Right this very second, on a per-play basis, Ohio State is the best college football team in the country.
Yes, I am aware that Ohio State lost to Oklahoma. I watched that game on TV, just like all of you did. And yes, I am aware that Ohio State’s best win at this point is against Indiana, who isn’t even a lock to make a bowl, let alone sniff the highly prestigious “Also receiving votes” section of the AP Poll.
But looking at the latest S&P+ data, Ohio State is right there at the tippy top, even above Alabama, who is probably the most talented team in the country, and Clemson, who has the best wins in the country.
The reason for that is partly because the math doesn’t account for injuries, and so it likes Maryland a bit more now than it probably will in say, four weeks, but it’s also because Ohio State throughly and completely obliterated their last four opponents. Even if you don’t think much of Army, UNLV, Rutgers and Maryland, dominating them on the level that they did is difficult, impressive, and can tell us something about this Ohio State team.
It’s something we might have forgotten about amidst our hollering over the first two weeks of the season, or whether J.T. Barrett is BACK or merely “close to back”, but Ohio State’s defense is really good.
It should be really good, of course, given the returning talent, recruiting and resources, but it isn’t something that should be taken for granted. Ohio State’s murderous defensive line is currently tops in the nation in Havoc Rate, which is how often a unit breaks up a pass, forces a fumble, or tackles for a loss. If there was a reliable way to chart QB hurries, or mistakes made due to that overwhelming pressure, it’s likely Ohio State’s defensive line would be at, or near, the very top of that list as well. And this was without one of their better players, Dre’Mont Jones, who was injured the last two weeks.
The young secondary took some heat at the start of the year after giving up the most passing yards in the country over the first two weeks of the season. Over their last four games, the Buckeyes have given up just 212 passing yards...total. That’s an average of 53 yards a game, and that’s with Ohio State’s backups playing the bulk of the second half in most of those games. Sure, one of those was against Army, but holding three other teams under 100 yards passing, in blowouts where they’ll need to pass a fair amount, is no small feat, even with the limitations of raw yardage stats.
Over the entire season, including the Oklahoma game, Ohio State is 6th nationally in defensive S&P+. They’ve given up less than 16 points a game. They’ve nearly completely bottled up opposing rushing attacks, limited explosive offensive plays better than nearly anybody else in the country, and are forcing teams into inefficient down-and-distance situations. That forces teams to make inefficient decisions, or to try and force plays, and that’s when turnovers, sacks, or other explosive defensive plays happen.
And that’s what’s happening. Again, take the raw number stats with a grain of salt, since they aren’t adjusted for opponent or garbage time, but Ohio State is tied for 19th nationally with 17 sacks. They’re second in the country in tackles for loss. And 16th in 3rd down defense. Whether you like your stats advanced, or basic, the math is showing that Ohio State is putting the hammer down and making life hard for opponents.
This is a really important and promising development for Ohio State’s playoff and Big Ten title prospects. It’s probable, especially as the true meat of Big Ten play approaches, that Ohio State is going to need to win a few games ugly. That they won’t be able to get their wideouts into track meets with overmatched DBs, or when J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber won’t rush for 8 yards a carry. With the team needing to now plug in a new offensive lineman, and with so many important offensive players being very young, it’s probably unreasonable to expect the improvement over the last four weeks to continue, unabated, in a linear fashion.
That’s where having that dynamite defense comes in. If Ohio State’s defensive line continues to play at this level, it’s a mismatch for every remaining team on their Big Ten schedule, even Penn State. That will continue to make life easier for Ohio State’s secondary, which has improved significantly, but could always have another hiccup against another great team.
There aren’t many explosive offenses left on this schedule. Nebraska is ranked 87th in explosiveness, and has a QB with turnover concerns. Michigan State and Iowa have limited passing attacks. Michigan’s offense has a high ceiling, but has struggled badly so far this year.
Ohio State’s offense has had a great month. They’re improving every week. But there may be a hiccup here or there, especially if the Buckeyes suffer another injury where they don’t have great depth, like at running back or on the offensive line. But with a defense that can create havoc, play efficiently, and still likely with room to grow, they’re going to have a much larger margin of error in their quest to win out and take home some hardware.
Look, I’m with you guys. I’m here for points and more points, and if a defense isn’t sacking the QB, picking off a pass, or blasting some poor slot receiver into next week, I may not direct as much attention to it, unless it’s clearly not working.
But Ohio State’s is, for now. That’s worthy of plenty of praise. And it may end up being the reason they come back from another ugly early season loss to compete for a title.