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Ohio State has usually overachieved under Urban Meyer

Paul Finebaum asked if Meyer has underachieved at Ohio State, but there’s little evidence of that by the advanced stats.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On Wednesday, ESPN’s Paul Finebaum questioned whether Urban Meyer, who is 61-6 with a national championship at Ohio State, has actually underachieved during his time in Columbus. According to Land of 10:

“Should the Buckeyes have won more under Urban Meyer?” Finebaum asked. “We’re talking about rings, not wins here. A 61-6 record at OSU in five seasons is nothing to laugh at. No team has fewer losses, and only Alabama has more wins. But after looking into the games they’ve won and how the seasons have ended, it’s worth a second look, and it raises that legitimate question of, should we have expected more?”

On the surface, that seems like an obvious troll question — how in the world can you expect to do better than six losses in five seasons? If Meyer has underachieved then who is better? After all, only Alabama and Clemson have better Program FEI ratings over the last five years. Is the bar for Urban Meyer really more than one national championship in five years?

But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered — how often did I expect a national championship at Ohio State under Urban Meyer? Ohio State had the third-most talented roster in the country last year by average player rating, and then brought in the country’s highest average rated class on this year’s national signing day. And just a few months back I asked how soon Ohio State needs to win another title to maintain its recruiting run. Luck plays a huge role in determining whether a team actually wins a championship in a given year, but it’s not out of the question to think whether Ohio State could have won another title in the last five years.

So to put some numbers to Finebaum’s question, I decided to compare preseason S&P+ projections with postseason S&P+ finishes to get a sense for the statistical expectations vs. the actual team quality.

OSU S&P+ Projections vs. Reality

Year S&P+ Projection S&P+ Finish
Year S&P+ Projection S&P+ Finish
2012 21 22
2013 12 7
2014 4 1
2015 2 4
2016 14 5

So in five years, Ohio State has beaten its preseason S&P+ projection three times, and missed it twice. The two misses were in 2012 — by one spot in the rankings — and in 2015, where they missed it by just two spots. But on average, Ohio State ends up 2.8 spots higher than their S&P+ projection.

Ohio State has outperformed statistical expectations by an average of three ranking spots per year. But what about using just regular AP Poll numbers?

AP Poll Preseason vs. Postseason Rankings

Year Preseason Postseason
Year Preseason Postseason
2012 12 3
2013 3 12
2014 6 1
2015 1 4
2016 4 6

Well, there it gets a little more tricky. On average, the AP Poll rankings pretty much get it right -- there’s no average difference between pre- and postseason poll rankings over the five year span. But Ohio State also underperformed relative to the preseason AP rankings three out of the five years (still, the margins are slim — Ohio State finished as a top-six ranked school in four of the five seasons). Maybe Finebaum’s underperformance comments make the most sense considering preseason AP poll rankings and total national championships in that span.

Alabama (twice), Florida State, Clemson, and Ohio State have all won championships in the last five years. In their championship years, their preseason rankings were:

  • Alabama 2012: 1st in S&P+, 2.5 in AP
  • Florida State 2013: 3rd in S&P+, 10th in AP
  • Ohio State 2014: 4th in S&P+, 6th in AP
  • Alabama 2015: 1st in S&P+, 2nd in AP
  • Clemson 2016: 3rd in S&P+, 2nd in AP

In that timespan, Ohio State has only ranked in the S&P+ top 4 twice (in 2014 and 2015), but has ranked in the AP Top-10 in each of the last four seasons. Out of those seasons, you could really only call 2015 a disappointment, given that they started the season second in the S&P+ and first in the AP. But that’s really the only underachieving year.

Turning to 2017

The eventual national champion during the College Football Playoff era has always been ranked in the top 4 of the preseason S&P+, and in the top 10 of the AP.

The AP poll doesn’t come out for a few more days, but Phil Steele’s AP Poll projections are usually pretty good until we get the real numbers. So, how does Ohio State looking going into 2017? Both the S&P+ and Phil Steele’s projected AP rankings have Ohio State ranked second behind only Alabama. Only time will tell if the Buckeyes are able to live up to those lofty expectations.