Ohio State enters the season at #3 in the preseason AP poll. This might seem like a stretch after what happened against Michigan last year.
In Columbus, Michigan scored a convincing 45-23 road win. Even worse than the scoreboard was the way it happened.
With about seven minutes remaining in the game, Michigan had a 31-23 lead. This was a typical situation in which the team with the leads wants to take time off the clock.
Ohio State knew this, and they had seven defenders near the line of scrimmage. These conservative run plays usually go the way of the defense. Except it didn’t this time.
Michigan RB Donovan Edwards found a seam, and the single high safety took a bad angle. Edwards ran around him for a 75 yard touchdown.
A few minutes later, Michigan had the ball again with a 3rd and 3. The offense and defense were in the same formation as the last touchdown with a single difference: Ohio State brought the high safety near the line of scrimmage.
The formation change didn’t matter. Edwards found a hole and scored an 85 yard touchdown run.
These plays reflected poorly on Ohio State’s defense. However, there is a huge random element in explosive plays. The research goes back to seminal work by ESPN’s Bill Connelly.
For explosiveness, Bill looked at what amounts to yards per play on successful plays (A play is a success based on the definition used in looking at Aaron Rodgers and the New York Jets). In college football, he found zero correlation between different parts of the season. I’ve also found very little predictability in explosiveness in the NFL.
The talking heads on broadcasts will rant about how the defensive scheme led to those big Michigan runs. They might lament the aggressiveness of Ohio State DC Jim Knowles, ignoring that his defense was mostly great. They ranked 4th in my adjusted success rate in 2022.
While scheme matters, the talking heads will not talk about the random element in explosive plays. A few plays against Michigan mask the massive improvement the defense made in the first year under Knowles. They ranked 45th in adjusted success rate in 2021 before he arrived.
Ohio State’s struggles with explosive plays are clear when comparing their rank on success rate (4th) versus yards per play (49th). However, Knowles did not have the same discrepancy in 2021 at Oklahoma State (5th in success rate, 4th in yards per play). With the talent that Ohio State returns, the defense should continue to improve.
On offense, Ohio State must replace QB CJ Stroud, the 2nd overall pick of the NFL draft. Kyle McCord will start in the first game against Indiana, but he has not won the job over Devin Brown.
However, coach Ryan Day has an excellent track record on offense. Ohio State has an elite set of receivers, headlined by Marvin Harrison Jr. These receivers got so much separation against Michigan State last year they could have used a catapult to deliver the football.
A variety of trusted preseason metrics like the Buckeyes:
- 3rd in my market rankings based on win totals
- 2nd in SP+, a metrics based approach by Bill Connelly
Don’t let a few plays against Michigan fool you. Ohio State is not overrated at #3 in the preseason AP poll (I’ll give you my third overrated team on Saturday).
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