When Ohio State has the ball, it looks like a rather even matchup of strength vs. strength.
The Fancy Stats tell us that it is an elite offense up against an elite defense, and the parallelism between OSU’s offense and Michigan’s defense is quite striking. It’s S&P+’s #4 offense against the #8 defense.
The strength of OSU’s offense is its efficiency (#1 Success Rate in the nation, the best at keeping “ahead of the chains”). The strength of Michigan’s defense is also its efficiency (#1 Success Rate, the best in the nation at keeping the opposing offense “behind the chains”). This is an amazing matchup of the nation’s best vs. the nation’s best in terms of Success Rate: 55.7% vs. 29.5%!
OSU’s offense is not nearly as explosive as it is efficient (#42 in IsoPPP). Because Michigan’s defense is the opposite of “bend but don’t break” (it’s more like “ATTACK! ATTACK! ATTACK! - then occasionally give up a big gainer”), it ranks 109th in defensive IsoPPP. OSU is a little bit better than average whereas Michigan is below average. Neither is a strength. In fact, IsoPPP reveals both units’ greatest weakness.
Whether or not OSU’s offense is able to stay ahead of the chains will go a very long way in determining which team wins most of the battles when OSU has the ball. I imagine the successes will alternate: certain possessions or sets of downs Michigan’s defense will do good things, other possessions or sets of downs OSU’s offense will do good things. We’ll have to wait to see which happens more frequently.
If OSU gets to 2nd down with 5 or fewer yards to go, and 3rd down with 2-3 yards to go, it’s advantage Ohio State. But if OSU is facing 8+ yards on 2nd down and 5+ yards on 3rd down, then it’s advantage Michigan. (This may sound obvious, but when Michigan has the ball, it’s not the same.)
RUSHING: OSU is the #2 rush offense in S&P+, Michigan’s rush defense is #11. Again, when it comes to rushing efficiency, it’s elite vs. elite (OSU 1st vs. UM 7th). For all the rushing subcategories (like Stuff Rate, Adj. Line Yards, etc.) it’s elite vs. elite. Except for IsoPPP, when it’s OSU’s only non-elite offensive rushing stat against Michigan’s only non-elite defensive rushing stat. Okay, so…that means Michigan is vulnerable at giving up what OSU’s offense does not excel at. <shrug>
PASSING: Again, it’s elite vs. elite (OSU 4th vs. UM 3th). Again again, both sides excel at efficiency (OSU #5 success rate, UM #1!) and are more mediocre at in terms of explosiveness (OSU 39th in IsoPPP, UM’s defense 93rd).
If there’s any clear statistical advantage for Michigan’s defense, it’s in the way of sacks. OSU’s offense is 38% better than the average FBS team at preventing sacks (30th in the nation), but Michigan’s defense is 71% better at getting sacks than the average team (3rd in the nation). OSU is not as vulnerable at giving up sacks on standard downs (26th best sack rate in nation) as they are on passing downs (65th best sack rate, near the national average). However, Michigan excels at getting sacks regardless of what type of down it is (3th in nation with a sack rate on standard downs, 11th in passing downs). Michigan’s D-line, which ranks 15th in Havoc Rate, will be a tough test for OSU’s O-line, particularly on passing plays.
OSU may try to play keep-away from Michigan’s CBs, just as Michigan’s other recent opponents have done. Michigan’s secondary has the nation’s 2nd best Havoc Rate. Michigan’s defense as a whole is 2nd in the nation in Overall Havoc Rate. That primarily comprises Michigan’s D-line, CBs, & Bush. Therefore, the most advantageous matchups for OSU will be to try to target Michigan’s non-Bush linebackers and the safeties.
All in all, the Fancy Stats say that when OSU has the ball it’s a matchup of elite vs. elite. To summarize, the only slight advantage to OSU’s offense is that they may be able to break a few big plays. The advantage for Michigan’s defense will be the opportunity to create big plays with sacks, especially on passing downs. Everything else looks like a stalemate, a give & take of strength vs. strength, which means it will simply come down to execution & RPS.