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College football’s still a Big 2 sport. Here comes Ohio State again

Urban Meyer and Nick Saban haven’t won every title of the last 11 years, but they’re the favorites in 2017. Yet again.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

College football isn’t quite as lopsided as men’s tennis — where Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have won 44 of the last 54 grand slam tournaments — but CFB’s still very much in the era of the Big 2.

National titles since 2006:

  1. Nick Saban and Urban Meyer 7
  2. Everybody Else 4

It felt significant that Dabo Swinney’s Clemson took down both Meyer’s Ohio State and Saban’s Alabama to win the ring last winter. It was the culmination of a decade-long ascent for Swinney and the Tigers.

Congrats, Dabo. Now do it again. You’ve still got some catching up to do.

The early 2017 top 25s had Alabama No. 1 and Ohio State No. 2. So did Athlon’s preseason top 25, Stewart Mandel, and my S&P+ projections. Some people inject a Florida State or a USC into the mix, and Clemson is still a consensus top-10 team. But the safest bets are the same as always.

Meyer is a stunning 61-6 at OSU. He’s lost twice each to Michigan State and Clemson, once each to Virginia Tech and Penn State, and that’s it. Meyer had a Hall of Fame-worthy career at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida — four top-five finishes, six top-15s, two national titles, 104 wins in just 10 years — but has added three more fop-fives, five more top-15s, and another title in a half-decade in Columbus.

Meyer’s strength has been his pragmatism.

  • He mostly hires mostly excellent assistants. An incredible 8 percent of FBS head coaches (Boston College’s Steve Addazio, Oregon State’s Gary Andersen, Rutgers’ Chris Ash, Maryland’s D.J. Durkin, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Texas’ Tom Herman, Marshall’s Doc Holliday, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, USF’s Charlie Strong, Texas State’s Everett Withers, and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham) have been Meyer assistants.
  • He identifies strategies and tactics and sticks with them, from offense to defense to special teams. A mobile quarterback gives the offense a numbers advantage that defenses have to account for, so he almost always deploys a run threat at QB. He almost always lines up his kickoff team across only about two-thirds of the field, to minimize running lanes. Et cetera.
  • He recruits his butt off, hires assistants who do the same, and gets as many former star recruits as possible onto the field, even if just in special teams.

The approach shifts, and sometimes a unit veers off course. But Meyer’s pragmatism, his mastery of both the micro and macro, has made him one of the two best college coaches of the last 15 years.

He’s somehow only 52. And if early indications are accurate, he might be figuring out how to recruit even better. He is the Nadal to Saban’s Federer, playing from behind, but with age on his side.

Last year was what constitutes a down year. For the first time in three years, Ohio State lost twice! The offense lost its leading passer, an 1,800-yard rusher (replaced by a redshirt freshman), five of its top six receivers, and three line starters and cratered to 23rd in Off. S&P+! The Buckeyes ceded the Big Ten East title! They lost a game by more than 10 points for just the second time under Meyer! Burn it all down and start over!

Granted, the defense improved for the third consecutive year, to fifth in Def. S&P+, and OSU finished in the overall S&P+ top five for the third straight season. The Buckeyes still won 11 games, beat rival Michigan for the fifth consecutive year, and made the CFP for the second time in three years. OK, Meyer probably isn’t on the hot seat just yet.

Still, there was a weakness. Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner made a “personal decision” to seek a “new challenge” as Minnesota’s offensive line coach and run game coordinator, and Meyer brought in former Indiana head coach and Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.

Wilson had one of the best coordinator runs of all time in the 2000s, helping to engineer a power-heavy version of the spread at Northwestern, then weaponizing it at Oklahoma. His 2008 Sooner offense scored 58 or more points for six consecutive games before running into Strong’s Florida defense and stalling at the goal line in the BCS Championship.

Under Wilson, Indiana made back-to-back bowls for the first time in 25 years. Under OSU defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, Rutgers went from laughingstock to annual bowl team. Meyer might once again have the most talented stable of assistants in the country. He might have the most talented, experienced roster as well.

2016 in review

2016 Ohio State statistical profile.

Technically, OSU overachieved in 2016. The Buckeyes lost so much production from their 2015 squad that, despite recent history and ace recruiting, they were projected to fall to 14th per S&P+. They fell only to fifth.

That said, No. 5 reflects more on the first half of the season than the second. Meyer teams tend to thrive when underestimated, and they romped over Oklahoma by three touchdowns in Norman (the final loss of Bob Stoops’ career, as it turned out), pummeled Wilson’s Indiana, and survived Wisconsin in Madison.

The offensive glitches began to show up in Happy Valley, however.

  • First 6 games (6-0): Avg. percentile performance: 95% (88% offense, 84% defense) | Avg. yards per play: OSU 6.7, Opp 4.1 (plus-2.6) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-18.5 PPG
  • Last 7 games (5-2): Avg. percentile performance: 74% (59% offense, 74% defense) | Avg. yards per play: OSU 5.5, Opp 4.6 (plus-0.9) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-2.1 PPG

It still took two fourth-quarter blocks — maybe the most random events in football — for Penn State to beat Ohio State at home, but the offense ran out of tricks. The run game kept working for the most part, but after recording a passer rating of 151.8 through 10 games, Barrett produced a paltry 80 over the last three. The Buckeyes averaged just 4.2 yards per play over their final three games, and the season ended with a 31-0 humbling by Clemson.

The task was clear: fix the passing game and keep the defense moving. Wilson should make progress toward the former, but the latter will require some young defensive backs to step up.


Ohio State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

It took me a long time to figure out what was so frustrating about the Warinner offense, but it finally clicked: he and Meyer quickly took things off the table.

Most of the time in 2015-16, everything worked. OSU averaged more than 6 yards per play in both seasons and more than 7 yards per play in eight games. And even when something did get taken off the table, the remaining pieces worked just fine.

If you take too many things off of the table, though, you end up with an empty table. Against Michigan State in 2015-16 and Clemson in 2016, the Buckeyes ran out of options.

  • 2015 MSU: Barrett rushed 14 times (not including sacks) and averaged 5.1 yards per completion, while star back Ezekiel Elliott got just 12 carries.
  • 2016 MSU: Barrett rushed 21 times and averaged 8.6 yards per completion, while RB Mike Weber got 14 carries.
  • 2016 Clemson: Barrett rushed only eight times due to an early deficit but attempted 36 passes while averaging just 6.7 yards per completion, and Weber got just five carries.

Ohio State was mostly awesome but capable of losing the plot. Wilson’s primary task is changing that.

Well, that and fixing the passing game. Even at its best moments, it wasn’t producing many big plays.

Ohio State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Ten Buckeyes were targeted at least 10 times in 2016. Only two — Dontre Wilson and K.J. Hill — averaged more than 12.6 yards per catch. Noah Brown averaged 14.9 through four games and 11.5 thereafter. Curtis Samuel, the No. 1 target and No. 3 rusher, averaged 11.7 per catch.

This was an efficiency offense through and through, and while efficiency is the most important trait you can hope for in an offense, breaking off the occasional big play means you don’t have to be efficient.

Samuel, Brown, and Wilson are all gone. Hill is the leading returning wideout, and he had just 262 receiving yards last year. Either Hill or junior Parris Campbell could end up in Samuel’s H-receiver position; in the Meyer offense, the H is basically a slot receiver who gets a lot of carries (Samuel finished with 97 carries and 97 targets last year).

Junior Terry McLaurin and sophomores Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack figure to factor heavily, and OSU welcomes three four-star freshman receivers* as well, including Trevon Grimes, a top-40 overall recruit. There are plenty of options, and if a) a couple can get downfield regularly and b) Barrett can get them the football, all is well with the offense.

* Actually, every player I mentioned above was a four-star recruit. Recruiting is hard at Ohio State.

Michigan v Ohio State
J.T. Barrett
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

We know Barrett, a fifth-year senior, pretty well. He is one of the most efficient runners you’ll see. But you still need a QB who can pass, and Meyer hasn’t always had faith in Barrett’s arm, accuracy, and/or decision making.

It will be interesting to see what Wilson adds to this equation. Over the last two years, his Indiana quarterbacks completed only 58 percent of their passes (Barrett has never completed under 61.5 percent in a season) but averaged nearly 14 yards per completion. Wilson’s offenses have both a power element and a look downfield.

If Ohio State can get somewhere in the big-play department, lord knows the running game will be fine. Weber averaged 6 yards per carry in his first year, fellow sophomore Demario McCall averaged 5.5, and freshman J.K. Dobbins might’ve been the country’s most athletic recruit. Experience and depth at RB could be shaky (it’s possible that the entire three-deep is freshmen and sophomores), but the talent is obvious.

And Ohio State returns four of last year’s starting linemen. All-world center Pat Elfein is gone, but that’s it.


Ohio State defensive radar

It took a while for Meyer to situate defensively at OSU. His first two Buckeye teams ranked 33rd and 44th in Def. S&P+. Since then, though: 14th in 2014, ninth in 2015, fifth in 2016. He brought Schiano aboard last fall, and the effects were immediate.

The Buckeyes were shakier on passing downs after losing ace pass rusher Joey Bosa and safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell, but they improved in the red zone (3.42 points allowed per scoring opportunity, fifth in FBS). The national average for points per game was about 28 last year, and Ohio State didn’t allow more than 27 until the Playoff.

Ohio State had to replace three of its top four DBs and now faces the prospect of doing the same after the departure of safety Malik Hooker and corners Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley.

Senior safety Damon Webb has been around the block, and corners Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette nearly got starter-level reps. Ward broke up nine passes and gave up just 15 completions in 42 attempts, per CFB Film Room. So the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. Still, there was regression in pass coverage, and we could see more of it.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State
Denzel Ward
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The front seven, meanwhile, will be among the best. Every lineman returns, as do three of last year’s top four linebackers and a 2015 contributor in Dante Booker, who suffered a knee injury last year.

Ohio State ranked first in FBS in both power success rate (48.5 percent) and stuff rate (28.1 percent) in 2016, and linebacker Raekwon McMillan is the only player missing. Pass rushers Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa — combined: 17.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks — are back. So are A-grade run stuffers in ends Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes, tackles Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers, and linebackers Jerome Baker and Chris Worley. This line was awesome, and Jones, Bosa, and Landers were all freshmen.

There’s so much returning talent here that you have to wonder if blue-chippers like end Chase Young (the No. 8 prospect in 2017, per the 247Sports Composite) and linebacker Baron Browning (No. 11) will find much of a role as freshmen.

Corners Jeffrey Okudah (No. 7) and Shaun Wade (No. 17) might find less resistance on the depth chart.

Playstation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson
Tyquan Lewis
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Special Teams

Meyer has long been known as one of the most special teams-minded head coaches, but Ohio State ranked only 56th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2015.

A momentary glitch, that. The Buckeyes surged to 14th last year thanks to punter Cameron Johnston, kick returner Parris Campbell, and steady strength elsewhere.

Campbell’s the only one back this year. Johnston, kicker Tyler Durbin, and punt returner Dontre Wilson are all gone. Meyer will get the benefit of the doubt, but 2015 proved a top special teams unit isn’t a birthright.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Indiana 39 17.0 84%
9-Sep Oklahoma 5 5.7 63%
16-Sep Army 102 38.5 99%
23-Sep UNLV 118 41.6 99%
30-Sep at Rutgers 92 30.8 96%
7-Oct Maryland 72 30.0 96%
14-Oct at Nebraska 42 17.9 85%
28-Oct Penn State 8 7.1 66%
4-Nov at Iowa 48 19.1 87%
11-Nov Michigan State 44 23.4 91%
18-Nov Illinois 85 34.5 98%
25-Nov at Michigan 10 3.7 58%
Projected S&P+ Rk 2
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 9 / 3
Projected wins 10.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 20.7 (2)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 2 / 2
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 15 / 1.6
2016 TO Luck/Game +5.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (68%, 57%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.0 (2.0)

There are potential stumbling blocks. The passing game is a mystery, and the Big Ten is not without solid pass defenses. If the double-dip turnover in the secondary ends up problematic, Oklahoma and Penn State could exploit it.

Still, this is an Urban Meyer team that returns:

  • a fourth-year starting quarterback.
  • a 1,000-yard rusher.
  • an offensive line with 80 career starts.
  • the most disruptive defensive line in the country.
  • every defensive lineman.

You’ll take your chances with that.

S&P+ projects Ohio State second, gives the Buckeyes basically nine nearly sure wins (win probability of 84 percent or higher), and projects them as three- to seven-point favorites in three games against top-10 teams (Oklahoma, Penn State, at Michigan). The mere presence of three top-10 opponents means the odds of going 12-0 aren’t spectacular, but OSU will be favored in every game. I guess that makes sense for a team that’s lost six times in five years.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.