clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Processing the Numbers, Football Edition |
The Big Fiesta Bowl Preview

New, 11 comments

In a battle of elite running teams, could C.J. Prosise be the difference?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Football Power Index (FPI) Ratings are courtesy of ESPN
All other statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So, what’s next?

Our second New Year’s Six preview takes us out west to the Fiesta Bowl, where the Ohio State Buckeyes will host the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in what will surely be the most-watched non-playoff bowl of the postseason, a rare clash between two of the midwest’s most-storied programs. The game kicks off on Friday, January 1st,[1] at 12:00 PM CST / 1 PM EST, and will be televised on ESPN and WatchESPN.com.

1 | When postseason college football was meant to be played, dammit!

The Résumé — Ohio State

#7 - Ohio State Buckeyes
Team F/+ S&P+ FEI FPI OS&P+ DS&P+
MICHIGAN STATE 44.8% (6) 17.7 (9) 0.234 (5) 18.0 (14) 36.5 (26) 18.8 (13)
MICHIGAN 37.3% (10) 20.7 (6) 0.138 (23) 15.7 (18) 33.7 (34) 13.0 (2)
PENN STATE 13.9% (46) 10.8 (29) 0.027 (60) 6.8 (51) 30.3 (56) 19.5 (16)
WESTERN MICH. 12.0% (48) 6.0 (54) 0.057 (48) 4.8 (60) 37.1 (25) 31.1 (85)
VIRGINIA TECH 9.7% (53) 5.4 (57) 0.043 (53) 10.6 (34) 27.4 (81) 22.0 (28)
MINNESOTA 8.4% (57) 9.9 (35) -0.012 (73) 3.3 (66) 30.3 (55) 20.4 (21)
NORTH. ILLINOIS 6.6% (60) 3.0 (63) 0.041 (54) 1.1 (80) 27.7 (77) 24.7 (42)
INDIANA 6.1% (62) 3.7 (62) 0.029 (58) 1.8 (74) 38.5 (20) 34.8 (106)
ILLINOIS 1.9% (67) 4.8 (58) -0.021 (75) 3.3 (67) 24.6 (92) 19.7 (17)
MARYLAND -3.6% (74) 2.8 (65) -0.050 (85) -1.2 (84) 27.6 (78) 24.8 (43)
RUTGERS -30.1% (101) -12.5 (104) -0.122 (100) -5.0 (89) 25.6 (87) 38.1 (116)
HAWAII -47.3% (121) -17.0 (118) -0.230 (123) -18.0 (120) 17.4 (118) 34.4 (101)
AVERAGE 5.0% 4.6 0.011 3.4 29.7 25.1

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Observations
  • Average F/+ Opponent: Georgia Southern (F/+ #63)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Boise State (S&P+ #59)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Air Force (FEI #64)
  • Average FPI Opponent: Cincinnati (FPI #65)
  • Average Offense: Texas A&M (OS&P+ #58)
  • Average Defense: Georgia Southern (DS&P+ #47)
  • Best Win: Michigan (F/+ #10)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 1 (Michigan)

Your 2014 national champions and winners of the inaugural college football playoff were headed right back to the dance again this season, before they ran into a 5’8”, 186 pound air guitar enthusiast by the name of Michael Geiger.[2] If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Geiger, he’s this guy:

2 | Yes, it was actually the Spartans defense and this was all an excuse to use that gif. Totally worth it.

Quality Townshend impression there, sir.

Michigan State’s second non-overtime win of the year in which they never led during regulation bumped the Buckeyes to second place in Big Ten’s loaded East Division, preventing a conference title repeat; solid efforts from the Spartans and Hawkeyes in the Big Ten title game and a lack of chaos around the country prevented the Buckeyes from sneaking back into the field. OSU obliterated just about everyone else on their schedule, aside from playing down a bit to otherwise overmatched Indiana and Northern Illinois. The overall schedule, despite a lack of FCS competition mucking up the works, was relatively underwhelming, with only two opponents among the F/+ top-25 and four in the F/+ top-50. The average OSU opponent was equivalent to F/+ #63 Georgia Southern, who also represented the average OSU opponent defense at DS&P+ #47. The offensive slate was a bit worse but still above the national average, closest to the rating for OS&P+ #58 Texas A&M.

Similarity — Notre Dame
  • Rushing Offense: Maryland (Rush OS&P+ #12, but not really)
  • Passing Offense: Indiana (Pass OS&P+ #11)
  • Rushing Defense: Illinois (Rush DS&P+ #62, but not really)
  • Passing Defense: Virginia Tech (Pass DS&P+ #50, but not really)

Difficult to find a true comp for the Fighting Irish among the Buckeyes’ 2015 opponents, with three of the four comparisons above representing a bit of a stretch from Notre Dame’s actual ratings. The closest comp was Indiana’s passing offense, ranked just three spots below Notre Dame’s in Pass OS&P+. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer is considerably more talented than either of Indiana’s quarterbacks, but the duo of Nate Sudfeld and Zander Diamont managed just 226 yards in 36 attempts against the Buckeyes — an abysmal 6.3 yards an attempt. More concerning was the defensive performance against Maryland, where the Terrapins piled up 253 yards and three touchdowns at 6 yards a clip — as noted above, the Irish are substantially better at running the ball than Maryland, and we’ll discuss more about that in a bit.

One of the Buckeyes’ more productive games on the ground came against Illinois, as Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett, and others combined for 283 yards and three touchdowns at well over 5 yards a carry; Elliott’s 181 yards came at nearly 7 yards a clip. Notre Dame’s stouter against the run than the Illini, but on the season they were not as good as Penn State, who held the Buckeyes to… 315 yards, at 6.3 yards a carry. Virginia Tech’s pass defense allowed a modest 217 yards through the air, which sounds promising except for the fact it came on just 20 attempts,[3] an ample 10.7 yards per attempt average. There’s no other team from OSU’s schedule remotely close to Notre Dame’s ranking against the pass, so that’s the best we can do. None of these comparisons bode well for the Irish defense, who (like most of the country) are outgunned on that side of the ball by this group.

3 | OSU averaged nearly 10 yards a carry in the game, there wasn’t much need for passing.

The Résumé — Notre Dame

#8 - Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Team F/+ S&P+ FEI FPI OS&P+ DS&P+
CLEMSON 59.0% (2) 26.4 (2) 0.260 (2) 21.3 (6) 41.3 (10) 15.0 (6)
STANFORD 43.0% (8) 16.0 (12) 0.247 (4) 20.3 (8) 42.1 (7) 26.1 (54)
34.8% (13) 15.4 (15) 0.161 (13) 7.4 (47) 39.2 (15) 23.8 (37)
USC 32.6% (17) 14.2 (19) 0.154 (17) 19.1 (12) 39.6 (12) 25.4 (49)
TEMPLE 19.5% (35) 8.9 (39) 0.094 (35) 7.4 (48) 27.7 (76) 18.9 (14)
PITTSBURGH 17.0% (39) 8.6 (40) 0.074 (41) 9.8 (37) 33.4 (38) 24.8 (44)
GEORGIA TECH 2.1% (66) 1.8 (69) 0.014 (63) 10.6 (33) 29.6 (59) 27.8 (69)
TEXAS 0.4% (69) 1.0 (70) 0.007 (65) 7.3 (50) 28.8 (67) 27.7 (67)
BOSTON COLL. -0.3% (70) 2.7 (66) -0.018 (74) 1.9 (72) 16.1 (123) 13.4 (3)
VIRGINIA -6.4% (79) -0.4 (77) -0.040 (81) 1.4 (77) 30.7 (52) 31.0 (84)
WAKE FOREST -14.6% (90) -4.2 (88) -0.072 (91) -3.1 (86) 23.2 (102) 27.4 (61)
UMASS -25.5% (100) -7.7 (96) -0.134 (101) -12.5 (106) 24.4 (93) 32.1 (91)
AVERAGE 13.5% 6.9 0.062 7.6 31.3 24.5

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Observations
  • Average F/+ Opponent: Penn State (F/+ #46)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Utah State (S&P+ #47)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Arizona State (FEI #45)
  • Average FPI Opponent: Navy (FPI #47)
  • Average Offense: Iowa (OS&P+ #48)
  • Average Defense: Mississippi State (DS&P+ #41)
  • Best Win: Navy (F/+ #13)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 2 (Navy, USC)

Unsurprisingly, Notre Dame’s huge fanbase, television contract, and status as the premier independent team guarantees a tough schedule every fall, and their 2015 slate does not disappoint in that regard. Half of the schedule resides in the F/+ top-50, with four opponents among the F/+ top-25. The two best opponents represented the Irish’s two losses,[4] but they were competitive in each and had a real chance to win both games. The Clemson loss is particularly interesting, as it took place in the hurricane-like conditions that played havoc with the entire southeast’s football schedule back at the beginning of October. If Notre Dame was able to hang on against Stanford[5] they would have had a real argument to make it into the playoff over the Sooners. The average opponent from this schedule rated most closely to F/+ #46 Penn State, with similar rankings in the other overall quality metrics and in defensive/offensive schedule strength per S&P+.

4 | The Stanford and Clemson games were on the road, to boot. Tough, tough schedule.

5 | Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory via late collapse and a last-second field goal — eerily similar to their opponent, no?

Similarity — Ohio State
  • Rushing Offense: Navy (Rush OS&P+ #5)
  • Passing Offense: USC (Pass OS&P+ #38, but not really)
  • Rushing Defense: Clemson (Rush DS&P+ #13)
  • Passing Defense: Clemson (Rush OS&P+ #3)

Ohio State’s defense rates out closely to Clemson’s, and while that game comes with the weather caveat mentioned above, the performance is still instructive. Kizer and the receivers were not particularly efficient in that game, as only 19 of their 35 pass attempts were completed. Those 19 attempts went for 321 yards, however — nearly 17 yards a completion and a still-great 9.2 yards an attempt. Big plays were a big problem for the Tigers all season as we’ll cover later this week, but they did manage to put the clamps on the Irish run game, allowing just 111 yards on about 3.5 yards a carry.

Navy’s a bad comp because of the scheme, but they did managed 6.5 yards a carry against the Irish. Pittsburgh’s the next closest comparison at #16 in Rush OS&P+, and run a much more conventional ground attack than the Midshipmen. The Panthers notched 175 yards at 5.7 yards a clip, which is still excellent production. That also applies to what USC, rated 12 spots below Ohio State in the Pass OS&P+ rankings, did against the Irish, as Cody Kessler and company piled up 440 yards on 47 attempts for a 9.4 yards per attempt average. The Irish did manage to intercept two of Kessler’s passes,[6] but that’s a ton of yards for an offense that, again, is less adept at throwing the ball than the Buckeyes are.

6 | The middle of a seven game run of interceptions for Notre Dame.

The Goods

Overall Quality
OHIO STATE NOTRE DAME THE EDGE
F/+ 52.1% (4) F/+ 46.8% (5) PUSH
FPI 24.1 (3) FPI 19.8 (9) PUSH
FEI 0.227 (7) FEI 0.229 (6) PUSH
S&P+ 23.8 (4) S&P+ 19.4 (8) PUSH
Home Spread -6.5 OHIO STATE

The Matchup on Offense
OHIO STATE NOTRE DAME THE EDGE
OFEI 0.54 (26) DFEI 0.19 (52) OHIO STATE
OS&P+ 39.4 (14) DS&P+ 23.3 (33) OHIO STATE
Rush OS&P+ 124.7 (8) Rush DS&P+ 105.1 (51) OHIO STATE
Pass OS&P+ 118.5 (26) Pass DS&P+ 109.1 (36) PUSH
SD OS&P+ 121.2 (9) SD DS&P+ 103.7 (50) OHIO STATE
PD OS&P+ 119.6 (26) PD DS&P+ 113.4 (28) PUSH
OALY 119.0 (8) DALY 115.3 (18) PUSH
OASR 104.0 (56) DASR 91.7 (83) OHIO STATE

The Matchup on Defense
OHIO STATE NOTRE DAME THE EDGE
DFEI 0.7 (10) OFEI 1.07 (6) PUSH
DS&P+ 15.6 (8) OS&P+ 42.7 (6) PUSH
Rush DS&P+ 118.1 (17) Rush OS&P+ 128.7 (3) NOTRE DAME
Pass DS&P+ 137.2 (4) Pass OS&P+ 130.9 (8) PUSH
SD DS&P+ 121.3 (8) SD OS&P+ 120.6 (10) PUSH
PD DS&P+ 138.6 (5) PD OS&P+ 153.2 (3) PUSH
DALY 110.0 (31) OALY 123.5 (4) NOTRE DAME
DASR 158.1 (6) OASR 108.2 (50) OHIO STATE

The Matchup on Special Teams
OHIO STATE NOTRE DAME THE EDGE
FVE 0.21 (2) FVE 0.13 (11) PUSH
STE 0.04 (39) STE 0.1 (9) NOTRE DAME
FGE -0.59 (121) FGE 0.48 (9) NOTRE DAME
KE -0.09 (13) KRE -0.02 (74) OHIO STATE
PE -0.21 (10) PRE 0.13 (26) OHIO STATE
PRE 0.14 (25) PE -0.14 (16) PUSH
KRE 0.04 (48) KE -0.02 (43) PUSH

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of December 27th, 2015.

Wondering what all these terms are?

Overall Quality

F/+: The F/+ combined ratings combine FEI and S&P+ into one metric that serves as Football Outsiders' official rankings for college football. For a more detailed discussion of F/+, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

FPI: The Football Power Index, an overall team quality metric produced by ESPN. Presented as a scoring margin, FPI weights factors such as offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiencies, as well as turnovers and big plays, and also includes opponent adjustments.

FEI: The Fremeau Efficiency Index, an overall team quality metric that is drive-based and opponent-adjusted. For a more detailed discussion of FEI, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

S&P+: Another overall quality metric constructed primarily from a play-by-play perspective, the S&P+ rating underwent big changes prior to the 2015 season. Check out the primer article for more details.

Offensive Metrics

Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.

OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.

OS&P+: The offensive component of S&P+.

Rush OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at running the ball.

Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.

PD: Passing Downs, defined as later downs with medium yardage or more to go (3rd, 4th downs in excess of 5 yards to go), as well as 2nd down with more than 8 yards to go.

SD: Standard Downs, defined as all downs that are not Passing Downs.

SD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Defensive Metrics

Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.

DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.

DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.

Rush DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at stopping the run.

Pass DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.

SD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Special Teams Metrics

FVE: FEI Field Value Efficiency, a measure of how much field position value a team earned against its opponents.

Fremeau Special Teams Efficiency Components - The special teams component of F/+ is based on Brian Fremeau’s Special Teams Efficiency, which is made up of the following five components of special teams play (per FootballOutsiders):
FGEField Goal Efficiency, the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
PREPunt Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KREKickoff Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent kickoff earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
PEPunt Efficiency, the scoring value per punt earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KEKickoff Efficiency, the scoring value per kickoff earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.

Line-Specific Metrics

ASRAdjusted Sack Rate, which is a version of sack rate (defined as sacks / [sacks + passing attempts] ) that has been opponent-adjusted. The metric is scaled based on an average rate of 100; the higher the rate the better. ASR is calculated for both the offense (OASR) and defense (DASR).

ALYAdjusted Line Yards, which is a measure of success in the running game specific to the line. This is accomplished by taking each carry by running backs only and weighting the yardage as follows:

  • Runs for a loss are weighted 120%.
  • Runs for 0-4 yards are unweighted.
  • Runs for 5-10 yards are weighted 50%.
  • Runs for 11 or more yards are not included.

After the weighting process, the runs are further adjusted for game situation and opponent, and then averaged out per carry, resulting in adjusted line yards — a more detailed explanation of the entire process is available here. ALY is calculated for both the offensive line (OASR) and the defensive front seven (DASR).

The Swanson Giddiness Index

Easily the most accurate predictor of success in college football, the Swanson Giddiness Index is a qualitative, completely unsupportable metric that is presented via the tone of that week's image/animated gif of Ron Swanson — beloved Parks and Recreation character and official spirit animal of Processing the Numbers.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN Primer!

For even more advanced statistics goodness, check out the Advanced Stats Profile Index, the Ohio State Profile, and the Notre Dame Profile.

So, what do we know?

Overall Quality

The most enjoyable previews are the ones where this chart is full of pushes, because it warrants deeper analysis to suss out what’s likely to happen in the game. These are two outstanding teams, ranked among the top-10 in each of the four overall quality metrics, with only a 5.3% margin separating them in F/+. Ohio State’s slightly ahead in everything except for FEI, where Notre Dame holds the slimmest of margins over the Buckeyes. Despite this, the experts have handicapped this at just under a touchdown victory for Ohio State, a spread best defined as “curiously high.”

When Ohio State Has the Ball

And now you see why, as the pushes virtually disappear when the Buckeyes are on offense, as they hold a significant edge in most categories. Only one row, passing downs, is really close, with Notre Dame’s defense ranking just two spots lower in PD DS&P+ than the Buckeyes offense does in PD OS&P+. This would seem to line up with what was uncovered by the similarity analysis, which indicated favorable matchups in both aspects of offensive play for the Buckeyes.

The main reason, again as previously noted, is the stupendous amount of talent Urban Meyer’s collected in Columbus, starting with Elliott. Much like the great tailback we covered earlier today, Elliott’s supporters were chirping along with Dalvin Cook’s when Derrick Henry swept the major awards at the end of the regular season. Elliott’s not quite as explosive as Cook,[7] but he’s considerably more durable, and followed up a strong finish in 2014 with 19 touchdowns and over 1600 rushing yards on the season, picked up at a fantastic 6.4 yards a carry average. Elliott, a true junior,[8] has already declared for the draft, where’s he’s likely the first running back off the board. He has ideal size and the perfect blend of vision, speed, quickness, agility, and power required of a running back at the next level, and possesses a nice set of hands to boot — he corralled 26 of his 27 targets on the year, adding another 176 receiving yards to his rushing totals.

7 | Or LSU’s Leonard Fournette, for that matter.

8 | Part of OSU’s ridiculous 2013 class, which was 2008 Alabama good and accounts for roughly half of the Buckeyes’ starting lineup.

His position has never been in doubt this season, but Barrett’s — part of the same class as Elliott — sure was. Embroiled in a three-way competition at quarterback in the fall with returning senior Braxton Miller and 2014 postseason hero Cardale Jones, Barrett was a “co-starter” used in more of a situational role until the Rutgers game, when he finally wrested the starting job back for good from Jones. Jones would start the following week at Minnesota while Barrett served a suspension for the equivalent of a DUI arrest, but did not see the field against either of the Michigan teams. Barrett was a dark horse Heisman candidate a year ago before an ankle injury ended his season, and is a fine passer in addition to being the more explosive of the Buckeyes’ two primary rushers. The stingy defenses of the two Michigan schools blunted his aerial impact considerably, but he threw well against Rutgers and Illinois and averaged 9 yards an attempt last season.

You’ll note Miller’s fate was not mentioned above; he moved to receiver for his final season as a Buckeye, because apparently only having Heisman-level talents at quarterback and tailback was insufficient. Miller’s not the every-down runner Elliott is or a true wideout like Michael Thomas, but he did receive 64 touches on the year, split more or less evenly between carries and catches — he turned those touches into 563 yards at about 8.8 yards a pop. Simply put, there’s a surfeit of talent lining up all across the field for the Buckeyes. Even the much-ballyhooed offensive line wins over Notre Dame’s defensive front, with a strong advantage in Adjusted Sack Rate and a solid one in Adjusted Line Yards. Expect a tremendous amount of production on the ground as a result, with enough through the air to keep the Irish honest.

When Notre Dame Has the Ball

There are a few parallels between these two teams, starting with how they ended up here instead of the playoff, but also in regards to early turmoil at the quarterback position. Earlier today we briefly touched on Everett Golson, who lost his job in the offseason[9] to now-junior Malik Zaire. Golson, of course, made use of the graduate transfer rule to relocate to Florida State for his last year; as noted, his career ends without participation in the Peach Bowl. Zaire entered 2015 with a lot of buzz stemming from his performance in the Music City Bowl, only to break his ankle in the second game of the season against Virginia. Enter Kizer, a redshirt freshman who spent all of 2014 as the third man on the depth chart behind Golson and Zaire, to shepherd the Irish to victory on the road against, in hindsight, a surprisingly salty opponent in a close game. After the Cavaliers went up 27-26 with just under two minutes remaining, Kizer took the Irish 80 yards in eight plays for the winning points, culminating in a beautiful 39 yard pass to leading receiver Will Fuller for the touchdown.

9 | Really, in last year’s bowl game.

Kizer and Fuller, along with another gentleman we’ll get to momentarily, proceeded on from that victory to field one of college football’s finest offenses, methodical and balanced between the run and the pass, effective and efficient on standard and passing downs alike. They also drew the absolute worst matchup imaginable outside, perhaps, of the Crimson Tide, as the Buckeyes defense is every bit as talented as it was a year ago. You’ll note the Irish rate out in the top-10 of each metric we track here outside of ASR, and yet they only have a significant advantage on the ground because of how good the OSU defense is.

That edge come courtesy of an experienced line, of course, but also senior running back C.J. Prosise, who converted from wide receiver in the offseason due to a lack of depth at the position. He was a fine wide receiver in 2014, averaging nearly 18 yards a reception as a rotational player, but his transition could not have gone any better. For one, the decision to switch his position proved to be a savvy one, as game one starter Tarean Folston tore his ACL after just three carries on the year. It also turns out Prosise is perhaps an even better runner than he is receiver, eclipsing 1000 yards at an average of 6.6 yards a tote, while splitting carries with hyper-talented freshman Josh Adams and Kizer. It’s unlikely the Irish get much through the air from Kizer, so the pressure is on Prosise to deliver a big game on the ground.

The reason why is that pesky Adjusted Sack Rate, which is a big edge for the Buckeyes on both sides of the ball, but particularly here where their defense has posted a top-15 ranking for the second year in a row.[10] Once again it’s a defensive lineman leading the way, but instead of heralded Joey Bosa it’s a different member of the 2013 class, Tyquan Smith, who’s tops on the Buckeyes with 7 sacks on the year. In fact, the top four sackers on this defense were all defensive linemen, indicating OSU was getting it done without bringing extra pressure — a scary prospect for the Irish.

10 | And possibly farther back; FO’s ASR rankings only show the last two seasons at the moment.

When Kizer is able to get throws off, however, his reward is the nation’s fourth-best pass defense, led by a feisty secondary that’s once again heavily stocked by talent from the 2013 class. Only Gareon Conley is a new name this season,[11] as Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell, and Eli Apple reprised their starting roles from a season ago. With a combined 99 starts this is one of the nation’s more experienced groups, but also among its most talented, with Apple and Bell carrying five-star grades and Powell significantly outplaying his recruiting rating.

11 | Conley replaced the departed Doran Grant at cornerback after seeing significant playing time last season.

All of this and we haven’t even covered the linebackers — led by yet another 2013 recruit, Darron Lee — who are just as talented a group as the secondary and line. There are so many future NFL players on both sides of the ball for the Buckeyes that you can almost make the argument they underachieved — significantly underachieved — their talent level, given the guy they’ve got at head coach. That’s a bit off-topic for this piece, of course — suffice it to say they have enough talent on defense to make this a steep uphill climb for the Irish.

Special Teams

Ohio State wins field position with many teams due to the exploits of Cameron Johnston, the best Australian punter this side of Utah’s Tom Hackett. Snuck in from Down Under in — you guessed it — 2013, Johnston staged a fun battle with Alabama’s J.K. Scott in last year’s playoff semifinal, and was once again one of the nation’s best punters this season. His counterpart on kickoffs, Jack Willoughby, has been particularly effective as well, although according the FEI’s Field Goal Efficiency ratings he hasn’t been much of a placekicker. That latter bit is the main reason Notre Dame has the overall edge on special teams, as their kicker, Justin Yoon, has been among the nation’s best per the same metric. He’s missed two extra points, oddly enough, but if this comes down to field goals the Irish have the edge.

Any intangibles to consider?

Like most of the big bowls, this one is played indoors at University of Phoenix Stadium down in Arizona. The weather in the southwest has been a little nuts as of late — it snowed in El Paso of all places this weekend — but provided the roof isn’t retracted[12] the elements will have no impact on the game. Oddly enough, despite the long and storied history of these two institutions, they’ve only met on the field five times: a pair of home-and-homes in 1935-1936 and 1995-1996 and the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, which broke a tie in favor of the Buckeyes.

12 | The field at this place also retracts outside, which is, you know, awesome.

The injuries to Zaire and Folston were already mentioned, but the Irish lost three other starters to season-ending injures this year in tight end Durham Smythe, lineman Alex Bars, and safety Drue Tranquill. Smythe is actually recovered to the point where’s he probable for Friday’s game, along with linebacker James Onwualu and Prosise, who missed the Stanford game with a high ankle sprain. Ohio State has been considerably more fortunate on the injury front, with none of their key players missing significant time this season. Defensive linemen Adolphus Washington, however, has been suspended for the game after an arrest for soliciting an undercover police officer; his fellow starting tackle, Tommy Schutt, is questionable with a foot injury.

Finally, there may be some motivational/morale issues at foot with the Buckeyes that were revealed after the loss at Michigan State. Elliott was quite vocal about the number of carries he received in the game, and the fact those comments were made in conjunction with his draft declaration is concerning. Jones may have also declared for the draft after that game, which seems to be an odd choice given his in-season demotion. There’s nothing wrong with declaring for the draft as a junior, of course, but the timing seems a bit strange — generally players wait until after the postseason is over to announce their decisions on those matters. It’s probably nothing, but Notre Dame is a dangerous opponent, and not one that Ohio State should take lightly.

The Picks

Assuming we have not witnessed the early stages of a 2010 Florida-style implosion, this one should go in favor of the Buckeyes. They are better and more talented than the Irish on both sides of the ball, and most of the component matchups swing in their favor. Mail it in, however, and it could get ugly fast, particularly if Prosise is able to put up a rushing effort reminiscent of Maryland’s on the Buckeyes.

STRAIGHT UP:      Ohio State Buckeyes
AGAINST SPREAD: Ohio State Buckeyes

ROLL TIDE