Especially during the mid-game offensive lull against FAU, some Ohio State fans looked a little more warily towards game two against Cincinnati.
The Bearcats defense, which had held Chip Kelly’s UCLA to just 14 points in their week one win, was projected to be much more formidable than FAU’s. So if the Buckeyes could go half of the game against FAU without scoring, how would they fare against a much better Bearcats defense?
So let’s take a look at exactly how good Cincinnati actually is.
This chart shows the top quartile (top 25%) of player ratings, grouped by position, with the size of the circle showing the total number of players committed at each position. Like you would expect, the Buckeyes have a massive talent advantage at every position.
Most of Cincinnati’s players are roughly in the mid .8s (or three-stars), but they have three positions that stand out — quarterback, running back, and tight end.
Desmond Ridder returns for the Bearcats at quarterback, and he beat out several players who rated higher than him for the starting job. As a freshman last season, Ridder and Cincinnati had an average EPA success rate of 46%, which ranked 43rd in the country, and an average passing EPA of .109, which was 64th.
EPA stands for expected points added, and is essentially rates plays adjusted by down, yards to go, and field position. You can read more about it here.
Running back Michael Warren II is probably the main threat. He was a high-three star recruit (.8707) and was a strong rusher last season. He had a 43.5% EPA success rate, which was just behind Kentucky’s Benny Snell and Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin last season (for context, Dobbins was 47.8%, but Dobbins’ higher percentage of negative plays drags down his average EPA).
This chart shows both Ridder and Warren II as rushers compared to all other rushers in the FBS last season with more than 40 carries. Ridder and Warren are the two blue dots (Ridder is the lower one), with Dobbins in red as a comparison. Both Warren and Ridder come out to be fairly middle-of-the-pack rushers, although so does Dobbins, at least going by last year’s stats. Warren totaled over 1,300 yards last season on the ground, but was relatively inefficient doing so. His average EPA was just over zero, which means that his average run was just barely positive after you adjust for down, distance and field position. And 43% of his overall runs were positive.
Ridder projects as a very slightly more efficient runner (he had 727 rushing yards at 5.6 yards per carry last year), but was much less explosive. However, neither could really be said to be explosive on average.
Their top-rated tight end, sophomore Leonard Taylor, was at .8999, but he had just 4 targets as a freshman last season. Their top returning receiving target was a tight end, but Josiah Deguara was much lower rated at .7952. He totaled 468 receiving yards with a 60.3% catch rate last year.
How did they do overall last season?
SP+ rated Cincinnati 50th overall — 74th in offensive SP+ and 36th in defensive SP+.
If you use EPA (which is not opponent-adjusted), Cincinnati’s defense becomes even more impressive. Their average defensive EPA was actually the best among FBS teams, and their EPA success rate was fifth behind just Michigan, Clemson, Miami, and UAB. This chart helps visualize how they compared to Ohio State (in red; lower and to the left is better):
With 71% of their defensive production returning (and Luke Fickell and Marcus Freeman still coaching the defense) expect another elite defense from the Bearcats this season. This should be a legitimate test for how the Buckeyes will do against some of the other elite defenses on their schedule.
How were they projected?
SP+ projected Cincinnati at 44th overall (71st offense, 31st defense). At 44th, they were considered Ohio State’s fifth-most difficult opponent of the season.
F/+ had them 39th overall and projected to go 9-3 this year.
Not only did the Bearcats go a surprising 11-2 last season, but they also return the 36th-most production from last season. Besides some attrition along the offensive line, their biggest loss was leading receiver Khalil Lewis, who totaled 782 yards.
So overall, while the Cincinnati offense doesn’t inspire a ton of fear, the defense is an excellent test for the Buckeyes offense.