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Is Any Team Beating Ohio State?

The favorite in the Big Ten in 2013 was cemented somewhere back around the end of November 2012. After Ohio State beat Michigan to finish 12-0 with nowhere to go thanks to NCAA sanctions, the consensus was already forming — Ohio State was the Big Ten favorite and a national title contender in the season to come.

Maybe there were a few open-minded folks willing to wait around and see how Nebraska did in the conference championship game and bowl game to follow — a Husker team coming off a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl win might have clouded the issue at least a little — but when Wisconsin embarrassed Nebraska it was nothing but clear sailing for the Buckeyes headed into August. We’re now nearing seven straight months of that idea coloring every other discussion of the Big Ten.

There are good reasons for that. With very little room for argument, the 2013 Buckeyes have the Big Ten’s best coach, best quarterback, best offensive line, best outside linebacker, best cornerback, best free safety, and the best two recruiting classes the past two years (according to Rivals) to fill in the gaps where Ohio State might not yet be the best. And, on top of all that, the Buckeyes have one of easier schedules in the conference.

The non-conference slate offers nothing tougher than a trip to Cal. (The Golden Bears finished 3-9 last year and the early preseason consensus is that Cal will have to fight to finish above the Pac-12 North cellar in 2013.) The conference schedule is almost equally navigable as the Buckeyes get their toughest division games (Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana) at home. The one big challenge everyone points to is the season finale at Michigan. Ohio State opened as a 6-point favorite in that game.

So, is anyone beating Ohio State before bowl season or is 12-0 (again) a foregone conclusion?

A perfect regular season certainly looks like the most likely outcome right now for Ohio State in 2013 but there are a few cracks — very faint, very small — that could be exploited by the right team. Some ideas and numbers to consider when thinking about the Buckeyes this season:

1) Ohio State really wasn’t that dominant on their way to 2012′s perfect season. There’s a very simple measure of yards gained per game minus yards allowed per game (i.e. yard differential) that provides a surprisingly clear glimpse at the overall power of teams. Ohio State outgained its opponents last year by just 64.1 yards per game. That ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 34th nationally.

If the Buckeyes are legitimate national championship contenders — and that’s the prevailing thought right now — they’ll have to increase that yard differential by nearly 100 yards per game. Over the past six seasons the average yard differential for the BCS national championship game participants was 161.3 yards per game. The last six national champions averaged 173.4 more yards per game than their opponents, the runners-up had an average advantage of 144.2 yards per game. The lowest of that six-year span was LSU in 2011 at 93.6. Ohio State wasn’t in that class last year despite the unbeaten record.

That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes won’t be this year, but that 12-0 record that launched so many lofty 2013 predictions may not be as solid as many thought it was. The Power Rank, which uses a similar differential but for points and adjusted for strength of schedule, had Ohio State ranked 14th at the end of last year, one spot behind 9-4 Oregon State. Paul Dalen of HuskerMath, also using a point differential system, showed the Buckeyes had three more wins last year than his model would’ve predicted. (Incidentally, Nebraska had his worst win differential.)

Statistically speaking, Ohio State didn’t look like a 12-0 team last year. How many people are factoring that in to their 2013 rankings?

2) What do California, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan — combined 2012 record of 36-41 — all have in common? They all lost to Ohio State by one score or less last season. In the case of Purdue and Wisconsin, both of those losses came in overtime.

That’s six “close wins” in 2012, the second most nationally according to Phil Steele and an unusually high number. Over the last 11 years, again according to Steele, only seven teams have had 6+ close wins and six of those teams went on to have a weaker record the next year.

3) Do any of those close wins last year provide any insight into beating Ohio State this year? Sort of. The Buckeyes averaged 5.2 yards per carry on the ground last year. In all six of those close games, the opposition was able to keep Ohio State under 5 yards per carry. Wisconsin and Michigan kept the Buckeyes under 4 yards per carry.

Now, that’s not a particularly revolutionary blueprint for picking up wins. “Stopping the run” is an old coaching truism for a reason, but it does highlight an interesting question that lingers from last season.

4) How much do we know about Braxton Miller as a passer? He’s a good quarterback, possibly great. Everybody seems content with that assertion, but nobody’s really seen Miller truly beat a team with his arm when the run game simply wasn’t working. Few teams are able to put Ohio State in that position. The Buckeyes ranked 117th and 114th nationally the past two years in total pass attempts. The most attempts Miller’s had in a game in his career was 30 in that close win over Cal last season. The only other time Miller attempted 25 passes or more in his career was the 2011 loss to Michigan. The Wolverines held Ohio State to just 137 yards rushing in that game.

Again, stopping the Ohio State run game with a very good offensive line, one of the Big Ten’s best backs in Carlos Hyde, and Miller is easier said than done but it has the look of a strategy that might work. Now, is there any team on the Buckeyes’ schedule capable of doing it?

Wisconsin could, even on the road. The Badgers held Ohio State to a season-low 139 yards rushing last season and have the experienced and talented linebackers that could limit Miller’s running lanes.

Northwestern might be able to do it at home. The Wildcats ranked 22nd nationally in rush defense last year and have seven starters back from that defense. Northwestern also has a bye week prior to that Oct. 5 game against Ohio State while the Buckeyes have to play Wisconsin.

And then there’s Michigan. Adjusted for strength of schedule, the Wolverines ranked 14th nationally in rush defense according to The Power Rank. If the Big Ten Legends Division race is as close as most project, odds are good that that last game of the season will mean something to Michigan too. Well, more than it already does of course.

Even considering all of the above, there’s a good reason why Ohio State is the runaway favorite in the Big Ten: The Buckeyes are, at almost every individual position, more talented than every team they’ll face this year. That accounts for a lot in college football, but it can’t account for everything.

Is any team beating Ohio State this year? I’ll put it this way: I wouldn’t bet on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised either.

Last year for the Buckeyes, despite the record, wasn’t quite what it seemed.