Is Texas A&M better than Ohio State? Let's break it down
In the coming weeks, there’s a realistic scenario in which the selection committee is sitting in front of socially-distanced tables asking a question on the minds of many in the college football world — is Texas A&M better than Ohio State?
That question is vague. It’s subjective. It’s somewhat inconclusive.
Being unequivocally better than a team in this sport is often hard to measure when you don’t get the head-to-head factor. It’s especially difficult when we don’t even get to see either of their respective conferences face one another. That’s why we rely on the résumé so much.
Some interpret the question as “who would win a neutral-site game played tomorrow?” I think that’s part of the argument, but it’s not the entire argument because if everything happened based on how we thought it would, we’d all be filthy rich from Vegas. It’s true that an inferior team can line up against a superior team and prove to be a matchup nightmare. Football is a game of matchups. There are ways in which A&M could exploit matchups against Ohio State, and there are ways in which Ohio State could exploit matchups against A&M.
To settle this argument, I want to break this down into 3 categories. The résumé, the hypothetical head-to-head and the odds of winning a 4-team Playoff tournament. That should give us the better answer to the question the selection committee is going to be asking throughout the next couple of weeks.
Let’s dig into it.
1. The résumé
Comparing isn’t easy when 1 team has played 5 games. Fortunately for Ohio State, A&M is still only at 8 games played. After Saturday’s cancelation, that means we’ll only see the Aggies get 9 games, which means they aren’t going to end with 5 more regular-season games played than the Buckeyes as many speculated a couple weeks ago.
In a normal year, I break résumés down by victories against Power 5 teams with winning records, wins vs. teams in the current Top 25 (we’ll use the Playoff poll here) and margin of victory against Power 5 teams. Even in a non-normal year, this is worth dissecting.
VICTORIES VS. POWER 5 TEAMS WITH WINNING RECORDS
- Ohio State: 1
- Texas A&M: 2
WINS VS. TEAMS IN CURRENT TOP 25
- Ohio State: 1
- Texas A&M: 1
AVERAGE MARGIN OF VICTORY VS. POWER 5 TEAMS
- Ohio State: +23.4
- Texas A&M: +9.3
At best for A&M, that’s a split. That’s why the selection committee can justify ranking Ohio State at No. 4. A&M, despite those 3 additional games played, only has 1 more victory vs. winning Power 5 teams compared to Ohio State. Both have a win against the Top 25, and both have a 1-possession win at home against a top-10 team. Outside of that, neither of their résumés are particularly good in terms of quality of opponents.
If you want to look at combined record of opponents who each team beat, A&M’s is 23-38 (.377) and Ohio State’s is 14-19 (.424). There’s not much difference.
A&M only has 2 more victories against Power 5 competition. Even though Ohio State hasn’t faced a team of Alabama’s caliber, we can’t pretend that the Aggies’ blowout loss to the Crimson Tide didn’t happen. It did, and we can’t forget that the selection committee has only allowed 1 team into the field with a 3-score loss. That was 2017 Georgia, which avenged its blowout loss against Auburn with a blowout win in the SEC Championship.
As much as A&M fans might disagree with this, that’s a major demerit. We’d be having a different conversation about the Aggies’ résumé had that loss to Alabama only been by 14 points instead of 28 points.
Here’s what I come back to, though. For now, A&M has the 3 more games played. Ask Ohio State how important it is to actually play the games. You can’t assume those are automatic wins for an Ohio State team that has shown in the past — 2017 at Iowa and 2018 at Purdue — that it can lose on any given day.
I don’t think you can assume wins. It’s extremely close, but I’d give the slight edge to an A&M team that has had to play 3 more Power 5 games so far. In any normal year, that would be a massive discrepancy. It might not be Ohio State’s fault that this discrepancy exists in 2020, but it’s reality.
ADVANTAGE — A&M
2. The hypothetical head-to-head (assuming both teams aren’t dealing with COVID issues)
If we’re talking about the actual matchup of strengths and weaknesses here, I actually think Ohio State has a noticeable advantage. That’s not because of recruiting rankings, nor is it because of any preseason confirmation bias. Think about where each team is at its best and where each team is at its worst.
Ohio State can be beat by a team with a strong downfield passing attack. Indiana showed us that. Even Michigan State had a couple flashes of that. If you test the Buckeyes’ inexperienced secondary, they can be had.
While I think A&M would certainly protect Kellen Mond if he wanted to attack downfield, that’s not what the Aggies do. They want to attack with the Maroon Goons in the ground game, which wouldn’t be ideal against Ohio State’s No. 5 run defense. The A&M offense is built on the intermediate passing game with guys like the underrated Jalen Wydermyer and Ainias Smith. Without Caleb Chapman, who was a star in that all-important Florida win before he went down with a season-ending injury, the Aggies aren’t really going to win a game by stretching the field vertically. They don’t have a 6-2, 215-pound wideout like Ty Fryfogle, who torched the Buckeyes for 218 yards and 3 touchdowns.
TY FRYFOGLE IS COOKING DBs🔥
We’ve got a one-score game
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 21, 2020
Don’t get me wrong. A&M would move the ball and sustain scoring drives against Ohio State. But to keep pace with the Buckeyes, you need those big chunk plays, which I think could be lacking.
On the other side of the ball, that’s exactly where I think Ohio State could gash A&M. Mike Elko dares teams to throw the ball. With Justin Fields and weapons like Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, that’s what the Buckeyes would prefer to do. Texas A&M is No. 59 in FBS against the pass. When they faced teams who could actually stretch the field vertically, the Aggies surrendered 435 passing yards to Mac Jones, 312 passing yards to Kyle Trask (with an injured Kyle Pitts in the second half) and even Feleipe Franks had 239 yards through the air.
The 78-yard touchdown pass from Mac Jones to John Metchie. 7-0, Alabama. pic.twitter.com/FfuoF4nRmX
— Michael Casagrande (@ByCasagrande) October 3, 2020
Fields would attack the A&M secondary. He would be willing to take probably a sack or 2 that he shouldn’t in an effort to keep attacking downfield.
The home-run plays would be the difference in this one. Even if A&M did a good job controlling time of possession and keeping Ohio State on the field longer than it intended with key third-down conversions, I’d still take the Buckeyes to win a high-scoring game by 2 scores.
ADVANTAGE — OSU
3. The odds of winning a 4-team Playoff tournament
This is a subject worth discussing because the worst possible scenario for the Playoff from a business standpoint is a lopsided game. This speaks to why the selection committee has been so reluctant to even consider the possibility that a Group of 5 team could be top-6 worthy, much less deserving of a Playoff spot. I think for the most part, we’ve seen the selection committee put in teams who they felt had a legitimate chance to not only be worthy of a spot, but to win the field (2014 Ohio State and 2017 Alabama).
Do I think either of these secondaries would stop Alabama or Clemson? Nope. Neither A&M nor Ohio State would be favored against those teams based on what we’ve seen in 2020. The challenge is eliminating some of the pre-2020 bias. In 2019, Ohio State was the team that was robbed an opportunity to play for a national title because of a botched fumble call. A&M, on the other hand, was the team that led for just 7 minutes and 42 seconds of 300 minutes of football against teams who finished in the top 15 of the Associated Press Top 25.
You can’t just fall into that school of thought because OSU no longer has so much of that defense, and A&M’s offensive line is infinitely better than it was last year. It doesn’t matter that they have the same quarterbacks and head coaches from a year ago.
Speaking of those quarterbacks, look at every signal-caller who has played for a national championship during the Playoff era:
- Marcus Mariota, Oregon
- Cardale Jones, Ohio State
- Deshaun Watson, Clemson (2)
- Jake Coker, Alabama
- Jalen Hurts, Alabama (2)
- Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (2 if you count 2017)
- Jake Fromm, Georgia
- Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (2)
- Joe Burrow, LSU
Now let’s take a look at the passing numbers for every winning title quarterback in the Playoff era:
- Cardale Jones — 16-for-23, 242 yards, 1 TD, 38 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD
- Jake Coker — 16-for-25, 335 yards, 2 TDs
- Deshaun Watson — 36-for-56, 420 yards, 3 TDs, 43 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD
- Tua Tagovailoa (one half) — 14-for-24, 166 yards, 3 TDs, 27 rushing yards
- Trevor Lawrence — 20-for-32, 347 yards, 3 TDs, 27 rushing yards
- Joe Burrow — 31-for-39, 463 yards, 5 TDs, 58 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD
For what it’s worth, Coker had the Heisman Trophy winning tailback in his backfield (along with Lane Kiffin calling plays) while Jones had Ezekiel Elliott in his backfield (along with Urban Meyer and Tom Herman calling plays). You don’t win a championship without some all-world quarterback play. In this era, you’ll go as far as your quarterback will take you.
With all due respect to Mond, who has certainly improved this year, Fields is the one who has a much better shot at delivering a championship performance. It’s Fields who can make a championship-winning throw on the move when all eyes are on him. Fields is the one with 71 touchdowns in 19 games in Ryan Day’s offense. Fields is what gives Ohio State championship-level upside.
Mond has proven to be a fine college quarterback — he just surpassed 9,000 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards — but is he really capable of leading a team to a title? I wouldn’t bet on that. Among the top 6 teams, Mond is the clear outlier in a group that has Fields, Lawrence, Trask, Jones and the 2020 version of Ian Book.
Whether that’s totally fair or not, it doesn’t help A&M’s case that at the game’s most important position, Ohio State clearly has the championship advantage. Even though A&M can boast about arguably a better ground game and some talented players in the front 7, we’ve seen time and time again that quarterback is king. That’s why Ohio State has the perceived upside that A&M lacks.
ADVANTAGE — OSU
Who’s better? Ohio State by a fraction
I know this isn’t what A&M fans want to hear, but if this were perhaps 10 years ago, I’d give the edge to the Aggies. I’d say that their physical nature is a sustainable blueprint and that it could make A&M a nightmare matchup for 60 minutes. But the game has changed, and it favors 2020 Ohio State. Yes, it’s close when take those 3 of those factors into account.
Asking the question of “who’s better” is so broad that it does need more context. It’s not enough to just say that Ohio State having the better quarterback is everything, nor does it make sense to say that A&M’s dominant run game automatically has the edge. It’s not even enough to say total games played vs. Power 5 teams is the ultimate factor.
The selection committee is praying that it doesn’t have to do what I just did. If one of these 2 teams were to lose or if Alabama were to lose to Florida in the SEC Championship, it would make their job much easier. The hope is that this can actually play itself out, and that we’ll get a sign in the next 2 weeks that helps answer the all-important question.
If Ohio State isn’t the better team, something significant will need to happen before Selection Sunday to show it.