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Michigan is Ohio State’s toughest test of the season according to analytics

The way it should be: Ohio State’s toughest test of the year will be against Michigan.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Game is finally here, and it’s almost definitely going to be Ohio State’s toughest test of the season. Last week may have been the most important for the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes, but Michigan has better talent than anyone on the schedule, and seem to be peaking at just the right time.

As we’ve mentioned though, this is a little weird in that Ohio State only has to not get blown out to achieve its playoff goals this year. A loss to Michigan drops Ohio State’s playoff odds from 81 percent to 68 percent, meaning that as long as they win the following week in Indianapolis, they’re likely playoff-bound regardless.

But that shouldn’t affect how Ohio State plays this week. This is The Game, and has to be at the top of the entire program’s goals every year.

So let’s take a look at the analytics for a better sense of how this may go:

First, the above chart compares each team’s talent using 247 Composite ratings. Unsurprisingly, Ohio State is more talented at every position on average, except at defensive tackle. A few other notes:

  • Ohio State’s largest margins are at defensive end and safety. Quarterback is also highly in favor of Ohio State, but I included Justin Fields for OSU but did not add in Shea Patterson for UM — that likely makes things much more even.
  • Michigan’s cornerbacks nearly equal Ohio State’s in terms of recruiting talent. That makes sense, considering the stresses that Don Brown’s defense typically places on corners — you have to have really talented players or it won’t work. From what others have noted though, Brown has somewhat adapted this year.

How will Ohio State attack a defense that’s significantly improved?

When Michigan allowed one-dimensional Wisconsin to score 35 points in Week 4, it was fair to question whether Michigan’s defense had taken a significant step back this year. But since the one-touchdown loss to Penn State where the defense gave up 28 points, the Wolverines have held opponents to two scores or less. That includes Notre Dame and Indiana, two solid offenses.

The above chart tells the story of this Michigan defense. The Wolverines live for passing downs (6th) and severely limit big plays (4th, and 2nd in average success rate gain), but are willing to allow some standard downs (20th) and rushing success (21st). Unlike past years, they aren’t big on creating negative plays, either against the run (76th in stuff rate) or overall havoc (37th).

This largely drives with what @SpaceCoyoteBDS said on Twitter (read the whole thread, but especially this part): “UM fans should not be upset when OSU has early down success and it doesn’t feel like UM is trying hard to get off field. 2nd-3 or 3rd-1 is not high success rate for UM, keep damage down and live to see another set of downs. Where UM gets OSU off field is strategic attack on 1st-10 or 2nd-8+. If they can win 50 percent of those snaps, then they can feel confident they can win 3rd downs to get OSU off field. OSU will move ball a bit but key is getting them into lower percent 3rd downs, not short yardage stands.”

One interesting thing to note is Michigan’s relatively poor efficiency in scoring opportunities, where they rank 37th in scoring opportunity touchdown rate — how often they allow touchdowns when opponents cross their 40.

All of this together suggests that Michigan will try to limit Ohio State’s explosive plays, even if it means conceding occasional shorter drives and early down success. Michigan’s hope is that the Buckeyes’ drives fizzle out before they enter the red zone. As a result, Ohio State’s keys will be in avoiding passing downs and taking advantage of scoring opportunities when they come up.

It is possible that Ohio State is just able to out-efficient Michigan, and so the Wolverines’ success limiting big plays isn’t helpful because the Buckeyes are just more efficient on a per-play basis. But I would still be fairly surprised if the Buckeyes are able to build up a commanding success rate margin this week.

Michigan’s passing attack is improving quickly

The above chart makes this matchup seem laughable. The Wolverines’ offense isn’t ranked higher than 31st in any of the major statistical categories, while Ohio State’s defense ranks in the top 10 in all but two, and is the top in success rate, passing success rate, and passing downs success rate.

But I think the chart, and Michigan’s season averages, short change where the Josh Gattis’ Michigan offense is right now. Shea Patterson’s first two 300-yard passing games of the season came in the last two weeks against Michigan State and Indiana, who rank 45th and 29th in passing success rate for the year. Patterson also averaged more than 11 yards per attempt, with receivers able to get significant yards after catch.

You can see that rise in explosiveness in the chart below:

Besides Michigan’s game against Rutgers, Indiana was Patterson’s most explosive passing game of the year, with nearly 18 percent of passes going for 20+ yards. Nico Collins was the major beneficiary, with six catches for 165 yards, but Donovan Peoples-Jones and Ronnie Bell have both had their moments this season too. Ronnie Bell had nine catches for 150 yards against Michigan State.

So the worry here is obvious — the season-long statistics don’t capture where the Michigan passing offense is right now, as their talented receivers are finally starting to gel with Patterson. Further, while Ohio State’s passing defensive statistics are incredible — again, first in the country in both passing success rate and passing downs success rate — the Buckeyes really haven’t faced elite receivers like they will this week. I think there’s almost no chance KJ Hamler was near full strength last week for Penn State.

While Michigan is improving and Ohio State hasn’t been tested by elite passing offenses, there are still reasons to be a least decently optimistic here, though. For one, two weeks of success doesn’t completely discount the rest of the season, even if things actually are trending up for the Wolverines offense.

Second, and back to @SpaceCoyoteBDS:

So a lot will depend on whether Michigan decides to attack that intermediate middle and whether the Wolverines can find success on the outside vs. Okudah, Arnette, and Wade. This will be an excellent test of elite talent vs. elite talents. But you have to think that the odds favor the Buckeyes defense here, especially because it is unlikely that the Wolverines can find much rushing success to balance things out.

Oh, and Michigan ranks 58th in havoc rate allowed, which I’m sure is something Chase Young knows already.