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Unless Michigan State's been holding something in reserve, expect Ohio State to roll

The No. 9 Spartans have very rarely looked like a top-10 team this year. This Saturday, even looking the part might not be good enough.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After a 10-week preseason, Ohio State's 2015 begins on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

Sometimes, amid all the unanimous predictions that become painfully wrong in a heartbeat, the preseason narrative gets it right. Our general thought about the defending champion was that, while there were some first-world problems -- complacency, too many good quarterbacks, the offensive coordinator being so good that he got a head coaching position, etc. -- the schedule would allow Ohio State to ease itself into 2015.

The Buckeyes were nearly too eased. Despite a schedule that has included only one top-40 team (according to S&P+), Ohio State had seven-point close calls against Northern Illinois and Indiana. But the defense has surged (last four games: 8.5 points per game allowed), and with J.T. Barrett behind center, the offense has been as efficient as any.

There aren't as many big pass plays as last year (miss you, Devin Smith), but Ohio State's third in the Playoff rankings and third in S&P+, a smidge behind where expected, but a warm and cozy 10-0.

And now, in theory, the real work begins. Michigan State visits Columbus at 9-1 and ninth in the CFP rankings. Despite a fluky loss to Nebraska (which countered a fluky win at Michigan), the Spartans have all of their goals on the table. Beat Ohio State, and the Spartans would be two wins from a potential Playoff bid.

Michigan State is established. The Spartans are 62-15 since the start of 2010, and 40 percent of those losses came in one season (2012). This is the fourth straight season in which both the Buckeyes and Spartans are ranked at the time of their meeting. This has become the most reliable marquee battle in the Big Ten.

One problem: Michigan State hasn't been that great in 2015. The Spartans rank 27th in S&P+ despite the lofty record. They have faced just one top-40 opponent, yet they've won four games by one possession and lost to No. 54 Nebraska.

That MSU won at Michigan when the Wolverines appeared to be at the peak of their powers suggests the Spartans' top gear is still awfully strong. We just haven't seen much of it. Do the Spartans have something special in store for the stretch run?

A run-first offense that can't run

When you've got a quarterback as good as Connor Cook, you have margin for error. Michigan State's star senior has proved himself, and despite losing star receiver Tony Lippett and big-play master Keith Mumphery from last year, Cook's rapport with go-to guy Aaron Burbridge (65 catches, 1021 yards) and the recent emergence of Macgarrett Kings Jr. (First five games: 10 catches; Last five: 22) give State a scary passing attack.

If you look at the averages, though, the passing game has clearly regressed from last season. Burbridge is averaging a healthy 9 yards per target, but Lippett averaged 11.4. Cook had a 58 percent completion rate and averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt in 2014. It's at 56 percent and 7.4 this year.

The Spartans ranked sixth in Passing S&P+ in 2014 and just 42nd this fall.

Statistical category 2014 2015
Passing S&P+ rank 6 42
Connor Cook's completion rate 58% 56%
Yards per pass attempt 8.4 7.4
Yards per target (No. 1 WR) 11.4 9.0

Ohio State ranks third in Passing S&P+, first in passing success rate allowed, and seventh in Adj. Sack Rate, so that's scary. But the biggest problem hasn't been the passing, but the down and distance.

Even with last year's spectacular passing game, Michigan State was a run-first offense. Considering Mark Dantonio's Tressellian background -- he was Jim Tressel's defensive coordinator -- this makes sense. You need your offense to score, but its primary purpose is to work the clock, keep the game at a slow tempo, and make sure that your (probably awesome) defense isn't on the field for too many snaps.

Last year, however, Michigan State could run. Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill combined to average 5.6 yards per play with 40 percent of their carries going for at least 5 yards. This year, without Langford, Hill and the line's two starting guards, production has dropped. Freshmen Madre London and L.J. Scott are averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and only 33 percent of their carries are gaining at least five yards.

State continues to run as frequently as ever (67 percent of the time, 22nd in the country) on standard downs. Offensive co-coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner have asked Cook to throw 79 percent of the time (seventh-most in the country) on passing downs. Cook has already thrown more passes on third-and-10 or longer in 2015 (38) than he did in 13 games last year (35).

That State still ranks 18th in Passing Downs S&P+ tells you how good Cook is. That State ranks 110th in Standard Downs S&P+ tells you how good he's had to be.

Ohio State's Joey Bosa has faced double teams (and at least one triple team) and has only four sacks. Tyquan Lewis (6.5) and Sam Hubbard (4.5) have picked up slack. But the Buckeyes rank only 59th in passing downs sack rate, content with taking few chances and allowing a dynamite secondary to smother receivers. Ohio State's starting defensive backs -- corners Eli Apple and Gareon Conley, safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell -- have combined for seven picks and 20 breakups, and opponents have completed only 49 percent of their passes, 45 percent on third downs.

Cook came up big in key moments against Michigan's awesome pass defense. He'll need even more magic on Saturday. Oh, and he is coming off of a shoulder injury suffered in the first half last week.

The efficiency master

Ohio State entered with an embarrassment of riches at quarterback. Braxton Miller moved to the H-Back position and, despite injuries, has become Ohio State's No. 3 receiver and averaged 9.7 yards per target.

While Urban Meyer revealed Cardale Jones as his starter over J.T. Barrett, the offense suffered enough hiccups that the juggling began. Barrett subbed in for a struggling Jones, then played a role in a red zone package. Eventually, he became the starter ... then got suspended for a game following a citation for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

The 10-week preseason meant Ohio State was able to survive QB drama without permanent setbacks. And now, with the season beginning, Barrett is back in the starting lineup for the home stretch. And that's probably good.

I've been tinkering with the concept of QB radars, and I used them to compare Jones to Barrett last week. (They therefore do not include data from the Illinois game.)

With Barrett, Ohio State's efficiency has been outstanding. In Barrett's two starts, star running back Ezekiel Elliott has rushed 46 times for 323 yards (7 per carry, compared to 6.3 in the other eight games). You could make the case that Barrett's mobility gives defenses one more weapon to worry about and opens up clearer opportunities for Elliott. (That case only goes so far, since Elliott is awesome no matter what.)

Barrett is also an incredibly efficient passer. He produced a 169.8 passer rating last year and is at 151.4 this year despite a slow start and attrition at receiver. He has completed 71 percent of his passes in two starts, and he is quite a bit better than Jones when it comes to avoiding sacks. Jones is more of a big-play threat, but efficiency is the name of Meyer's game.


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That makes Michigan State an interesting matchup. The Spartans' pass defense isn't as elite as it has been, but they're still good. They rank 20th in Passing S&P+, and over the past six games, they're allowing just a 55 percent completion rate and a 122.0 passer rating.

As always, Michigan State dares passers to make tough throws. The Spartans are willing to give up the occasional big play in the name of forcing low efficiency.

That said, the run defense has been problematic. State ranks a decent 33rd in Rushing S&P+ and has thrived in two key areas. It's 13th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 14th in power success rate. But opponents are getting to the second level of the defense. MSU ranks just 78th in rushing success rate allowed, and if you allow Barrett and Elliott to get downfield, you are toast.

The Ohio State passing game can be contained, at least from a big play perspective. But that doesn't matter if Elliott and Barrett get rolling.

The stats

When MSU has the ball

Standard downs

MSU offense OSU defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 89.7 110 125.4 5 OSU big
Standard Downs Success Rate 43.9% 101 36.3% 6 OSU big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.15 45 1.14 85 MSU
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.61 101 2.44 19 OSU
SD Sack Rate 4.0% 47 9.8% 3 OSU

Passing downs

MSU offense OSU defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 124.6 18 133.8 7 OSU
Passing Downs Success Rate 38.5% 12 22.0% 5
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.68 83 1.62 34 OSU
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.02 85 2.98 44 OSU
PD Sack Rate 3.8% 13 7.8% 59 MSU

When OSU has the ball

Standard downs

OSU offense MSU defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 120.4 15 118.9 15
Standard Downs Success Rate 53.4% 11 43.7% 45 OSU
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.19 29 1.02 28
SD Line Yards per Carry 3.32 13 2.54 27 OSU
SD Sack Rate 4.8% 61 6.2% 27 MSU

Passing downs

OSU offense MSU defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 123.4 21 102.8 64 OSU
Passing Downs Success Rate 33.5% 44 32.5% 88 OSU
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.80 54 1.84 86 OSU
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.31 59 3.20 68
PD Sack Rate 7.6% 68 9.5% 31 MSU

S&P+ projects a 35-21 Ohio State win (win probability: 80 percent). While the spread is as high as it is (Ohio State -13) in part because of the uncertainty surrounding Cook's injury, based solely on what we've seen in 2015, it's a legitimate margin.

Michigan State beat the only awesome team it faced this year but has struggled against teams far worse than the Buckeyes. Meanwhile, for all of Ohio State's "struggles," the Buckeyes are about where we expected them to be.

Perhaps Sparty has another surprise in store. From an entertainment standpoint, it would be welcome. But on paper, the Buckeyes have the clear edge. Only one team can run the ball, and it isn't the visitor.