Friday, September 8

#1 Ohio State @ #2 Texas - what to expect and more

For what could be the biggest regular season matchup of the 2006 NCAA season, we'd like to take a closer look. I'll preface this preview by admitting that I may have a personal bias. Both of my parents are Ohio State alums, so if I unintentionally underestimate the Texas Longhorns I apoligize. I will do my best to be impartial.

Positional Comparisons:
+0 - even
+1 - slight but noteworthy edge
+2 - significant edge
+3 - huge edge

* The most important position in the game yields probably the biggest advantage one team will have over the other at any one position, and is therefore the simplest to argue. Troy Smith is a leading Heisman candidate, one of the most prolific offensive players in college football, and an experienced leader.
* Colt McCoy, while impressive in his opening debut, is an untested freshman playing a live game against a strong defensive team for the first time.
* Smith will have the edge in agility, arm strength, pass accuracy, and decision making. Ohio State +3.

* The rest of the backfield should be one of the most even matchups in the game. Ohio State will lean on Antonio Pittman, who performed well against NIU averaging 5.8 ypc, roughly on-par with his 5.5 ypc average from a year ago, and scoring a touchdown. Freshman Chris Wells will see less playing time, but provide a good contrast with his more powerful running style. Maurice Wells, who split time with Pittman last season, is a solid third back.
* As a freshman last season, Jamaal Charles recorded the longest run by a Texas player in the history of the Red River Shootout, 80 yards for Texas's first touchdown. He is an elusive runner with excellent field vision, averaged 5.5 yards/carry against UNT after averaging 7.4 ypc last season. Senior Selvin Young will split carries with Charles, having trimmed down ~15 pounds to improve his acceleration and agility. He looked good against UNT, though Longhorn fans may be wary of his habit of fumbling. Both backs scored TDs in the opening week. In short yardage situations, the Longhorns may employ 270-lb bruiser-back Henry Melton.
* Charles is the best back in this bunch. Texas +1

* Ohio State will be pretty much a two man show, but one of those men is Heisman potential Tedd Ginn, Jr. Ginn will be the fastest player on the football field, and he is greatly improved since the last time these teams met. In the Fiesta Bowl, he torched the Irish for two long touchdowns, one off a reverse, and is a threat to score any time the ball is in his hands. On the downside, he has a habit of disappearing from some games. Ginn's partner is Gonzalez, a solid #2 receiver perhaps best known for a key third down catch in OSU's comeback drive against Michigan. Not as fast as Ginn, but more of a posession receiver. A year ago, tight end was the position that let Ohio State down as Hamby dropped what could have been a clinching TD in the fourth quarter. Without a reliable go-to guy at this position, expect most of Smith's passes to be targeted at Ginn, Gonzalez, and the occasional toss to a RB.
* A year ago in Columbus, Limas Sweed scored the game-winning touchdown for the Longhorns, and is the Longhorns' greatest receiving threat. Last week he caught a pair of touchdowns and gained 111 yards on 5 receptions. Texas has a very deep roster of good if unexceptional wide receivers; Cosby, Shipley, and Jones are all capable players. The Longhorns will also use Charles and Young as receivers out of the backfield, which was very effective in this matchup a season ago as often two linebackers were spying Vince Young. The Longhorns do not appear to have found a replacement for star tight end David Thomas.
* Ginn is the biggest scoring threat on the field. Ohio State +2.

Offensive Line:
* Though not as heralded as their counterparts, Ohio State has a strong line. Downing, Datish, and Barton return from last season, though the loss of Mangold at center will be felt.
* Texas returns a veteran line that neutralized the defensive fronts of OSU, OU, and USC a season ago. In fact in that Rose Bowl, the only times Vince Young felt any pressure was when the Trojans blitzed multiple players from the secondary. Seniors Sendlein, Blalock, and Studdard return as the core of that group, and the new starters are a junior and a sophomore.
* The unsung heroes of an offense, this is a position where the Longhorns hope to even the offensive scales. Texas +1

Defensive Line:
* Ohio State returns its tackles Patterson and Pittcock. At defensive end, Richardson has a fair amount of experience. The group is solid against the run and can create pressure on the QB without having to bring extra men.
* Texas returns Crowder, Robison, and Okam as starters, with Robison being the player who recovered Justin Zwick's late game fumble in last season's game. Robison is also a threat on field goals, and blocked a kick against UNT. Many experts rank this line as #1 or #2 along with Oklahoma's.
* Last season, you could make the case that these were the two best defensive lines in football. With a little more experience and a deeper rotation, the edge goes to the Horns. Texas +1

* Ohio State struggles to replace a stellar corps of LBs from their last squad, a task made more difficult by a late-summer injury to much-hyped Mike D'Andrea. Freeman has good speed and Kerr is solid in the middle; Laurinitis was a liability against Michigan, and Grant has almost no experience. Indeed there is little experience from anyone in this group.
* The most memorable incomplete pass thrown by Matt Leinart in the Rose Bowl featured a streak route by Reggie Bush out of the backfield and LB Drew Kelson in man-to-man coverage. Kelson stayed with Bush in deep coverage, nearly intercepting the pass. That is the kind of speed this Texas unit brings to the table, quite possibly the fastest linebacking corps in football, as is preferred by defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. This year Kelson will start and Bobino slides over to MLB to replace Aaron Harris, with Robert Killebrew returning on the strong side.
* Texas LBs have two things they'll need against Ohio State - speed to help contain Troy Smith and coverage skills to help out underneath. Texas +2

* Ohio State must replace an excellent departing group Everett, Salley, Whitner, and Youboty. CB Malcolm Jenkins and SS Jermario O'Neal are well-regarded players, but the #2 corner will be a weakness. FS Brandon Mitchell is the only senior in this bunch with no juniors.
* For Texas, once again speed is the name of the game. Though Thorpe winner Michael Huff and #1 corner Cedric Griffin graduated, the group was expected to be one of the best in the NCAA once again. However, the loss of senior #1 cornerback Tarell Brown - the faster of the two corners whose assignment would have been Ted Ginn - takes this group down a notch. Aaron Ross is an experienced corner who might match up against Ginn in short yardage situations. Michael Griffin is a quick and physical FS who led the team in tackles and tied with Ross for most interceptions a year ago.
* Perhaps the hardest thing to do as a defense is learn to cover as a group. With four new starters, Ohio State may botch a few coverages. Texas +2

* First there was Mike Nugent. Then Josh Huston filled in well enough. But last week, Pretorius and Pettrey both went 0-1 on FG. Ohio State had two FGs blocked by Notre Dame in the Fiesta, which doesn't bode well against Texas.
* After a lackluster season from David Pino, Greg Johnson takes over as a competent kicker. Brian Robison is a kick-blocking machine, already blocking UNT's only field goal attempt the opening week.
* Forgotten in last year's thriller was that Huston did miss a long field goal. Texas +1

* A year ago, AJ Trepasso kicked a 40.3 average and 37.6 net.
* Greg Johnson was punter for Vanderbilt in 2002 as a freshman, where his net average was #4 in the NCAA at 38.8. With the Texas punt coverage team and four years of training under his belt, you can expect that number to approach 40 in 2006.
* Ever so slight an edge to Texas, but I'm giving this one a +0.

Return Teams
* Ted Ginn is the most dangerous man on the field, and the return game is where he excels the most. Despite a 10.0 punt return average and just 1 TD last season, it only takes one mistake for him to make you pay. His kick return average was just shy of 30.
* Aaron Ross was a solid return man last season, averaging 14.7 yards per punt return. But in addition to that, the Longhorns are a threat to block punts, having blocked 6 last year and 20 in the last 5 years. On the down side, last season's top two kick returners are gone - Ramonce Taylor was kicked off the team and Tarell Brown is suspended.
* The punt blocking ability of Texas closes the gap a little, Ohio State +1

Coverage Teams
* Ohio State is always one of the top coverage teams in the nation. Tressel been quoted as saying that the punt is the most important play in the game, showing OSU's dedication to the kicking game.
* A year ago the kick coverage unit was a weakness for the Horns, but that was fixed following the Ohio State game. The Longhorns have not allowed a PR for TD since... I don't know, a while ago.
* Even... OSU a little better against KRs, Texas a little better against PRs, +0

* Jim Tressel replaced Joe Cooper aka The Coach Who Couldn't Beat Michigan or Win the Bowl Game. Since taking over, OSU is 4-1 vs Michigan, 4-1 in Bowl Games, including 3-0 in BCS bowls - each time the Fiesta, and has won a national title in an upset victory over the Greatest Dynasty Ever, Miami. One might note that Michigan has had a bit of a downturn by their standards, averaging fewer than 9 victories per year in that stretch. Under Tressel Ohio State tends to have one of the best special teams units in the nation, a sturdy defense, but has underachieved on offense leading some to question the conservative playcalling. Prior to coaching at Ohio State, Tressel won three national championships with Yongstown State in Div I-AA.
* Mack Brown is notorious for probably costing Texas a spot in the 2001-02 title game by refusing to start Major Applewhite at QB. Four years later he made up for it with an upset victory over the Greatest Team Ever, USC. In Brown's eight years at Texas, the team is just 3-5 against Oklahoma, though it should be noted that in those five losses (2000-04 consecutively) the Sooners averaged 12 victories for the season with three title game appearances. Like Tressel, Brown's teams are noted for outstanding special teams play, sturdy defense (particularly with the addition of coordinator Gene Chizik, who has now won 29 straight games dating back to his days with Auburn), but an offense that disappears in the big games. Indeed, much of that blame has also been placed on OC Greg Davis becoming too conservative for such games. In Brown's defense, Texas was a below .500 program prior to his arrival in 1998, and since then the Horns have averaged just under ten and a half victories per year with their worst record 9-3. His bowl record with Texas is 5-3, including 2-0 in BCS bowls - both times the Rose, the program set a school record for consecutive seasons with 10+ wins, and in 2001-02 finished with back-to-back top 10 rankings for the first time since 1978. Since 2001, Texas has won more games than any other program.
* Even... in fact, very similar I'd say. Were Michigan and Oklahoma to swap their previous five teams, we'd have the entire state of Texas singing Mack's praises and the entire state of Ohio calling for the removal of Tressel. +0

Advantage Totals:
Offense: Ohio State +3
Defense: Texas +5
Special Teams: +0
Overall: Texas +2

* Ohio State was -9 in turnovers last season, their worst performance in six years. The team is still +21 over that period of time. OSU coughed up two fumbles and was -1 vs NIU. The one interception, however, prevented a likely NIU score.
* Texas plays the turnover game as well as anyone other than USC, and in the last six years they are +46 turnovers with positive totals each season. Texas coughed up two fumbles and was +0 vs UNT. The defense scored on a fumble recovery.
* Last season, Texas turned the ball over 3 times to Ohio State's 1. Two interceptions were actually caused by Vince Young being too athletic for his own good, throwing poor passes as tacklers tried to bring him to the ground. Justin Zwick's fumble at 23-22 allowed Texas to burn away much of the clock and set up the clinching safety.

* For Ohio State, this game is all about revenge. The team had Rose Bowl hopes last year, hopes that were taken away in the final minutes of an early-season game by QB Vince Young. Troy Smith said earlier that he wished VY was still at Texas for this game... of course, that would be terrible news for Ohio State, but it hints at the mentality that the Buckeyes are taking into this rematch.
* For Texas, this game is about defending their title and their pride. OSU will likely be their toughest opponent, and a victory this weekend would put them firmly in control of their own destiny. It is also about proving that they can win big games without Vince Young and proving that their victory last season wasn't luck.

Home Field Advantage:
* A year ago, I boldly predicted that Texas would appear to have the home field advantage in the early game, and indeed this was true as the Horns jumped out to a 10-0 lead before the Bucks scored 16 straight. This prediction was due to my unique experience as a Texan who moved to Ohio for college, and experienced the state myself. This season, however, Texas will have the true home field advantage. Don't expect Troy Smith, who has played games in the Big House in November, to get terribly intimidated by a September game anywhere. But perhaps more importantly for the Horns is that Colt McCoy will have the home crowd behind him rather than the Horseshoe's crowd against him. As the game is played in the evening, the weather will not have as much of an effect on the Buckeye players.

Situational Comparisons:

Ohio State Offense vs Texas Defense

Amazingly, Ohio State's 4.7 ypc average last season was their best in the last six years. The Buckeyes have had great offensive lines and solid backs, but do not seem to run the ball like other top rushing programs. Texas gave up 3.7 ypc a year ago and 3.2 ypc the year before that. Against UNT, the unit surrendered just 8 yards rushing on 28 attempts... 36 yards on 19 attempts for the running backs. With a 284 pound average, don't expect Texas's defensive line to get pushed back too much, and the linebackers all have big game experience. For Ohio State, getting the passing game going early and utilizing Smith as an option/decoy will be key to establishing the ground game. Expect some, but limited, success by the Buckeye running game.

A year ago, Ohio State had their best passing offense in years, completing just shy of 65% of their passes to the turn of 226 aerial yards per game despite having a preference for running the ball. Last week they boosted that to 315 yards through the air in an impressive performance. Ohio State lost their go-to receiver, but Texas lost their Thorpe winning safety and #1 corner. Now with their new #1 corner suspended, you'd think Ohio State will have success throwing the ball. The Horns gave up just 87 yards passing in their opener, coming off a season when they had one of the best pass defenses, giving up just 172 passing yards per game at a 51% completion rate. For Texas, it will be important to try to get pressure with the front 4 and to get help from both the linebackers and safeties. Expect Buckeye success in the passing game.

Texas Offense vs Ohio State Defense

Texas averaged 275 rushing ypg and 5.9 ypc a season ago. Though Vince Young's departure will hurt that number, don't underestimate the contributions of the offensive line and the running backs to those statistics. Texas did gain 212 yards rushing against UNT, but the average fell to 4.8 ypc. A season after giving up just 73 ypg and 2.2 ypc on the ground, Ohio State gave up 151 yards and 4.6 ypc to the NIU rushing attack, with Wolfe getting 171 and 6.6. The loss of two linemen and three linebackers was obvious. Though Wolfe is arguably as good as Texas's backs, there is no comparison between the offensive lines, nor the receiving corps which will prevent OSU from giving as much safety support. Expect Texas to go to the ground early and often, as they try to keep the ball away from Ohio State's powerful offense. And expect them to have success with this approach.

Last season, passing was that thing Vince Young sometimes did when the defending corners came up to stop him and he didn't feel like juking them out. He did it so well that he had the #1 quarterback rating in the country, and the offense gained 237 yards at 65% completion through the air. Ohio State gave up 208 yards through the air per game at 61% completion. In the opening week, Texas gained 198 yards through the air, with McCoy being much more efficient than Snead. Ohio State gave up 192 aerial yards, though about half that came on two screen passes. What will be interesting to watch is an inexperienced quarterback with good receivers working against an inexperienced secondary. Expect lots of vanilla from both sides of this one. So long as the line holds and gives McCoy time to find the open man, expect decent success from the Longhorns. Greater success if the running game requires safety support to slow down.

Interesting facts:

Returning Offense/Defense:
* Ohio State returns their top five rushers (in terms of yards gained) from last season, and have added Chris Wells to the attack.
* Ohio State returns their #2-#5 receivers. However, #1 Holmes had 11 TDs to Ginn's 4 and actually averaged more yards per catch.
* Sophomore cornerback Malcolm Jenkins recorded 37 tackles last season for Ohio State. The eight players above him are all gone. Only two other players on OSU's defensive roster recorded more than 20 tackles a year ago. The group has one interception.
* Texas returns rushers #2, #4, and #5 from last season, and you can guess who was #1. Jamaal Charles, however, had the highest ypc.
* Texas returns receivers #3 and #4 from last season, but are aided by Jordan Shipley's return from injury. #1 receiver Billy Pittman returned but was injured during the summer.
* Michael Griffin was the Longhorns' leading tackler and tied with Aaron Ross for leading interceptor a year ago. Tacklers #2-4 graduated and #5 (T. Brown) is suspended. Tacklers #6-11 return, and there are 10 defensive players who recorded over 20 tackles a season ago, with the group totaling 8 interceptions.

Completely Random Yet Fun Facts from Steele's:
* Texas is 13-3 against the spread after their last 16 straight-up victories. The spread calls for Texas to win the game by a field goal.
* The Longhorns have won 21 straight games, longest in the nation.
* Ohio State is 8-3 against the spread after their last 11 straight-up victories.
* Ohio State is 22-4-1 vs the Big 12 during the regular season. However, they are just 5-8 against the spread in those games.

Oh, so I'm supposed to make a prediction?
Texas 24, Ohio State 17