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Ohio State is a better team than USC, but the more motivated team will likely win

You can’t take motivation for granted in non-playoff bowl games

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State is a better team than USC and should win the Cotton Bowl unless the Buckeyes come out flat — which is a real possibility.

The Buckeyes have so far downplayed any hint that they’re not motivated. But there’s still a real threat that missing out on the playoff was a fatal blow to the team’s psyche. Sure, playing USC, the Pac-12 Champion, avenging all of those losses to the Trojans, and sending out the seniors on a high note, should be enough motivation. But players come to Ohio State to win championships, so we can’t just assume the team will play — or have prepared — to the best of their ability.

Another way to think about it could be in terms of volatility. On average, using opponent-adjusted advanced stats, Ohio State has been the best team in the country this year. If USC and Ohio State played 100 times, the Buckeyes would be projected to win about 34 of those Cotton Bowls.

But they’ve been far, far from consistent. Coming back against Penn State, blowing out Michigan State, and defeating S&P+ teams Michigan and Wisconsin all prove that Ohio State is one of the best teams in the country. But they were also unprepared and unfocused in the blowout loss to Iowa, and not equal to Oklahoma in their first loss of the season. So while the Buckeyes would win the vast majority of the time Ohio State and USC played each other in these simulated games, Ohio State would have more than a few total blowout losses, too.

That’s why it’s useful to measure the quality of a football team by a range rather than a single point. While Ohio State averages out to be the best team in the country going by the S&P+, they’re also capable of turning in two sub-21% percentile performances, showing wide volatility. Compare that to Alabama — who had only one game below 68%, or even USC, who had only one performance below 52%. So it’s not unreasonable to imagine a blowout Ohio State win or USC rolling in the Cotton Bowl — and both teams’ motivation to be there might be the determining factor for what kind of performance we’re likely to get.

Ohio State vs. USC

Statistic OSU USC
Statistic OSU USC
S&P+ 1 22
Returning offensive production 50th (68%) 82nd (58%)
Returning defensive production 92nd (57%) 61st (67%)
Blue chip ratio 74% 58%
247 Team Talent Composite 2nd (avg. 91.13) 3rd (90.81)
Offensive Plays > 20 Yards 12th (81) 6th (87)
Defensive Plays > 20 Yards 41st (52) 115th (71)
Turnover margin/game 57th (.15) 59th (.08)
Kickoff success rate 105th (62.6%) 83rd (70%)
Kickoff return success rate 56th (46.4%) 8th (62.9%)

One other thing here: I think it’s really important for Ohio State to get a win on Friday night. There have been a recent string of disappointments, including missing out on the playoff to losing Jackson Carmen, Jaiden Woodbey, and Emory Jones on early signing day. Add in a loss to USC, and despite objectively positive things in Ohio State’s season — the second-ranked recruiting class! A Big Ten title! Another win over Michigan! -- it would be easier to connect these recent disappointments with others, like the losses to Iowa and Oklahoma, and last year’s loss to Clemson. But win this one and the team regains momentum and changes the tone for the offseason.


Ohio State Offense vs. USC Defense

Teams OSU Offense USC Defense
Teams OSU Offense USC Defense
S&P+ 6 61
Overall SR+ 2 29
Overall IsoPPP+ 2 33
Rushing S&P+ 2 53
Rush SR 1 (54.7%) 91 (44.8%)
Rush IsoPPP 35 72
Opp Rate 3 (46.6%) 104 (41.4%)
Stuff Rate 2 (12%) 112 (15.4%)
Adj. Line Yards 8 92
Passing S&P+ 3 12
Passing SR 12 (47.4%) 12 (33.6%)
Pass IsoPPP 26 83
Adj. Sack Rate 41 15
Avg FP 31 (30.8) 55 (29)
Drives 5 (5.29) 33 (4.02)

On paper, Ohio State is well-built to take advantage of USC’s defensive weaknesses. The Buckeyes could follow the Notre Dame template: run the ball and the stop the run. USC had a zero percent win expectancy based on the advanced stats from the game — partly due to USC’s -3 turnover margin — but also because Ronald Jones II was held to 2.67 yards per carry while Josh Adams ran for 191 yards and quarterback Brandon Wimbush added 116. The result was a 49-14 blowout where Sam Darnold’s 54 percent passing success rate performance wasn’t enough to keep up with Notre Dame’s incredible rushing attack. Wimbush only threw for 120 yards and completed less than 50 percent of his passes, but a dominant run game put the game way out of reach.

It wasn’t just Notre Dame, either. Khalil Tate ran for 197 yards on 21 carries. Bryce Love had 160 in their first meeting, then 125 in the Pac-12 Championship without any threat from the quarterback run game.

Ohio State should be able to follow this game plan. In opponent-adjusted rushing S&P+, Ohio State ranks second overall while USC’s defense is 53rd. The Trojans defense is 91st in rushing success rate, allowing successful runs on nearly 45 percent of opponent attempts, and 5-yard gains on 41.4 percent of opponent runs. USC fails to get a lot of pressure, either, stuffing only 15.4 percent of runs, which ranks 112th in the country.

When Ohio State gets in to short-yardage situations — that J.T. is probably the best in the country at converting — USC may be a little tougher, but they still rank just 38th in power success rate. That’s good, but not great — and hardly anyone is better than Barrett and the Ohio State offense at picking up the first down in short-yardage situations.

Notre Dame, which had a fairly one-dimensional offense all season, piled up the points on the Trojans without throwing the ball very effectively. So the blueprint is there for Ohio State to do the same behind Barrett, Dobbins, and Weber. But it’s obviously not ideal.

It will be interesting to see how Ohio State chooses to attack the Trojans through the air. The Trojans’ pass defense gives some mixed signals. On the one hand, they’re ranked 12th in opponent-adjusted passing S&P+, and 12th in passing success rate too. Looking through USC’s schedule, you actually won’t find too many elite quarterbacks (as passers, because obviously Brandon Wimbush and Khalil Tate are both incredible running quarterbacks) — really just Josh Rosen. But the best passing quarterbacks have found some success against the Trojans: Rosen threw for 421 yards (7.15 per attempt), and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger, playing in one of the first games of his college career, had 298 passing yards, too (5.96 per attempt).

What those two performances have in common are big plays. Texas’ Collin Johnson averaged an astounding 27.3 yards per catch for 191 total receiving yards (on 7 receptions). UCLA’s Jordan Lasley had 204 yards, averaging 20.4 yards per catch. While neither quarterback was very consistent in terms of yards per attempt (7.15 and 5.96 being pretty pedestrian averages), they did have a ton of big plays.

That trend is reflected in USC’s season-long numbers too. They rank 115th in the country in plays of 20+ yards allowed, with 71. That puts them in company with Texas Tech, Ole Miss, and Syracuse, and much worse than Ohio State opponents like Maryland and Rutgers. This likely equates to some big-time runs for Dobbins and/or Weber on the ground, and at least one receiver emerging for some big receptions. But it also means that we shouldn’t necessarily expect the most efficient passing performance, either.

Instead, we’re most likely to see both Dobbins and Barrett have efficient days on the ground, with a few explosive runs here and there, combined with a fairly inconsistent but explosive passing game.


USC Offense vs. Ohio State Defense

Teams OSU Defense USC Offense
Teams OSU Defense USC Offense
S&P+ 11 15
Overall SR+ 8 19
Overall IsoPPP+ 7 13
Rushing S&P+ 1 52
Rush SR 5 (33.6%) 30 (46.3%)
Rush IsoPPP 8 36
Opp Rate 1 (27.4%) 104 (41.4%)
Stuff Rate 15 (24.1%) 54 (18.8%)
Adj. Line Yards 1 33
Passing S&P+ 18 8
Passing SR 37 (37.5%) 8 (48.4%)
Pass IsoPPP 8 39
Adj. Sack Rate 26 26
Avg FP 14 (26.9) 52 (30)
Drives 21 (3.81) 76 (4.41)

Even though Sam Darnold is the face of the USC offense, the key to shutting down the Trojans might actually be in stopping the run.

Darnold has taken some heat this season for turnovers, throwing six interceptions in his first three games against Western Michigan, Stanford, and Texas. But he hasn’t had a multiple-interception game since, and he’s averaged at least 9.4 yards per attempt in each of his last four games. He leads the eighth-ranked passing S&P+ offense, which is also eighth in success rate and top-40 in IsoPPP.

Deontay Burnett (by far Darnold’s most-targeted receiver), Tyler Vaughns (best catch rate of his top-5 targets), and Steven Mitchell Jr. (shorter, but higher yards/catch average than the top two targets) are the top-3 targets, though 6’4 tight end Tyler Petite and 6’4 sophomore receiver Michael Pittman Jr. are also legitimate receiving threats. Running backs Stephen Carr and Ronald Jones II are also excellent pass-catchers, as well, which could be dangerous given the Buckeye linebackers’ performance against running backs in the passing game this season.

But even though the passing game may be the best part of the USC offense, the Buckeye defense may find the most success by first stopping the run. Ohio State should have a big advantage here: Ohio State has the top-ranked rushing S&P+ defense, shutting down Jonathan Taylor and Saquon Barkley, while USC has the 52nd-ranked rushing S&P+ offense. The Trojans are 30th in rushing success rate, and worst of all, they are 54th in stuff rate, failing to gain positive yards on nearly a fifth of their rushing attempts.

Those stats aren’t to diminish Carr or Jones II as individual players — both average over 6.2 highlight yards per opportunity and Jones II is actually 9th in the country in average rushing yards per game with nearly 124. But he’s also a very high volume runner. For comparison, Dobbins averages nearly 1.5 yards per attempt more than Jones II and has a 10+ yard run about 5 percent more of the time (roughly 21 percent compared with 16 percent). The offensive line doesn’t seem to open a ton of huge holes though, as the team’s rushing opportunity rate is 40.5 percent (41st). So there’s definitely an opportunity for Ohio State’s front seven to create a lot of negative running plays and force the game into Sam Darnold’s hands.

Finally, Ohio State should have a big advantage by forcing stalled drives in or near the red zone. USC averages just 4.41 points per scoring opportunity (76th), while Ohio State’s defense is 21st in that category. USC is also just 74th in touchdown percentage in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on only 60 percent of red zone attempts.


  1. Ohio State should be able to run on the Trojans defense, which ranks 53rd in rushing S&P+.
  2. The Buckeye offense should also create some big plays, since the Trojans rank 115th in plays of 20+ yards allowed, 84th in plays of 10+ yards allowed, and 76th in overall IsoPPP.
  3. The Trojans pass defense is good though, as they rank 12th in opponent-adjusted passing S&P+. The pass defense’s worst performances have come on big plays against the top quarterbacks on their schedule (Rosen, Ehlinger).
  4. Sam Darnold is a great quarterback leading the 8th-ranked passing S&P+ offense in the country, so the key to stopping the Trojans offense might be in creating negative run plays (USC is 54th in stuff rate and Ohio State is 15th).
  5. Forcing field goals should be a top priority, as USC is just 74th in red zone touchdown percentage.
  6. Ultimately though, Ohio State has been highly volatile this season. So while on average the Buckeyes have been the better team, motivation to be there should be the game’s deciding factor.


S&P+: Ohio State 36, USC 24. 75.9% win probability

F/+: Ohio State by 5.1, 61.5% win probability

Adj. S&P+: Ohio State by 4, 59.2% win probability

My pick: Ohio State 34, USC 30