Skull Session: Ohio State Ranks No. 3 Behind Michigan and Georgia in SP+, Buckeyes Are On a Path to the CFP and Notre Dame Had a 10-Men-On-The-Field Problem Before Saturday

By Chase Brown on September 28, 2023 at 5:00 am
Josh Proctor

Welcome to the Skull Session.

Add another note to Ohio State's #DevelopedHere folder.

Let's have a good Thursday, shall we?

 WELL, THAT'S INTERESTING. After Ohio State's 63-10 win over Western Kentucky in Week 3, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in Bill Connelly and ESPN's SP+. However, after Ohio State beat Notre Dame 17-14 in Week 4, the Buckeyes dropped to No. 3. 

I am confused.

As a reminder, here is how Connelly calculates SP+:

In a single sentence, it's a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency. I created the system at Football Outsiders in 2008, and as my experience with both college football and its stats has grown, I have made quite a few tweaks to the system. SP+ is indeed intended to be predictive and forward-facing. It is not a résumé ranking that gives credit for big wins or particularly brave scheduling – no good predictive system is. It is simply a measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football. If you're lucky or unimpressive in a win, your rating will probably fall. If you're strong and unlucky in a loss, it will probably rise.

And here are its top-10 teams:

1 Michigan 26.7 36.8 (13) 10.4 (1) 0.3 (16)
2 Georgia 26.2 38.6 (6) 12.5 (4) 0.0 (68)
3 Ohio State 25.4 38.2 (8) 13.1 (5) 0.2 (26)
4 Washington 25.1 44.4 (2) 19.5 (25) 0.1 (48)
5 USC 24.3 46.4 (1) 22.3 (41) 0.3 (10)
6 Oregon 24.3 43.4 (3) 19.3 (23) 0.2 (27)
7 Texas 24.0 37.7 (11) 13.8 (6) 0.1 (50)
8 Oklahoma 22.6 39.1 (4) 16.8 (13) 0.3 (17)
9 Alabama 22.3 36.5 (14) 14.4 (7) 0.3 (20)
10 Penn State 21.6 34.1 (27) 12.3 (3) -0.2 (107)

As I said, I am confused. Connelly seems confused, too.

In a separate ESPN article, Connelly called Ohio State a "contender" – perhaps even more so than Michigan and Georgia – because of how well the Buckeyes' veteran defense has performed in Jim Knowles' second season as a defensive coordinator.

It wasn't the greatest or prettiest game ever played, but Ohio State's 17-14 win at Notre Dame was, at the very least, useful. You'd always like to win with everything clicking, but it's nice to know that you can also win a good old-fashioned battle of attrition.


The Buckeyes needed major assistance from their defense to win. And they got it.

Granted, Notre Dame's playcalling was confusing; despite solid contributions from the run game, the Fighting Irish rarely if ever used play-action to try to open up some of the deep shots that (A) have done such wonders for the Fighting Irish offense early this season and (B) did Ohio State in against Michigan and Georgia last year. Only three of Sam Hartman's 17 completions went for more than 15 yards; he averaged just 10.3 yards per completion. Combined with an insistence on playing with only 10 defenders on the game's decisive play, it felt like coach Marcus Freeman and his staff made it easier on Ohio State than it needed to.

Still, we're going to assume that the Buckeyes had quite a bit to do with that. (Well, the lack of big plays, at least. The 10-man defense, not so much.) Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is one of the most aggressive assistants in the game –before he came to Columbus, his Oklahoma State and Duke defenses were very much willing to give up the occasional home run play in the name of forcing three-and-outs. But in 2023, they are striking more of a balance.

The Buckeyes still rank a decent 36th in success rate allowed, but they've also allowed just three gains of 30-plus yards in four games. Only Duke (two) has allowed fewer. Ohio State's pass rush has admittedly vanished – they're 64th in pressure rate and 110th in sack rate – and we'll see if that catches up to them. But they were selectively aggressive against the Irish, and it paid off. They held Notre Dame to two scores, they're allowing 8.5 points per game in 2023, and among their eight remaining regular-season opponents on their schedule, only Michigan ranks higher in offensive SP+ than the Irish. Adaptability can be a wonderful thing as long as you don't lose your identity. So far, so good for Knowles & Co.

As I am confused and Connelly is confused (I think), ESPN's Football Power Index – if it could experience emotions – would also be confused.

This week, Ohio State ranked No. 1 in FPI ahead of Oklahoma, Alabama, Penn State, Georgia, Texas, Oregon, USC, Washington, Florida State, Notre Dame and, coming in at No. 12, Michigan.

1 Ohio State 27.2 60.0 36.0 21.4
2 Oklahoma 24.5 46.4 25.9 13.9
3 Alabama 23.9 21.0 11.4 6.0
4 Penn State 23.7 33.9 17.3 8.6
5 Georgia 23.3 35.4 18.0 9.0
6 Texas 23.2 44.5 23.4 12.4
7 Oregon 22.4 32.4 15.5 6.9
8 USC 20.6 19.4 9.4 4.1
9 Washington 20.2 21.5 9.2 3.6
10 Florida State 19.9 31.0 13.4 5.7

Whether Ohio State is the best team in America or the third-best team in America, Ohio State is a great football team. Not a good football team. A great football team. If the Buckeyes reach their full potential, look out. The 2023 Buckeyes could be special.

 JUST KEEP WINNING. Computers believe Ohio State will reach the College Football Playoff in 2023. Humans do not. As the Buckeyes enter their off week undefeated, two of five national college football outlets have predicted the Men in the Scarlet and Gray will compete for a national championship in December and January.

  • Action Network: Ohio State vs. Florida State in the Rose Bowl, CFP semifinal
  • Athlon Sports: Ohio State vs. North Carolina in the Orange Bowl
  • CBS Sports: Ohio State vs. North Carolina in the Orange Bowl
  • ESPN: Kyle Bonagura, Ohio State vs. Florida State in the Orange Bowl; Mark Schlabach, Ohio State vs. Florida State in the Orange Bowl
  • 247Sports: Ohio State vs. Florida State in the Rose Bowl, CFP semifinal

Looks like we should prepare for the Buckeyes to face the Seminoles or the Tar Heels.

The "experts" from Athlon Sports, CBS Sports and ESPN do not believe in Ohio State. However, all the Buckeyes must do is win, win, win and they will make the CFP. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Ohio State should be able to do that over the next nine weeks.

  • BYE
  • Maryland (92% win percentage)
  • @ Purdue (96%)
  • Penn State (65%)
  • @ Wisconsin (84%)
  • @ Rutgers (92%)
  • Michigan State (97%)
  • Minnesota (96%)
  • @ Michigan (68%)

 NARRATOR: IT DID. Ohio State defeated Notre Dame, 17-14, in South Bend on Saturday, which means it's been well-documented that the Buckeyes faced a 10-man Irish defense on the team's last two plays – an incomplete pass to Marvin Harrison Jr. and a 1-yard touchdown run from Chip Trayanum.

When asked to address those plays in his Monday press conference, Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman called the errors inexcusable.

“There’s a whole bunch of systems in place to make sure that doesn’t happen, but ultimately it falls on me. That’s the reality. I’m not gonna get up here and say this person should have done that. Ultimately, I have to do a better job as the head coach to make sure those systems we have in place are executed. ... We as a coaching staff should be held to the same standards that we tell our players... You can’t get caught watching the game. Coaches have to win the interval too. We all have to own that and make sure that never happens.”

As I said, it's been well-documented that Notre Dame's "systems in place" failed on Saturday. But here's what has not been well-documented: those same systems failed on Sept. 2, too.

"That can't happen against better teams," Notre Dame beat reporter Tyler Horka wrote three weeks before the Buckeyes and Irish battled on Sept. 23.

Narrator: It did.

“When we got down to the one, we called a sprint out. I took a look at the defense, and I noticed that soft spot, but we already called the sprint out,” Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord said on Wednesday. “I’m sure (the coaches) saw that up in the box. The next play had to be a run to the left. When I got the call, they obviously saw it up in the box. Coach Day saw it, I’m sure. It was the perfect call. It’s not our problem they only had 10 guys on the field. I think we took advantage of it."

That you did, Kyle – that you did.

And because of that, Ohio State is 4-0.

I like 4-0.

 OLYMPIC VILLAGE. Ohio State will have one of the best women's basketball teams in America in 2023-24. In a recent poll from The Athletic, the Buckeyes ranked seventh behind LSU, UConn, UCLA, South Carolina, Utah and Iowa. Here is how Chantel Jennings and Sabreena Merchant described Ohio State:

How does the Ohio State defense that led power conferences in steals per game last season (11.3) come into this season even more terrifying? Just go ahead and add the ACC defensive player of the year to your backcourt, why don’t ya? Celeste Taylor’s pickup was one of the best overall fits for any player coming out of the portal. Coach Kevin McGuff will have the ability to rotate through Taylor, Jacy Sheldon, Taylor Thierry and Rikki Harris — all of whom are absolute ball hawks — as the Buckeyes ramp up their full-court defensive pressure and drive opponents into mistakes and turnovers.

With Taylor Mikesell’s graduation, the Buckeyes’ offensive identity needs to evolve. Mikesell accounted for almost a quarter of Ohio State’s shot attempts over the past two seasons, including more than one-third of its 3-point attempts. In her absence, Cotie McMahon — the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year — should become an even larger offensive centerpiece, especially as the Buckeyes don’t return any long-range shooters who are nearly as consistent as Mikesell.

Though the Buckeyes lack a tall, traditional big who would be able to match up one-on-one with some of the posts on the other top-10 teams, it ultimately might not be as big of an issue for Ohio State given the potential of its full-court pressure and pestering perimeter defense.

Amid his recent media availabilities, McGuff has expressed his excitement for the season to start, as the 11th-year Ohio State head coach believes the program's freshman class and transfer portal additions will help the Buckeyes build upon last year's memorable Elite Eight run in the 2023-24 season.

"I like the additions we've made (with our) freshman and transfers. They've integrated themselves into the program successfully," McGuff said on Tuesday. "There's a sense of urgency. They have no complacency. They want to build on what we did last year. I think that starts with our leadership with Jacy, Rikki and those kids – Celeste has emerged as a leader. It's been really competitive, and the work ethic has been really good."

I look forward to THE Ohio State women's basketball season. I really do.

Sheldon, also known as the "Energizer Bunny" for some Eleven Warriors readers, will combine with Taylor to create one of the best, if not the best, defensive backcourt in the sport. Thierry, Ohio State's silent assassin, also returns in 2023-24, providing the Buckeyes with a calm, cool, collected force on both ends of the floor. She quietly averaged 13.5 points and a team-best 6.5 rebounds last season. And McMahon, the 2023 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, could ascend to superstardom after a season in which she averaged 15.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals for Ohio State and a summer in which she won a gold medal at the U19 Women's World Cup for the United States.

Add in the contributions of Harris, Rebeka Mikulášiková, Emma Shumate and Michigan State transfer forward Taiyier Parks, and McGuff has one helluva ball club for 2023-24. Plus, McGuff's squad could receive some midseason reinforcements from Madison Greene, who suffered an ACL tear last December.

It should be a fun season!

 SONG OF THE DAY. "Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits.

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