93 24.8 92% 66
at Oklahoma 4 -9.1 30% 11
Rutgers 87 22.9 91% 43
Indiana 56 16 82% 14
at Wisconsin 37 4.6 60% 40
at Penn State 28 1.6 54% 73
Northwestern 46 14.7 80% 113
Nebraska 26 8.3 68% 25
at Maryland 62 9.9 72% 110
at Michigan State 22 -0.7 48% 30
Michigan 6 0.5 51% 8

Ohio State will see five offenses that ranked in the top-25 of the passing S&P+ last season, including two in the first five games that were in the top-15 last year.

Bowling Green will test the secondary from day one

In some ways, Bowling Green is one of the worst opening week opponents the Buckeyes could have asked for. With a brand-new secondary, the Buckeyes will likely see 30+ pass attempts by the 20th-ranked S&P+ passing offense.

Thankfully, most of the major players in last year’s offense are gone. The part-architect of Bowling Green’s Baylor-style Air Raid offense, head coach Dino Babers, is gone to Syracuse, quarterback Matt Johnson has graduated, and four of their top receivers have also graduated or transferred. It’s fair to expect some regression given those personnel losses, but the offense will still challenge the back end of the Buckeye defense.

Oklahoma will be a challenge no matter how you look at it

In other ways, it’s good that the Buckeyes open with Air Raid teams in Bowling Green and Tulsa, to a lesser extent – they’re a good warm up for Oklahoma in week three. The eleventh-ranked passing S&P+ offense was even more efficient than they were explosive, ranking sixth in success rate and 19th in PPP+. With quarterback Baker Mayfield and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley returning, the Sooners should be one of the best passing teams in the country once again.

If we’re looking for bright spots, it’s that leading receiver Sterling Shepard won’t return (and third-leading receiver Durron Neal too, to a much lesser extent). Shepard was extremely reliable, with a 74% catch rate, but also managed to be an explosive deep threat as well. He was also far and away Mayfield’s top target, with 28% of passes going his way. Senior Dede Westbrook is a serviceable replacement, with a similar average yards per target, catch rate, and explosiveness – but the depth behind him is fairly untested and/or ineffective. The Sooners will need to identify new top wide receivers, and fast.

But two factors still make this a formidable matchup for Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, and the rest of the secondary: the offensive balance and the Sooners’ schedule. First, Oklahoma was two games to identify top targets – and they’ll need to quickly, given the game against Houston. Second, Oklahoma won’t be a one-trick offense given Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in the backfield. No other team on Ohio State’s schedule is as well-rounded.

The Buckeyes’ best shot will be to get to Mayfield with a fierce pass rush – Oklahoma’s offensive line was just 101st in adjusted sack rate last year and they lost their top two offensive linemen.

Indiana is no push-over

As Ty and Dan said in a recent preview episode of The Solid Verbal (a little over 24 minutes in), the Hoosiers are just an average defense (rather than an abysmally poor one) away from consistent 8-4 type seasons. The Hoosiers’ big strength is their explosiveness ( 24th in IsoPPP+), and the passing game’s explosiveness in particular, which was 14th in PPP+.

Quarterback Nate Sudfeld was extremely effective, with just seven interceptions and 8.3 yards per attempt. His replacement, Zander Diamont, was not nearly as effective in limited action – just a 48.4% completion rate and about half average yards per attempt (4.4). But you have to give Kevin Wilson the benefit of the doubt at some point – he’s always seemed to churn out quality passing games since he arrived in Bloomington. Further, the Hoosiers return their top four receiving targets. The passing game might take a slight hit, but it’s hard not to view the Hoosiers as another threat for a shootout with the Buckeyes once again.

Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong is pretty legit?

Tommy Armstrong flew under the radar in Mike Riley’s first year at Nebraska, but he piled up the stats, throwing for 3,000 yards at seven yards per attempt. The problem was that he also threw 16 interceptions, at nearly a 4% rate. Cut down on the interceptions and Nebraska has a formidable passing attack (though, it’s worth noting that most of his damage was done to the worst teams on the Huskers’ schedule) with his top six targets all returning.

Nebraska wouldn’t come to mind as a big offensive threat, but there’s reason for at least a little concern, given the stability at quarterback and wide receiver.

Jim Harbaugh, quarterback whisperer

After what Harbaugh did with Jake Rudock, maybe that reputation is deserved. Michigan will get its third quarterback in as many years, likely the transfer John O’Korn from Houston. O’Korn didn’t post the most impressive numbers at Houston (52% completion rate, a 6% sack rate, and just 4.8 yards per attempt), but most have written off quarterback as a concern this offseason due to Michigan’s returning wide receivers and Harbaugh’s ability to develop quarterbacks.

Michigan’s top five receiving targets return for 2016, including Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Neither one of these top threats is dominant, nor are they specialized as either possession or big play threats – both have just decent catch rates (60%-63%) and explosiveness potential (1.31-1.67 IsoPPP). But together they are a fairly solid, dependable bunch.

The best news for Ohio State is that they will face better wide receivers earlier in the season, and the secondary will have eleven games worth of experience by the time The Game rolls around.

Overall, the Buckeyes don’t have a schedule full of elite offenses – it’s really just the three Air Raid teams to start the season and then Michigan at the end that should challenge the secondary the most. Sure, Penn State might pull things together with their new offensive coordinator and Nebraska should be decent, but the biggest challenge will undoubtedly be the beginning of the season for the young defense.