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What happens when a defense underachieves as badly as Ohio State’s?

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A recent history of blue-chip defenses that’ve had mediocre-at-best production.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Purdue Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, Ohio State’s defense prevented the Buckeyes from playing for the national title. Ohio State got to 11-0, but surrendered 41 points to Michigan, 34 to Michigan State, and 40 to Clemson. The Bucks ended the year with the No. 42 defense according to S&P+.

Urban Meyer retooled the staff, replacing Everett Withers with Chris Ash and bringing in long-time Penn State line coach Larry Johnson. Those changes, plus the maturation of the epic 2013 class (the backbone of the best draft class of all time), led Ohio State to shoot up to 14th on defense, good enough to win the title.

The Buckeyes followed with three more top-10 defenses. Ohio State did not miss a beat when they replaced Ash with Greg Schiano or had to replace the Joey Bosa/Darron Lee/Vonn Bell/Eli Apple group with new blue chips.

And then, out of nowhere, the 2018 Ohio State defense has collapsed.

Despite recruiting classes on par with Alabama’s and a coaching staff that should have gotten stronger with the addition of Alex Grinch, the Buckeyes have plummeted to 49th in defensive S&P+, good for eighth in the Big Ten. Conference rivals like Minnesota, Northwestern, and Iowa that recruit far less talent are getting better results.

Allowing big plays has been the downfall. Among Power 5 teams, only Wake Forest and Baylor have allowed more plays of 30 yards or longer. They are 89th in yards per play allowed (5.88) and 109th in percentage of plays allowed of 10 yards or longer (22.2). From a piece by ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, opposing coaches have noticed issues:

“Defensively, they’ve lost their way,” a Power 5 head coach said. “I don’t think their DBs are near as good as they’ve been. Their safeties are not near as athletic, and they’re trying to play all that man-free and they can’t do it. They’re too stiff, which is amazing to say because they’re all four-, five-star guys. They just don’t have an identity on defense...”

A coach who has scouted the Buckeyes wondered whether the big-play pattern has caused overscheming.

The Bucks’ bad performances raise some questions. Is this the most underachieving defense in recent memory?

And what can we learn from other defenses that squandered talent like this? Let’s look at the last 25 years, starting with another dynasty that had a surprising defensive downturn.

1995 Florida State - 57th in Defensive S&P+

Florida State finished in the AP top four in every season from 1987 to 2000. In that stretch, every Nole defenses finished between first and 16th in defensive S&P+, except for this one. The 1995 Noles gave up 33 to Virginia and 35 to Florida in the team’s two losses.

And it’s not as if FSU lacked talent, as six linemen would be drafted, including three in the first round. This was a team that was just young and a year away, as the defense would carry the Noles to an unbeaten regular season and a win over Steve Spurrier’s best team one year later.

1999 Georgia - 61st in Defensive S&P+

Jim Donnan became Georgia’s coach in 1996 and immediately began recruiting top-10-type classes. His 1999 team was loaded with talent, starting with Marcus Stroud, Richard Seymour, and Kendrell Bell, who would be taken in the top 40 picks of the 2001 Draft. All told, 14 players from this defense would be drafted.

Unfortunately for Georgia fans, Donnan’s response to Tennessee winning two straight SEC titles was to lure Vols defensive back coach Kevin Ramsey to coordinate the defense. Ramsey got demoted at some point during or after Auburn and Georgia Tech moved the ball at will on the Dawgs. One year later, Donnan would follow Ramsey out the door.

2007 Florida - 52nd in Defensive S&P+

In 2007, Tim Tebow won the Heisman with one of the best seasons in history. Nevertheless, the Gators lost four games because of a defense that could not get stops. This was a gap year in between the excellent defense staffed with Ron Zook holdovers that won the 2006 title and the dominant defense of Urban recruits that would win in 2008. Future stars like Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, and Major Wright struggled at times in 2007 before maturing in 2008.

2008 Michigan - 48th in Defensive S&P+

Lloyd Carr did not leave much on the offense for Rich Rodriguez (especially when Ryan Mallett took a look at Rodriguez’s offense and transferred to Arkansas), but Michigan’s defense was replete with blue chip recruits, including six who’d end up draft picks. Five of 11 starters were among the top 11 at their positions when they came out of high school, headlined by future first round pick Brandon Graham. Demonstrating the lack of attention to defense that has characterized his post-West Virginia career, Rodriguez turned this into a unit that allowed 28.9 points per game, including 45 to Illinois and 48 to Purdue.

2009 Florida State - 80th in Defensive S&P+

Florida State’s five recruiting classes leading up were third, ninth, 25th, 14th, and 11th. Suffice it to say that this team had enough talent to finish higher than 80th in defense or to allow fewer than 30 points per game. This was Bobby Bowden’s last season and the way his defense played, it was quite clear that there needed to be a change at the top.

2009 Notre Dame - 70th in Defensive S&P+

Charlie Weis may be a punchline because of his insane buyout and disastrous run at Kansas, but the guy could recruit. His 2009 team had two linebackers who were No. 1 in their classes (Manti Te’o and Steve Filer), as well as future NFL star Harrison Smith. Notre Dame’s classes leading up to the 2009 season finished no lower than seventh nationally. Weis still produced a defense that allowed at least 30 points in half of 12 games.

2010 USC - 50th in Defensive S&P+

This is probably the closest analog to 2018 Ohio State.

Here were USC’s recruiting rankings going in: 1, 1, 4, 3, and 1. This was Lane Kiffin’s first year after he beat a hurried exit from Knoxville. He hired his father Monte, an NFL innovator, as defensive coordinator. The nadir was a 53-32 pantsing at the hands of Chip Kelly’s Oregon at the Coliseum, a classic instance when an NFL standout was embarrassed by a college offense.

2012 Auburn - 56th in Defensive S&P+

It would be fair to say that Gene Chizik did pretty much everything wrong after winning the 2010 title. The biggest mistakes were on offense. However, the defense also regressed badly. Auburn’s three recruiting classes going into 2012 ranked eighth, third, and 11th nationally, but Chizik the crowning insult was allowing 63 points to Texas A&M at Jordan-Hare.

2015 and 2016 Texas - 68th and 60th in Defensive S&P+

Take your pick. Both allowed over 30 points per game. It’s true that Texas suffered a recruiting dip late in Mack Brown’s tenure, but that meant the Longhorns were bringing in top-15 classes instead of top-10 groups.

It’s then fair to quibble as to the relative importance of (1) Brown’s decline causing Charlie Strong to inherit a roster that had not developed, and (2) Strong and Vance Bedford doing a poor job with the talent inherited. However, the end conclusion is simple: Texas squandered talent.

So what does this mean for Ohio State in 2018?

Based on history, there are two possibilities:

  1. This uber-talented roster is just young and a year away from success, like 1995 FSU and 2007 Florida. This is the optimistic scenario. The problem is that this defense is not especially inexperienced. Ohio State’s depth chart for the Purdue game showed seven juniors and four sophomores as starters (although one could play with the “or” designations). This is a reasonably experienced defense, especially for a team built to expect early NFL defections.
  2. Significant change could be coming in Columbus. The other eight defenses in this group would make head coaching changes in the following three years. A program that turns elite talent into below-average results is one that generates serious questions.