Undefeated Ohio State: Flawed, fun and young, Buckeyes could be next USC

Gregory Shamus - Getty Images

Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer have turned Ohio State football on its head, but shootout wins count the same as wins in puntfests. And if the wins keep coming, the Buckeyes will be in very good shape next year.

Only once in the last 15 years had Ohio State scored more than 110 points in a two-game span. They scored 115 against Nebraska and Indiana.

Of course, only once had Ohio State ever allowed 80 points or more in a two-game span (2006 to Michigan and Florida). They allowed 87 against Nebraska and Indiana.

It's a new era in Columbus. After over a decade of Jim Tressel's "Modern Woody Hayes" act -- play flawless defense, take few chances on offense, win a lot of 24-7 games -- Urban Meyer's first Ohio State squad is proving two things: 1) The Buckeyes and Braxton Miller are unafraid of getting into a shoot-out, and 2) They are going to win a lot of games with Meyer in charge.

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For the first time since somehow 2007, Ohio State is 7-0; they went to the BCS championship game that year, and while that obviously isn't in the cards this time around (Ohio State is banned from the postseason), a Top 5 AP finish and an undefeated record are certainly realistic goals at this point. Only two of the Buckeyes' five remaining games are away from Ohio Stadium, and they are against Penn State and the most beatable Wisconsin team since 2008. Neither of those two games are going to be a cakewalk (not for a team that just barely avoided losing to Indiana this past week), nor is Michigan's visit on November 24. But in surviving tests from California, Michigan State and Indiana, and in rolling past Nebraska on October 6, Ohio State has evaded quite a few landmines already.

Okay, so Ohio State has survived a couple of upset bids. Okay, so they are currently seventh in the AP poll. But how good are the Buckeyes, really? Narrowly taking out California and Indiana, and failing to put UAB away for a while, does not necessarily reflect well on you overall.

The short answer: Ohio State is pretty good, definitely a few steps ahead of last year's squad.

The long answer: The Buckeyes still have some distance to travel to get back to playing at a truly elite level. Ohio State tumbled precipitously last fall, falling to 38th in the F/+ rankings after a six-year residence in the Top 10. (F/+ rankings only go back to 2005.) The program currently stands at 11th, behind four one-loss teams (Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Florida State, LSU) and just ahead of a couple of two-loss teams (No. 14 Iowa State, No. 15 Stanford). At 14th, the offense ranks as high in Off. F/+ as it has in the F/+ era, but at 28th, the defense is lower in Def. F/+ than it was even last year.

By all means, Ohio State still has still a solid, Top 30 defense. The Buckeyes got gashed in the second half by Indiana, allowing points on six of eight post-halftime drives. But Indiana has quietly put together an interesting offense -- the Hoosiers currently rank 23rd in Off. F/+ -- and, for the game as a whole, averaged a good, but not spectacular, 6.2 yards per play. That performance didn't hurt Ohio State's rankings as much as one would think.

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Ohio State's defense seems to have two primary deficiencies: big-play prevention on the ground and inefficiency through the air. The former is still a glaring issue; the latter seems to be resolving itself a bit. The Buckeyes defense currently ranks 82nd in Rushing PPP+, an opponent-adjusted big-play stat. Indiana's Stephen Houston ripped off a 59-yard touchdown in the first quarter on Saturday and finished with 91 yards in just 11 carries. Nebraska's Rex Burkhead managed a 73-yard carry against OSU and averaged 8.5 yards per carry. Cal's Brendan Bigelow rushed for an 81-yard touchdown on his first carry against the Buckeyes, then ripped off rushes of 16 and 59 yards on his next two carries. Ohio State's front seven has quite a few strong playmakers -- linebacker Ryan Shazier has logged six tackles for loss and broken up eight passes, while end John Simon has 8.5 tackles for loss -- but depth is questionable, and when a glitch occurs, it is of the "nuclear meltdown" variety.

Against the pass, Ohio State has made plenty of plays but ranks just 38th in Passing Success Rate+, an opponent-adjusted efficiency measure. Corners Bradley Roby and Travis Howard have combined for five picks and 16 passes broken up (Roby is on pace to defense 26 passes this year, and in just 11 games -- last year's national leader had just 21 in 13 games), but Ohio State is paying for some shaky early goings-on. California and UAB combined to complete 65 percent of their passes for 547 yards, and neither have incredible passing attacks. Still, behind Roby and Howard things seem to be improving a bit (Nebraska and Indiana completed just 54 percent of their passes and were picked off four times). The big plays on the ground are by far the biggest issue here.

Speaking of big plays on the ground, however, it bears mentioning that quarterback Braxton Miller has been more than good enough to account for the occasional defensive breakdowns. Rushing 69 percent of the time on standard downs with Miller (118 non-sack carries for 979 yards and nine touchdowns) and running backs Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall (combined: 125 carries for 672 yards and eight touchdowns), the Buckeyes rank fourth in Standard Downs S&P+, first on the ground. Though he is completing 60 percent of his passes and has lowered his sack rate from 20 percent to six, Miller is still a bit limited as a passer. Like Nebraska with Taylor Martinez, Ohio State's drives tend to end pretty quickly after the offense falls behind schedule (Ohio State is 45th in Passing Downs S&P+). This could be a problem against a sturdy Michigan defense (19th on standard downs, eighth on passing downs), but it is unclear whether defenses like Penn State or Wisconsin will be able to stop the Buckeyes on first-and-10 enough for OSU's pass deficiencies to matter.

This was supposed to be a redshirt year of sorts for Urban Meyer and Ohio State. With no postseason to play for, the primary goal for the 2012 season had to be setting the table for a fantastic 2013 campaign. That the Buckeyes have managed to start 7-0 is a terrific bonus. With two current starting seniors on offense (right tackle Reid Fragel and H-receiver Jake Stoneburner) and a defense paced by sophomores Roby and Shazier (it bears mentioning that the defensive line has three starting seniors, including Simon), Ohio State has a chance to finish 12-0 in Meyer's first year and pull a USC in 2013, emerging from postseason sanctions to start the following season, if not No. 1 in the preseason polls (right now, just assume it is once again Alabama), then definitely No. 2 or No. 3.

It would have been silly to think it would take Meyer too long to build something impressive at a storied school with the strongest recruiting base in the Midwest. But it would have been just as silly to simply assume that the Buckeyes would do this well, this early, without a slip-up along the way. They have not always been incredible, but they are undefeated for a reason, and they may still be undefeated two months from now.

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