Why Ohio State Is Clearly The Best Team In The Nation (So Far)

Ohio State Buckeyes football Haskell Garrett Jordan Fuller Jeff Okudah

There is a whole sub-culture around the college football media dedicated to taking opinions, framing them as definitive statements, and then letting opposing fanbases fight it out in the comments.

“Alabama would beat every Big Ten team by 30 points!”

“Ohio State would be lucky to go 5-3 in the SEC West!”

“Oklahoma would score 50 on the Buckeyes this year!”

“Rutgers has a football team!”

Some of these statements could be true, but we’ll never know because no one will ever see them happen to know one way or another.

The conversation around not only “who’s No. 1?” but also the potential College Football Playoff field turns the DERP up to 11 all too frequently.

No, the SEC is not going to get four teams into the Playoff field.

No, it’s almost certainly not going to get three, either.

And there’s a decent chance it won’t even get two teams in.

The question of which team is the best in the nation is a little more nuanced, but also more easily answerable right now.

If you squint hard enough, more than a half-dozen teams can stake some kind of claim to that title at the moment.

Wisconsin just finished running off a 158-0 total point differential in non-conference play, and was up 35-0 on Michigan before garbage time.

LSU might have the most impressive true road win of the year, at No. 9 Texas.

Florida just beat Auburn by 11.

Georgia has a home win over Notre Dame.

Penn State is 5-0, with an average margin of victory just north of 40 points per game.

Alabama is Alabama.

Clemson is Clemson.

But it’s just as easy to poke holes in their cases. Florida barely beat lousy Miami and Kentucky teams. Clemson narrowly escaped against a middling North Carolina.

Wisconsin looked like crap against Northwestern.

Alabama’s best win so far is Duke, who just lost to Pitt.

Pitt might be Penn State’s best win to date.

Clemson looks like it’s sleepwalking, 2015 Buckeye-style.

Outside of Texas, LSU’s schedule has been terrible. Ditto for Georgia and their non-Notre Dame opponents.

Making or breaking the case for any of these teams is a mostly subjective exercise until they get into the meat of their conference schedules.

But there are more objective ways to look at things, and a lot of those point to the same thing: Ohio State has been the best football team in the nation so far. And it hasn’t really been all that close.

Warning: There will be some math-type substance below. We’ll keep it as simple as possible. But if you’re having trouble following anything, just read the paragraph above this one.

Let’s start with SP+, which is a tempo-free, opponent-adjusted measure of teams. The short version is that each team earns points for its offensive, defensive, and special teams performances. If you subtract the difference between any two teams, you’ll get the expected margin of victory in any given game.

This week, Alabama is No. 1 at 32.5 points. The Buckeyes are No. 2 at 32.4. No one else is within four points of the Buckeyes.

But right now, 40 percent of the SP+ ratings are based on preseason projections. That number starts at 100 percent before the season (duh) and then drops by 10 percent each week. After week 10, it’s solely on-field production.

Alabama had an overwhelming lead in the preseason rankings (35.3, compared to OSU’s 23.6). That means Ohio State has made up close to 12 points on the Tide overall during the course of the season, even with just 60 percent of its on-field performance counting toward the new numbers.

Just to put things in perspective, 12 points is a lot in this system. Right now, there’s a little less than 12 points of difference between Clemson and Indiana in the rankings. Just 60 percent of Ohio State’s on-field performance has been enough to close that gap on the Tide in just the first six weeks of the season.

An offshoot of SP+ is Resume Rankings. Those compare how you have fared against your schedule so far, compared to how the average top-5 team would have done.

The main point is to adjust for the quality of competition a team has faced. You can find a chart below with the current top-10.

Ohio State has been 11.5 points per game better than the average top-5 team against their schedule to date.

Alabama isn’t even half as good at 5.6 points. Only Oklahoma (1.8 points) is even within 10 points of the Buckeyes at this point.

When you think about it, it makes sense. The Buckeyes have played several good opponents and utterly destroyed them all.

Cincinnati absolutely crushed a decent Marshall team, 52-14, and just beat UCF, 27-24. Their 10-point home win over UCLA is one of their least-impressive games. You probably remember how their trip to Columbus went.

Michigan State has been decent so far, with a 31-10 road win at Northwestern, a win over Indiana, and a narrow loss to Arizona State. But they, too, got throttled by the Buckeyes.

Nebraska hasn’t been anything remarkable this year, but are 4-1 against everyone except OSU. Their only loss came in overtime against Colorado. But Ohio State completely demolished them in Lincoln.

There is a knee-jerk “y’all ain’t played nobody” responder lurking somewhere in the comments below, so let’s just get this out of the way. Ohio State’s schedule hasn’t just been the toughest of any FBS unbeaten so far this year, it’s been the toughest by a lot.  The tweet below is from a Sports Information Director at Clemson.

This type of analysis generally inspires a lot of responses that boil down to “tell your numbers to shut up.”

If you’re familiar with the state education rankings in the heart of SEC country, the explicit rejection of math likely isn’t a big surprise.

But the really remarkable part of the Buckeyes’ hot start this year is that they might actually be better than they’ve shown so far.

They have gone into halftime with three-score margins in all six of their games. The second halves of basically every game this season have consisted almost entirely of garbage time. And there’s pretty solid reason to think that Ryan Day and his staff have taken their feet off the gas pedal long before the final gun.

The tweet below is from R.J. Bell, a veteran of the sports gambling industry.

To translate: Ohio State is 6-0, winning those games by an average of 40.5 points per game. They have also beaten the point spread by 104 points in their first six games.

Normally, a team beating the spread by that much scores 40 percent of its points in the second half. OSU is only scoring 29 percent then. That means it’s quite possible that they’re calling off the dogs more than most teams in their position.

If the Buckeyes kept the hammer down even as much as the average team that’s this good, they would be winning by an average of 7 more points per game.

The standard caveat goes here: There’s still a lot of football left to play. The Buckeyes are still six wins away from earning a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, seven away from earning a spot in the College Football Playoff, and nine wins away from a perfect 15-0 national championship season.

But so far, so good for Ryan Day and his team.

Ohio State hasn’t just been the best team in the nation so far this year, they’ve been the best team in the nation by a LOT.

And there’s plenty of reason to think they could be even better than they’ve shown.

14 Responses

  1. Good stuff but let’s just worry about Northwestern for now.

  2. OK… I’ve played a “B” competitor, two “B minus” competitors, and 3 cupcakes. There are 6 games to go… until the B1G Championship game.

    So obviously I’m clearly the only A+ team in the nation, and nothing will change for the rest of the season, no doubt, no question.


    IMO this doesn’t even ‘rise to the level’ of the trash talk lying next to the whale dung and lawyers at the bottom of the ocean…

    fyi, my father was a lawyer, and expressed this sediment far more colorfully than i have…. ;-{)}

    OTOH, our coaches reminding of needed corrections & self-improvement … and our players continuing to ‘buy in’? Priceless…daily.

  3. Great article, Tom! I’ll day this for the Buckeyes……DAMN! they’re fun to watch this year!

  4. Ok so first of all. I have seen no other player with as much skill as Justin Fields, I fully believe he is da one. Ohio State has beaten the crap out of every opponent including taking down Sparty with ease. A problem area, we take 9 minutes to get ready to well, PLAY. That is the only thing I think there is room for improvement. Other than that we are flawless. GO BUCKS!

  5. Despite our weak out of conference schedule, there is no question whatsoever that should we manage to win out that we will be in the playoffs. Lose a game and all bets are off, at which point we need to worry about how the committee may decide to shift the rules in such a way that we are disadvantaged. Until that time, just keep winning, baby.

    It is no trivial matter to win all 12 regular-season games plus the conference championship for any team (even one that appears as talented as this one) but that is the one sure route into the playoffs. So, the boys need to take each game one at a time, take care of business and move on to the next one. So far, they look like they have the ability to just that. If we can shore up our linebacker play a bit, in my estimation it is more likely than not that we will prevail in each game up to and including the Big Ten championship game.

    Go Bucks!

  6. I’m not exhaling until we beat Wisconsin and Penn State. Y’all can do whatever you want.

    Also unless the whole CFP withdraws for being SEC homers they might decide a 3 loss Georgia is better than a 13-0 Ohio State. The SEC figured out long ago, you can’t win if you don’t get to play.

  7. 1-average stupidity is consistent stupidity which is… ‘reliably’ stupid.

    2-reducing a couple three fav irrationals to compare irrationals is… yup, same exercise, different dress.

    3-what does “I know more than you… halfway through, mean?

    4-if i calculate the margin, based on my gravitas or yours… have i discovered a Pathway to Space?

    epilogue so far: looking back over 50 years, none of our greatest teams… won a championship. But we’re not above making our #2’s …ones… ‘really’.

    dsp [we’re good enough to be on Double Secret Probation [DSP] for ENTERING THE 2019 race. But, this is a race for the crown… not a race to crown ourselves Mo, Larry, Curly…or Shep.

    GO BUCKS! Follow the Road Less Travelled, deviating neither left nor right, come what may… until the last 2019 Carmen Ohio is sung!

  8. Guess what everybody, despite your constant woe is us, everybody hates us attitude….if the playoffs started next week, I GUARANTEE the Buckeyes would be in and rightly so. I’m not sure why paranoia is running rampant. We’re not eking out wins against bums and we’re not laying eggs in games, which in the recent past deserved to be criticized and held against us. Just keep winning. Now down the line, if for some unlikely reason a Wisconsin or Penn State manages to beat us, THEN the conversation starts. Until then I will lie back with my hands clasped behind my head, feet propped up and enjoy the ride and wait for the playoffs.

  9. Tom, thanks for breaking down the SP+ ratings system and how it works. It’s very informative. I’m amazed at how well the Buckeyes are doing this year. Even by SP+ standards they are kicking butt.

  10. Tom- you are right. Only 2 things matter right now, and in this order:

    1) Keep winning OSU (!!!) and
    2) Hope like heck the committee doesn’t move the goal posts AGAIN when deciding the “most relevant factors” for which 4 they select

  11. Tom, I’m not sure how serious you take all of this, but I will reply as if you take it all completely seriously. If not, then take my comments equally as seriously as you take the content of the article and your conclusion. The most important words you wrote are the two in the tile:”so far.” Rankings ultimately mean nothing so far. Discussions of who seems most deserving to be in the playoff so far mean nothing. The only thing that means anything so far is that all of this will mean something only after the conference championship games have been played. ESPN and the other national media outlets would have us think differently, as this is how they generate more money, but it is the truth, nonetheless.

    Virtually none of the principle teams in the playoff picture has played any of its most important games. OSU, for example, has played only its 3rd most difficult game of the year (unless Wisky proves to be way overrated). On a side note, I wonder if Tony remembers his list of most difficult games OSU would play this year, which badly missed the order of the top 5. Anyway, the point is that “so far” even means very little, because all of the most important games still await the contenders, and the “Who is the best team in college football so far?” question pretty means does not mean squat, because without the principle teams’ having played their toughest games, there simply is not a valid data set here. If you know numbers, you should know the mathematics behind this point.

    We all just need to relax and let things unfold. Who cares whether we have the best team in the country or not so far. Who cares whether we think we are playoff-worthy now or not. It doesn’t matter, because a myriad of things still need to unfold, and the only thing that means anything is if we actually win our conference championship game, IF we even get into that game. I appreciate all of the work you put into your article, but I wonder if you even would have thought to write it if ESPN and its clones had not been littering the airwaves every week with the talk of who appears to be the strongest team in the country. It just doesn’t matter yet. All of that will take care of itself.

    1. In a perfect world none of this polling stuff would matter. But nothing about the CFP process is perfect. We’re six weeks into the season, so now is the time to start paying attention to polling whether we like it or not. Because it does affect the end result. It doesn’t just take care of itself. People paying attention to the polls make that decision for us.

      1. rather be quiet and dominant, as it’s still early Oct., but as meaningless as it is, it is far better to have this recognition (espn had their prediction of Ohio St. as #1 per CFP criteria in online article today) than to have to shout to get attention. Yes, they need to keep winning and looking good.
        (oh, and btw, bosa having a career vs cle and that jackwagon, mayfield, tonight on mnf. he even mocked the flag planting crap mayfield orchestrated a couple of years ago after one of his sacks of him!)

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