Is Ohio State really the 3rd best team in the B1G?
A quarter of the way into the season and 2-1 Ohio State hasn’t been the juggernaut of recent Big Ten campaigns.
Over the past 4 years, Ohio State won the Big Ten each year, going 34-2 in conference play. But this year? Well, the pundits who rank teams seem to think this year is different. Ohio State currently has to look up in the rankings to see 3-0 Penn State and 3-0 Iowa. Sure, it’s early. But the current narrative is that OSU is the 3rd best team in the Big Ten. Is that really true?
Penn State, fresh off an exciting, down-to-the-last-gasp win over a middle of the SEC Auburn team, is somehow the Flavor of the Week.
So far, the Nittany Lions have edged out Wisconsin on the road by 6 points in a game in which the Badgers outrushed the Lions 180-50, held the ball for 42 minutes, but threw a couple of costly interceptions. The Lions did beat Ball State badly, but then needed every last break and questionable whistle to survive … Auburn. Again they were outrushed, 182-84, and allowed Auburn to go 10-for-17 on third downs. They did not sack Bo Nix and had just 3 tackles for loss.
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Penn State is in the middle of pretty much every stat category in the Big Ten. It’s not great on offense, it’s not great on defense. So far, the Lions have been great at survival. Teams haven’t beaten Ohio State by surviving the Buckeyes. The last Big Ten team to beat Ohio State was a Purdue squad that threw the ball all over the Buckeyes and won 49-20. And the last one before that was an Iowa team that had just under 500 yards of offensive and went +4 on turnovers to win 55-24. Since that Purdue game, Ohio State has won by just one score only once in going 19-0 vs. conference foes. Penn State isn’t a “take them to the woodshed” team.
The schedule also isn’t on the Lions’ side. Penn State still has to play at Iowa on Oct. 9 and then at Columbus on Oct. 30. There’s also the matter of Michigan coming to town on Nov. 13, and the Nittany Lions have to go to Michigan State on Nov. 27. That’s by far the toughest schedule of the 3 teams in question.
Iowa, though? Really? Sure, Iowa is 3-0. They were impressive in dispatching Indiana with ease to open the season. Since then, it’s a 10-point win over Iowa State and a 30-7 victory over Kent State.
Possibly the biggest advantage that Iowa has vis-a-vis Ohio State is that it won’t have to play the Buckeyes until the Big Ten Championship Game. That said, Iowa will play Penn State on Oct. 9 and at Wisconsin on Oct. 30. ESPN’s FPI rating projects both of those games as virtual toss-ups. For that matter, FPI only has Iowa favored 59-41% at Nebraska on Nov. 26.
The issues with Iowa are as obvious as the issues with Ohio State. The Hawkeyes are last in the Big Ten in scoring offense and total yardage. They’re 3-0, but they’re doing it while averaging under 300 yards per game. Meanwhile, while Iowa does lead the Big Ten in scoring defense, it is 4th in yardage allowed, giving up about 279 yards per game. That gap of just +19 yards per game isn’t really conducive to dominant football. As bad as Ohio State’s defense has been, the Buckeyes still have a +67 yard difference between their offensive production and defensive yardage allowed. Wisconsin is sitting at +220 right now. Rutgers is at +91.
Iowa has been more than a little lucky and very efficient. It is averaging 5.4 yards per passing attempt and is 13th in the Big Ten in 3rd down conversion rate. A great defense is helpful. But it’s hard to take the Hawkeyes seriously until they develop an offense that can move the chains, pick up yardage, and score more points. The last 5 teams to beat Ohio State averaged 44 points per game. That includes Iowa, back in 2017, when it upset OSU 55-24. This Iowa team isn’t going to score like that.
Ohio State’s horrifying defense is deflecting notice from its outstanding offense. Three games into the season, OSU is averaging 538 yards and 38 points per game. Stroud, Henderson, Olave and Wilson are all among the best players in the conference and perhaps the nation. Very few defenses — if any — will be able to stop them all. Consider Alabama’s struggles with Florida in their 31-29 win last week. Ohio State is definitely ahead of UF right now offensively.
Meanwhile, there’s the schedule. Only at Michigan in the finale does FPI think the Buckeyes get a good run. Yes, there are tough games left. But not until hosting Penn State on Oct. 30 will OSU face a team that is legitimately capable of beating it. Given another 6 weeks to get right, it’s hard to imagine that Ohio State won’t do so. Ohio State might be the third best team in the Big Ten now. It seems doubtful that they will be on Oct. 30.