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Breaking down Ohio State’s preseason projections

There’s a general consensus that Ohio State is one of the best bets to make the playoff, but with a new coach comes increased forecast uncertainty

National Championship - Oregon v Ohio State Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With the first week of fall camp complete and three weeks before Ohio State takes on the Florida Atlantic Owls, it’s a good time to round up the various forecasts — both statistical and otherwise — to establish some baseline expectations for the Buckeyes’ 2019 season.

The first thing to note is that Ohio State has been one of the most talented teams in college football for a long time, so the Buckeyes’ talent base suggests that they should perennially be in contention for the playoff.

Bud Elliott’s Blue Chip Ratio (which is the percentage of four- or five-star recruits you’ve signed over the last four years) demonstrates that clearly, where the Buckeyes have been no worse than third since 2014. But 2019 is the first year in which the Buckeyes have the highest percentage of blue chip recruits in the country, with 81%.

It’s not that a talented team is destined to make the playoff (see: USC, Florida State), but it is nevertheless a strong indicator. Paraphrasing Bud, it’s possible, but unlikely, to get into the playoff without a Blue Chip Ratio > 50%, but it’s nearly impossible to actually win the championship without being an elite recruiting team.

So despite the turnover in both personnel and coaches, Ohio State’s immense talent should be enough to put them amongst the most likely to make the playoff.

The general consensus in the media is that the Buckeyes are strong contenders, but not playoff shoo-ins:

Preseason OSU media rankings

Coaches Poll Athlon Lindy's Phil Steele Sports Illustrated
Coaches Poll Athlon Lindy's Phil Steele Sports Illustrated
5 5 7 6 6

I don’t necessarily disagree with any of those rankings on face value. In fact, they’re pretty in line with the statistical projections:

OSU statistical projections

S&P+ FEI F/+ FPI Power Rank National Championship Odds Blue chip %
S&P+ FEI F/+ FPI Power Rank National Championship Odds Blue chip %
7 4 5 13 7 4 (13/1) 1

FPI is incredibly pessimistic about the Buckeyes, ranking both Penn State and Michigan ahead. Unfortunately, details about how FPI is calculated are scarce, so we don’t exactly know why the ranking is so much lower than the other forecasts.

We have more information about the other forecasts. Preseason S&P+ is composed of three factors: recruiting, returning production-adjusted S&P+ of last year’s rating, and recent history (ratings from two to five years ago). So while S&P+ is impressed with Ohio State’s weighted five-year average, last year’s relatively poor recruiting ranking and relatively low returning production pull the Buckeyes down a little bit.

FEI is a possession-based metric, and the preseason projection version is “based on five-year results, recruiting success, and returning offensive and defensive production.” FEI views the Buckeyes in a more positive light, although we don’t know the exact reasons why. FEI and S&P+ both ended the year ranking Ohio State sixth, so the ranking difference could be in how recruiting or returning production are measured.

F/+ combines S&P+ and FEI (go buy the 2019 Football Outsiders Almanac!) into a single metric. It gives the Buckeyes the best chance in the Big Ten of going undefeated in the regular season (12%) and roughly an equal likelihood of going 11-1 or 10-2 (31% each). It also projects that the Buckeyes have roughly a one-in-four chance of making the playoff this year, which are the fifth-best odds in the country.

Finally, Vegas gives the Buckeyes the fourth-best odds of winning the championship this season. This is obviously a different projection than the others in that it accounts for strength of schedule and expected outcomes (and isn’t purely quantitative) in addition to just team strength. But it’s still a meaningful prediction about how good Ohio State is expected to be this season.


Tl;dr

I think all of these forecasts are reasonable expectations for the Buckeyes: Ohio State’s insane talent level alone suggests that the Buckeyes are likely to be in contention for the playoff and among the top 6-7 teams in the country. That’s maybe a half-step down from where they’ve been forecast for the last few years (second and third in the F/+, for example).

There’s also more uncertainty for Ohio State this year, too. The Buckeyes will have a new starting quarterback for the third year in a row. Maybe as importantly, Ryan Day has taken over, and we don’t know the impact he’ll have. There’s been a lot of other coaching turnover as well, which has brought scheme changes too — especially on defense. And quarterback depth is nearly zero, meaning that a meaningful Fields injury likely means the end of playoff dreams for 2019. And two games — Michigan and Penn State — project as extremely close, meaning that a turnover or two could have a large impact on the trajectory of the Buckeyes’ season.

These factors all add up to a little more uncertainty and potential variance than usual.