We normally don’t get that many data points at the start of a football season. That’s because when a top-ranked team plays a Group of Five or FCS opponent, it’s hard to know what is real and what’s exacerbated by playing a generally weaker opponent.
By way of example, Texas A&M shut out Sam Houston State, 31-0. We know absolutely nothing about how the Aggies stack up against the rest of the Top-10 in the AP Poll. Similarly, though Utah State won the Mountain West last season, it’s hard to gauge what Alabama’s 55-0 win over the (other) Aggies says about the Crimson Tide. Michigan, Oklahoma and Baylor also were top-10 teams with blowout victories over non-Power Five opponents.
All these teams did what they were expected to do. As a result, there is very little we can learn from their performances. Collectively, the aforementioned teams scored a lot of points against defenses that don’t have the athletes to match up. On the flip side, the highly touted defensive players of Alabama et al were able to easily handle opposing offenses.
What will happen when Alabama and Texas A&M face off? Or Oklahoma and Baylor? It’s a coin flip because the data is simply not there to determine who is the better team.
Fortunately for Ohio State, that was not the case this week. We learned a lot about the Buckeyes following their top-five matchup against Notre Dame Saturday — learnings that can be taken at face value because Notre Dame is an objectively good opponent. While preseason polls have their faults, it’s statistically unlikely that Notre Dame will end the season as a total flop.
That means what we saw on both sides of the ball is more akin to the team the Buckeyes really are than a skewed version of what we’ll likely see against non-Power Five opponents in the next couple of weeks.
Sure, there are benefits to having these early games to figure things out. Even eventual College Football Playoff-bound teams might have some kinks early on. Ergo, it’s helpful to schedule opponents who can enable teams to get in shape before conference play, when dropping a single game can effectively seal a team out of the CFP.
However, what I’m talking about here is not the strategy of out-of-conference scheduling, but rather seeing the clear picture of where teams stand, which is just plain interesting. And of course, we’d be singing a different tune if Ohio State lost Saturday.
For Ohio State, this win was an important one because there were clear deficiencies dating back to last season that we needed to figure out on the defensive side of the ball. Playing a Group of Five opponent would have given no data on how effective this year’s iteration of defense actually is. Most of the time, these defensive challenges didn’t really matter because C.J. Stroud and company would execute their quick-strike offense and keep Ohio State firmly in control of things. But of course, they didn’t matter until they did — like in Ohio State’s losses to Oregon and Michigan.
One of these struggles in 2021 was the seemingly unending challenge of getting off the field on third down. The Buckeyes were 92nd in the FBS in third down defense in 2021, with opponents converting on more than 42% of their attempts.
Saturday, Notre Dame converted just 23% of its third-down attempts, going 3-of-13 overall. The Buckeyes rank fifth nationally in the category of third-down defense currently. Granted, it’s a single week of data, but it’s an improvement — and we know that because it came against a good team.
Similarly, Ohio State’s red zone defense in 2021 was odious. The Buckeyes gave up touchdowns on nearly 74% of their opponents’ red zone possessions. That mark was good for fourth-worst in the FBS.
The data here is limited because Notre Dame had just two red zone possessions, both of which resulted in scores. Admittedly, that’s not great. However, the Irish scored one touchdown and one field goal. Allowing touchdowns on 50% of red zone possessions is much better than 74%.
There’s definitely room for improvement. For instance, the team that beat Notre Dame Saturday would struggle against the likes of College Football Playoff teams we’ve seen in the past. However, the teams we see in Week 1 also tend to evolve throughout a season. Ohio State should get better, especially if the wide receiver unit can get back to full strength and if the defense can continue to gel.
Yes, we are still just one game into the season, and there’s a lot more to learn. But all signs are pointing to Ohio State being one of the top teams in the nation — and this time around, we know those signs are real.