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2011 Season Preview: The Ohio State Buckeyes And The Unprojectables

Ohio State has encountered an interesting offseason full of surprise resignations and suspensions, but they still may be the class of the Big Ten. If a quarterback emerges and injury luck goes their way, then the Buckeyes could take another conference title in Luke Fickell's interim season.

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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Projections are based on precedent. We have collected enough data at this point that we know how teams generally perform when they return X number of starters on offense, when they recruit at a top five level, et cetera. Plug each team's numbers into the magic Excel sheet, and poof ... projections. Sometimes they're even good projections.

But what do you do with a team like Ohio State, for whom there is virtually no precedent? There are no projection factors for "four offensive starters are suspended for five games, plus a defensive reserve. Oh, and the quarterback is going to enter the NFL Supplemental Draft, and the head coach is going to 'resign' mid-summer." We're flying a bit blind on this one.

What do we know about the Ohio State Buckeyes at this point, just over a week (!!!) from the beginning of the college football season? They have a deep backfield that will become deeper when Boom Herron returns from suspension. They have a deep offensive line that will become deeper when Mike Adams returns from suspension. They have recruited circles around the rest of the Big Ten. They have two potentially outstanding defensive ends and an outstanding young batch of linemen. They have a host of former blue-chip options at linebacker. Barring an explosion in self-inflicted interceptions, they may have a rather maintainable turnover margin. They have played at a level higher than that of both Oklahoma and Alabama over the last four full years.

They have a lot, in other words, especially for a down Big Ten. They also have a black hole at quarterback, untested receivers (at least until Devier Posey returns from suspension), all-but-guaranteed regression in the secondary and an interim coach who is not that much older than I am. They have more talent, and more question marks, than anybody in the conference. With no suspensions and their old head coach, they would have ranked, at worst, third in the country in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections. With all the drama and headaches, they fall to 15th. And they're still potentially the best team in the conference.

And I'd be a lot more comfortable in asserting that if there were precedent for what is about to unfold in Columbus this fall.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 12-1 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk**: 5
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Marshall 45-7 W 40.9 - 1.5 W
11-Sep Miami 36-24 W 32.1 - 24.0 W
18-Sep Ohio 43-7 W 36.7 - (-6.3) W
25-Sep Eastern Michigan 73-20 W 38.6 - 23.4 W
2-Oct at Illinois 24-13 W 29.5 - 14.5 W
9-Oct Indiana 38-10 W 34.3 - 6.1 W
16-Oct at Wisconsin 18-31 L 29.7 - 25.1 W
23-Oct Purdue 49-0 W 41.0 - (-4.9) W
30-Oct at Minnesota 52-10 W 37.7 - 7.4 W
13-Nov Penn State 38-14 W 41.8 - 16.4 W
20-Nov at Iowa 20-17 W 33.2 - 19.6 W
27-Nov Michigan 37-7 W 21.9 - 11.2 W
4-Jan vs Arkansas 31-26 W 33.4 - 16.8 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 38.8 11 14.3 5
Adj. Points Per Game 34.7 14 11.9 2

Put aside all you now know about the 2010 Ohio State football team -- that some of its stars received illegal benefits, that the coach knew about it but didn't do anything about it, that the NCAA shamefully allowed said stars to play in the Sugar Bowl and then serve their suspension. If you can consciously ignore that, then ... well, you can see why Ohio State was going to be projected as a Top Three team this fall. The Buckeyes were one of just six teams who played well enough to beat an average team every single week (others: Arkansas, Auburn, Boise State, Oklahoma State, TCU).

On offense, Ohio State only once played at a below-average level (27.1 = average) all season (amazingly, it came in scoring 37 points against Michigan); meanwhile, the defense oscillated between above average and fantastic -- only once did they come within 3.0 Adj. Points of the average line. Whether everybody should have been on the field or not, that's a different story; with the players on the field, the was a hell of a team, one that failed to finish undefeated simply because they were forced to face a Wisconsin team that would have defeated anybody in the country on the evening of October 16.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 11 21 8
RUSHING 9 9 10 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 16 41 9 8
Standard Downs 21 26 20 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 27 26 30 54
Redzone 33 24 46
Q1 Rk 16 1st Down Rk 20
Q2 Rk 13 2nd Down Rk 23
Q3 Rk 13 3rd Down Rk 26
Q4 Rk 82

Despite some interesting turnover and juggling of personnel, we can probably guess that Ohio State's offensive footprint isn't going to change much in 2011, not as long as Jim Bollman remains offensive coordinator. The quarterback position is still very much up for grabs -- former Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Joe Bauserman (174 yards, 7.9 per pass, 73% completion, 2 TD, 1 INT) and incoming blue-chip freshman Braxton Miller are still fighting it out; but no matter who wins the starting job (and whether the starter in the first game remains the starter throughout the season), Ohio State is going to be a run-first, play-action squad that plays at an average pace, varies the script at an average rate, and takes an average number of chances. And, chances are, they are going to do their thing rather competently.

Hal Mumme, Bollman is not. But he has engineered a consistently strong, if slightly boring, offense through the years. And with Terrelle Pryor (2,772 yards, 8.6 per pass, 65% completion rate, 27 TD, 11 INT) running the show in 2010, the Buckeyes fielded their best offense since Troy Smith's Heisman winning 2006 campaign.

As was the case when Pryor was a freshman, whoever wins the starting quarterback job should have a solid run game upon which to lean. It will get stronger when Boom Herron (1,155 yards, 5.3 per carry, +9.0 Adj. POE, 16 TD; 180 receiving yards) is eligible, of course, but there are still plenty of options in the interim. Injury-prone Jaamal Berry (266 yards, 8.3 per carry, +2.5 Adj. POE, 1 TD) is the most explosive option on the table, while Jordan Hall (161 yards, 4.4 per carry, -2.8 Adj. POE, 2 TD) has a diverse skill set and big backs Carlos Hyde (141 yards, 5.9 per carry, -2.5 Adj. POE) and redshirt freshman Rod Smith could still figure into the equation.

The offensive line could be described in the exact same way as the running backs. The Buckeyes have a solid unit in place with suspended left tackle Mike Adams in place, but while he is out, there are still interesting options. And it's always nice to have an All-American, three-year starter (Mike Brewster) calling the shots at center. Tackle J.B. Shugarts has been manning the right side for two years on the first string as well. With Adams, this is one of the best run-blocking units in the country. Without him, it's still pretty good.

Other tidbits:

  • Other than suspensions and their resulting chemistry issues, the biggest questino mark comes at receiver. Dane Sanzenbacher (948 yards, 17.2 per catch, 71% catch rate, 11 TD) was incredibly explosive and underrated in 2010, and he's gone. DeVier Posey (848 yards, 16.0 per catch, 60% catch rate) will reassert himself in the No. 1 spot after sitting for five games, but in the meantime the hands team is extraordinarily green. In Posey's absence, tight end Jake Stoneburner (222 yards, 10.6 per catch, 72% catch rate, 2 TD) is the leading returning receiver; sophomores Corey Brown (105 yards, 13.1 per catch, 89% catch rate, 1 TD) and Chris Fields (22 yards, 7.3 per catch, 75% catch rate) are, almost by default, the go-to wideouts while enormous, 6-foot-8 Reid Fragel (121 yards, 13.4 per catch, 82% catch rate, 1 TD) should be an interesting safety valve. With Posey, you've got a strong No. 1 guy, two killer tight ends, and some nice role players. Without him, you've got an entirely unknown, unprojectable unit.
  • Pryor's Buckeye career came to an ever-so-public end this past June, and it is impossible not to note how similar Ohio State's quarterback situation is now to where it was when Pryor (eventually) signed with the Buckeyes in 2008. Then, old hand Todd Boeckman steered the ship while Pryor got his sea legs, and eventually Pryor took over. This year, it is Bauserman who has been around forever, while Miller is the blue-chipper biding his time. I'm most curious to see how the run-pass ratios change without the threat of Pryor's tuck-and-run ability (865 pre-sack rushing yards, +10.6 Adj. POE). Miller has some alleged wheels, but Bauserman really does not.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
RUSHING 7 7 8 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 3 10 1 8
Standard Downs 2 2 3 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 2 5 1 51
Redzone 16 8 23
Q1 Rk 9 1st Down Rk 3
Q2 Rk 6 2nd Down Rk 1
Q3 Rk 3 3rd Down Rk 2
Q4 Rk 1

Under Jim Tressel and defensive co-coordinators Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell, Ohio State has had one of the most consistently strong, disciplined defenses in college football. Nobody has been able to absorb turnover in personnel better; that is an encouraging trait considering what the Buckeyes must replace from last year: two of their top four linemen, their top two linebackers and three of their top four defensive backs. For all the questions about the Buckeye offense, however, it's hard to work up too much concern over the D, simply because of that magic word again: precedent.

That's not to say they are looking at a guaranteed, smooth transition this fall. In replacing All-American cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (38.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 9 PBU, 2 FF), fellow corner Devon Torrence (43.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 8 PBU) and safety Jermale Hines (51.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU), the Buckeyes must rebuild what may have been the country's best secondary. Ohio State did not generate much of a pass rush last year, yet they still ranked third in Passing S&P+ because of their stark ability to avoid big plays. Travis Howard (13.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 2 PBU) and sophomore Dominic Clarke (12.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU) have loads of potential -- the fact that Howard recorded nothing but solo tackles while defensing four passes shows that Buckeye coaches had no trouble putting him on an island, even if mostly in mop-up time -- as does safety Orhian Johnson (39.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF), but it's not difficult to see some regression here.

That may be okay, though, as the pass rush might improve despite the loss of Cameron Heyward (36.5 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU). Ends Nathan Williams (33.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU) and John Simon (31.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) are back, and if they can avoid the injury bug, there are quite a few exciting linebackers that could be successful in attacking positions. Plus, any of three incoming freshman ends -- Kenny Hayes, Chase Farris or Steve Miller -- could make a quick impact. If the front seven can get to the quarterback a little better, it can counteract a downgrading of the secondary from "nation's best" to just "very good."

Other tidbits:

  • If strongside "STAR" linebacker Tyler Moeller (17.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF) had played all 13 games, instead of just five, he'd have racked up something in the neighborhood of 45-50 tackles, 12-13 TFL/sacks and 4-5 FF. He is a potential force, but he can't for the life of him stay healthy. When (not if) he's injured, that will open up the door for undersized sophomore Christian Bryant (8.5 tackles, 1 PBU), who also showed potential while battling injuries last year. Former blue-chipper Etienne Sabino (redshirted in 2010), Andrew Sweat (31.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU), Storm Klein (14.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT), sophomore Jordan Whiting and perhaps freshman Curtis Grant round out what should be an exciting corps ... if healthy. If, if, if. Ohio State produces strong linebackers like the state of Ohio produces electoral controversy, but injuries have taken their toll.
  • There is quite a bit of potential at defensive tackle, where sophomores Johnathan Hankins (9.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks) and Adam Bellamy (9.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) are joined by Garrett Goebel (6.5 tackles) and incoming freshmen Michael Bennett and Joel Hale. Bennett and Hale have both been strong enough to take first-team reps, and ... I try to avoid getting sucked into "potential" and "upside", but what can I say? This line has quite a bit of both.

Ohio State's 2010 Season Set to Music

Because I just cannot shake my annoyance about the Buckeye Five getting to play in the Sugar Bowl...

"Am I Wrong," by Keb' Mo'
"Done Somebody Wrong," by Allman Brothers Band
"Everybody's Wrong," by Buffalo Springfield
"I Might Be Wrong," by Radiohead
"I Was Wrong," by Social Distortion
"There's Something Very Wrong With Us, So Let's Go Out Tonight," by Electric Six
"What Am I Doing Wrong?" by David Gray
"World Gone Wrong," by Bob Dylan
"Wrong 'Em Boyo," by The Clash
"The Wrong Way," by TV On The Radio

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 2
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 10
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +15 / +14.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (7, 4)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -6.7

I mentioned the word "injury" or "health" seven times above. Depending on the good injury karma the Buckeyes have managed to preserve, Ohio State could quite possibly still field a conference championship-caliber team this fall despite all the off-the-field drama. Our projections, admittedly based so little on precedent, say they will be duking it out with Wisconsin for the inaugural Leaders Division.

It isn't hard to see why. The Buckeyes' four-year performance averages rank 11 spots higher than the No. 2 Big Ten team (Penn State). Their five-year recruiting averages rank three spots higher than Michigan (which has its own set of issues) and nine spots higher than Nebraska. They return seven offensive starters, and their three suspended starters will only miss one conference game, a home battle with Michigan State. Despite a potentially negative YPP margin, they have a lot going for them despite all that is going against them. And, needless to say, the fact that they host Wisconsin (for Homecoming, no less) is not a bad thing.

This has been an incredibly negative offseason for college football, and Ohio State has had a role to play in that. As the Buckeyes attempt to collect themselves and move on from Jim Tressel's resignation, Terrelle Pryor's departure, etc. (they should have never left Herbstreit leave town...), they should be able to put a high-quality product on the field.


Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today. The college portion is available for just $5, and the print version is now available!


* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.