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What statistics will matter most for Ohio State in 2016?

NCAA Football: Ohio State Spring Game Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Connelly recently ranked the Buckeyes third in the conference in his power rankings after finishing his conference previews, which seems about right, given the statistical projections and returning production. But he also acknowledges that he is in no way confident of that prediction, given the 2014 team’s example and Ohio State’s overall talent base. Michigan and Michigan State just seem like slightly safer bets.

Early in the season we’ll be looking for any indications that the Buckeyes could reload and overtake their Big Ten East rivals, and I believe that a few key stats will give an indication about whether the Buckeyes can reload: Defensive adjusted line yards (in a pinch, rushing S&P+), passing PPP+ (passing S&P+ works fine here too), and offensive passing PPP+ too.

I’ll get in to why each one of these will be critical for Ohio State’s 2016 season below, but first I want to dig in to a fourth stat that is certainly make-or-break, but I have a little more confidence in: rushing success rate or opportunity rate. I’ll keep special track of these stats week-to-week during the season.

A consistent rushing attack will be the foundation for the 2016 offense

…but I’m also not worried about it. With turnover at receiver and an already underwhelming 2015 passing attack – especially in terms of their ability to generate explosive plays – the cornerstone of the offense will be an efficient rushing attack. I can’t emphasize how critical this will be for the team’s success.

Here, opportunity rate – the percentage of runs that gain at least five yards – and rushing S&P+ -- which is an overall efficiency and explosiveness metric – capture different aspects of a team’s rushing attack. Opportunity rate is largely built on the offensive line’s ability to open holes, as they are theoretically responsible for a running back’s first five yards in any rush. S&P+ blends explosiveness and efficiency together and accounts for the running back’s ability both before and after that five-yard limit for opportunity rate.

I feel confident in the Buckeye’s ability to replicate their 2015 rushing success in 2016, despite losing Ezekiel Elliott and three starting offensive linemen, for three reasons. First, J.T. Barrett returns at quarterback and should account for a fairly large percentage of the rushing load (though the coaching staff would love that not to be the case). In 2015, despite a relatively inconsistent passing attack, Barrett averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had a mind-blowing 53.2% opportunity rate – 8% higher than Elliott’s. He also rushed on average once for every three Zeke runs. With newcomer Mike Weber taking the mantle as the starting running back, Barrett will likely start off with a high rushing load that he will hopefully be weaned off of. Second, Mike Weber fits the mold for a bell-cow running back that Meyer has enjoyed with Carlos Hyde and Elliott. While we don’t have any stats beyond his physical attributes and recruiting rankings to project him with, all indications are that he can be a physical presence that can handle a heavy workload. Depth behind Weber is undoubtedly thin, though Curtis Samuel and freshman Antonio Williams can also handle some degree of workhorse rushing as well. Finally, despite replacing three starting offensive linemen, there shouldn’t be much regression from last season’s eighth-ranked line in terms of adjusted line yards (second in opportunity rate). I expect a top-15 line performance from this year’s unit.

So while rushing efficiency is critical to next season’s success, there is less projected variability compared to the three areas mentioned previously: defensive rushing efficiency, the pass defense’s ability to contain explosive passes, and the offense’s ability to generate explosive passes.

Will a deep threat emerge?

Devin Smith’s absence last season, combined with the quarterback uncertainty, made a bigger dent in the passing game than I expected. I expected either Jalin Marshall or Braxton to fill the deep-threat role, though neither averaged over 13.25 yards per catch – far below Smith’s 2014 average and even less than Michael Thomas. Now all three of those receivers are gone.

There’s plenty of talented young players that could fill the deep-threat role in the offense. Corey Smith and Parris Campbell could both be that guy, or a younger player like Terry McLaurin or Torrance Gibson. But we don’t have very much data on any of these players to project them.

But as Bill’s analysis showed, receiver turnover has the biggest single-variable impact on next year’s offensive S&P+ rating, which can’t be good for the offense. Further, Corey Smith averaged fewer yards per catch (and only five catches last season total) than either Marshall or Miller, and Campbell didn’t connect on any of his three targets last year.

Without a deep threat, the entire offenses suffers because opposing defensive backs can begin to cheat against the run game, affecting the numbers balance and ultimately limiting the offense’s overall explosiveness. Ohio State was 19th in overall IsoPPP last season, which is still good, but the passing offense was 31st in passing PPP+, which more effectively captures explosiveness. That is, the explosive run game took some of the slack for the less-explosive passing game last year.

So based on personnel turnover and poor explosiveness last season, offensive passing PPP+ will be on the critical stats I’ll be watching early in 2016.

Can opposing offenses run over the Buckeyes’ front seven?

It was a quiet concern, but the defensive line could have been much better in stopping the run consistently in 2015. At 36th in adjusted line yards and 34th in rushing success rate, the front seven’s run-stopping ability was always a concern. Losing Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington is huge here.

It’s hard to overstate Bosa’s importance to the run defense. Leading the way with 16 tackles for loss, he also occupied double teams and allowed for other front seven defenders to make plays. Washington and Tommy Schutt were both big – and their replacements are uncertain. Can redshirt freshman bluechipper Jashon Cornell thrive after his position switch to tackle? Will Michael Hill take hold of a starting spot in his junior year after coming off the bench?

Further, overall defensive line recruiting has been up-and-down over the last four years. The staff’s recruiting ranking average dipped in the 2014 and 2015 classes. It’s still an immensely talented line of front-end talent, but the tackles are especially inexperienced and depth has the potential to be a concern. The run defense has been trending up over the last few seasons, but the personnel turnover along the defensive line could stop that encouraging trend. Look for defensive adjusted line yards (and defensive opportunity rate) to be the critical stat for measuring the line’s effectiveness.

Will opposing receivers get behind the secondary?

Like Bill’s findings about returning experience at receiver and offensive S&P+, the percentage of returning passes defended has the greatest impact on next year’s defensive S&P+. With three starting members of the secondary gone, that’s another discouraging sign for 2016.

Their projected replacements are solid and are mostly experienced. Malik Hooker has the buzz at safety and performed well in the spring game, but Marshon Lattimore has had injury issues, Cam Burrows hasn’t locked down a starting spot in his time yet at Ohio State, and many of the other candidates have only seen limited time due to a short rotation in the secondary. They’ll need to get accustomed to their new starting roles quickly, as the Buckeyes first three opponents – Bowling Green, Tulsa, and Oklahoma – are all Air Raid teams who will test the secondary from the beginning of the season.

The secondary was excellent at preventing explosive plays last year, ranking fifth in passing PPP+ and the defense as a whole was third in IsoPPP+, but the turnover makes the pass defense difficult to project. Watch passing PPP+ and passing S&P+ overall (and in a pinch, just the total number of 20+ yard passing plays) for a sense of how the secondary rebuilds.