It’s hard to believe, but the Buckeyes are through a quarter of the regular season already. After a bye week to regroup and get healthier for upcoming games against Rutgers and Indiana, we have time to take stock of Ohio State’s performance through three games.
Ohio State opened the season with two projected losses according to the S&P+ preseason projections. Early in the season, the S&P+ has a declining weekly weight given to preseason projections relative to in-season performance – there simply haven’t been enough games played for a reliable opponent adjustment yet. After three weeks the ratio of projections to current season data is roughly 50:50.
Ohio State has risen to the top spot in the S&P+ ratings this week because of both their play and because of the projections being slowly phased out. Projections were fairly low because of the negative adjustment from low returning experience across the board, especially at key positions like wide receiver and in the secondary.
As a result of these adjustments, the Buckeyes have risen to first in the S&P+ and now have projected wins in each of their remaining games. The S&P+ also includes win probabilities and expected margins for the schedule. From that information it’s easy to see the five most difficult remaining games on the schedule: Wisconsin (74% win probability, 11.1 projected margin), Penn State (86%, 19), Nebraska (85%, 18), Michigan State (87%, 19.1), and Michigan (60%, 4.4).
According to the current S&P+ ratings, the Buckeyes only have one game with a win likelihood under 74%, and that's The Game. As a result of their upward rise in the advanced metrics, the Buckeyes now have a 22% chance of going undefeated during the regular season.
Where are the Buckeyes' weak spots?
In his review of the Oklahoma game, Bill C identified three potential weak spots for the Buckeyes: 1) A somewhat underwhelming pass rush, 2) Passing downs success rate and standard downs explosiveness, and 3) Injuries and inexperience still causing some chaos.
1. The pass rush
|Standard downs sack rate||Passing downs sack rate||Defensive line havoc rate|
|2.9% (87th)||6.4% (76th)||6% (43rd)|
- Ohio State’s rebuilt defensive line has been a pleasant surprise so far, particularly against the run, but it hasn’t replicated last season’s pass rush, recording sacks on just 2.9% of standard downs and 6.4% of passing downs for a 43rd-ranked defensive line havoc rate.
- But the defensive line also hasn’t necessarily needed to get to the quarterback because of excellent defensive back play so far, ranking fifthin defensive back havoc rate and leading the country in interceptions. The opportunistic scoring defense has been incredible, but it’s at least possible that their ball-hawking success has hidden a relatively poor pass rush too.
- This year’s team hasn’t had a single unstoppable pass rusher emerge yet – it’s been much more of a by-committee approach to replacing Joey Bosa. Jerome Baker and Sam Hubbard lead the team with 1.5 sacks each, but Baker is currently just filling in for the injured Dante Booker and Hubbard hasn’t yet lit up the defensive stat sheet.
- The concern is if the defensive backs’ production declines: what happens if a defensive back gets injured (like Gareon Conley against Oklahoma), a better quarterback is able to find holes in the secondary, or inexperience randomly catches up with the unit? Without turnovers and elite defensive back play then the relative lack of a pass rush could become an issue. The Buckeyes’ passing success rate is currently 27th in the country, though they have also faced three-straight Air Raid teams who should be highly rated in passing S&P+ this year.
- The lack of numbers for the defensive line doesn’t necessarily mean that they haven’t been effective, however. Quarterback hurries are often inconsistently recorded, and there were several instances where pressure forced Baker Mayfield into poor decision making and throws.
2. Consistency on passing downs and explosiveness on standard downs
|Standard downs success rate||Standard downs IsoPPP||Passing downs success rate||Passing downs IsoPPP|
|65% (1st)||88th||29% (85th)||2nd|
- J.T. Barrett has been excellent so far this season, doing what he has to do to distribute the ball to his playmakers. And due to how successful the offense has been on standard downs (successful on 65% of standard downs, easily top in the country), J.T. hasn’t been put in very many must-convert third down passing situations. But the offense also hasn’t been consistent in passing situations, either.
- On passing downs the offense has just a 29% success rate. If an opposing defense figures out the keys to limiting Ohio State’s standard downs run game and increases the number of passing downs the Buckeyes face (i.e., the Michigan State game last year), then that could lead to three-and-outs. The worry here is if the offense falls behind schedule, there hasn’t been much evidence that they can dig themselves back out quickly. There also haven’t been many situations where they’ve had to, but it’s a potential concern nonetheless. (See: Tulsa.) The passing offense must still demonstrate that it’s able to consistently convert in obvious passing situations. So the concern is whether Ohio State can win a slug fest after sloppy performances.
- The flip side of the offense’s standard down success and passing downs explosiveness is the relative lack of explosiveness on standard downs. This is less of a concern at this point than the passing downs success rate. While the offense hasn’t ripped off many breakaway runs or explosive passes on standard downs, they are consistently creating small explosive plays between 11-19 yards that don’t move the needle very much in IsoPPP. As evidence for that, Ohio State is 12th in the country in run plays of 10+ yards (31), but just 62nd in plays of 20+ yards. The Buckeyes haven't had a run of 40+ yards yet.
- Finally, it’s important to note that the majority of these metrics (anything without a "+" next to it) aren’t opponent-adjusted yet due to data availability. The Buckeyes’ rankings can drastically change as we get a better sense of how good their opponents have actually been.
Some other notes
- I thought it’d be interesting to compare Mike Weber through three games with Ezekiel Elliott from last season:
|Player||Pos.||Ht, Wt||Year||Rushes||Yards||TD||Yards/||Hlt Yds/||Opp.||Fumbles|
|Mike Weber||RB||5'10, 212||FR||54||351||1||6.5||5||44.40%||0 (0)|
|Ezekiel Elliott||RB||6'0, 225||JR||289||1821||23||6.3||6||45.00%||2 (2)|
- As you can see, Weber is on pace for fewer rushing attempts, but is nearly as efficient and explosive as Zeke was last season. The team over at Pro Football Focus College has Weber with a similar elusiveness rating as Zeke as well. Simply put, Weber has been an admirable replacement already for Zeke, though it’s certain he’ll face some more intimidating run defenses than he’s seen so far as well.
- The receivers were a major question mark entering the season: lots of talent, but almost no experience. Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown have emerged as two reliable playmakers (with 94.1% and 75% catch rates) who have accounted for a combined 36.3% of passes so far this season. But I expect the receiver rotation to tighten throughout the year as the team enters Big Ten play and potentially more competitive games. Will any other receivers step up as well? Dontre Wilson could use more touches based on his numbers so far (80% catch rate, 11.8 yards per catch, but just a 12.5% target rate). K.J. Hill also showed flashes in the first two games – it’s just a matter of consistency and need, since the passing offense has mainly been an explosive counterpart to the efficient run game.
- The offensive line has been extremely good, ranking first in standard downs line yards per carry (4.58), third in opportunity rate (with 54.8% of runs going for five or more yards), and only allowing tackles for loss on 8.1% of runs (top overall). In short yardage situations – an area that Zeke and the line excelled at last season – Weber and the new line have been excellent, getting a successful run on 93.3% of attempts (third). All of that contributes to the second-ranked rushing success rate in the country at 64.4%.
- Finally, one of the best formulas for winning a lot of games is simple: bring in a lot of interceptions, force a lot of fumbles, and don’t turn the ball over on offense. Turnover margin can be fairly random year-to-year (especially fumble recovery rates), but the difference between expected turnover margin and actual turnover margin helps differentiate between lucky turnover teams (like Tennessee this year) and ball-hawking defenses. Here the Buckeyes are first in the country in actual turnover margin (+9), and still 13th in expected turnover margin. Combine that with excellent field position (15th and 3rd in average starting field position for the offense and defense) and you’re going to win a lot of games. About the only thing from the Five Factors that you’d like to see improve over the next two games are explosive plays – particularly the explosive downfield passing game.