It's difficult to project a team that returns a Power-5-worst level of experience. Sure, the Buckeyes may be one of the top three most talented teams in the country, but doesn't experience count for something?
Three areas will determine the fate of the inexperienced 2016 Buckeyes -- the explosive play pass defense, their ability to stop efficient rushes, and the offense's ability to be both explosive and efficient in the passing game.
We've written previously about how returning experience is the best predictor for offensive S&P+ -- and this is one area where things really don't look great for Ohio State. Again, not because the talent isn't there -- it is. But if experience matters at receiver, then the Buckeyes don't have it.
But how are the Buckeyes' opponents' pass defenses? Are there enough weak pass defenses on the schedule that the lack of returning experience may not matter?
Take a look for yourself:
|Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability||'15 Pass Def. S&P+|
|at Penn State||28||1.6||54%||8|
|at Michigan State||22||-0.7||48%||10|
Note: the first four columns in the table above are taken from Bill's excellent 2016 Ohio State preview.
The Buckeyes will face six teams that had top-15 pass defenses according to defensive passing S&P+. There are few mediocre pass defenses -- it's almost all elite pass defenses on the schedule or terrible ones. For instance, the best six pass defenses averaged tenth in the country, while the six worst teams on their schedule averaged 91st.
Let's break down a few of the biggest matchups:
It definitely wasn't a good idea to base your offensive gameplan on throwing all over the Sooners. In Texas' upset, they ran 54 times for 332 yards. It's possible that the Buckeyes will need to take a similar approach against the Sooners in Week 3, meaning that Mike Weber has two games to get comfortable with a heavy rushing load. In defensive passing PPP+, which captures explosiveness fairly well, the Sooners had the second-best pass defense in the country. The Sooners do lose their two leading pass rushers in Eric Striker and Charles Tapper, but most of the secondary returns.
The Buckeyes then get two abysmal pass defenses to open Big Ten play with Rutgers and Indiana, but Wisconsin is getting overlooked. The Badgers had a top-ten pass defense in IsoPPP+, PPP+, and S&P+ last season. They lose leading pass rusher Joe Schobert (9.5 sacks last season), but most of the rest of the pass rush in the front seven returns (which was 24th in adjusted sack rate last season). The key is how well the Badgers reload their secondary, which lost three starters. Their replacements are fairly experienced, so the drop off shouldn't be too steep. The Buckeyes will certainly benefit from Schoebert's absence, but they'll need to prepare for another top-20 unit.
The Nittany Lions are next on the schedule, in the middle of a three-game stretch of excellent defenses. Penn State excelled at limiting big plays, ranking just 32nd in passing success rate, but sixth in passing PPP+. The strategy for the Buckeyes is likely to go with shorter, high percentage throws to steadily move the ball rather than trying to go over the top on the Penn State secondary. Further, the pass rush should take a step back thanks to the departures of Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib.
Northwestern seemed to come out of nowhere with an elite defense, finishing top-11 in S&P+, PPP+, and success rate. They lose sack leader Deonte Gibson, but with 3/4 of their secondary returning, this should still be a great pass defense.
Popular perception had the Spartans taking a step back in pass defense, but the defense was still top-15 in all advanced passing stats, including 13th in IsoPPP+. The key this season will be replacing most of their defensive linemen -- five of their top seven. Malik McDowell returns and there are a number of elite young players, but the line and pass rush is fairly inexperienced. The back end of the secondary should still be solid -- if there is any overall regression for the Spartans (and there may not be any), there's not much to suggest it will be because of the pass defense.
The Wolverines were top-16 in all advanced passing defensive stats last season and return all but one starting lineman from the 26th-ranked adjusted sack rate line. There will be three fresh faces at linebacker (depending on the personnel package), but the real strength of this defense is in the back end anyway -- Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis both return.
Whether you look at last year's advanced metrics or go team by team, half of the Buckeyes' schedule features elite pass defenses, which doesn't look great for a passing game that has to completely rebuild its receiving corps. Given how solid these six teams are in passing IsoPPP+, developing a reliable receiver -- not necessarily the most explosive -- will be absolutely critical. That's why Noah Brown matters so much this season. It's also why Mike Weber and the running game have to be dependable.