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Missouri vs. Ohio State: A Cotton Bowl Analytics Deep Dive

With Eli Drinkwitz’s Mizzou Tigers set to take on Ryan Day’s Ohio State Buckeyes in the Cotton Bowl soon, let’s go in depth on some of the statistical trends and splits that could determine the matchup.

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The Missouri Tigers head to Dallas, Texas, richly rewarded for their ten-win season with a trip to Jerry World and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Ohio State will also be shuffling off to Dallas as the opponent, not in a triumphant manner like Missouri. No, this trip is an obligation for the Buckeyes, a disappointment after they came up short in their season-long goals of beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten, and returning to the playoff.

While Missouri fielded a great team this year, Ohio State fielded an elite one. When breaking down this game, the question is not, “Who has the advantage?” because the matchup is mostly one-sided. The question is, if Ohio State brings only a portion of its starters, what matchups will Missouri be able to exploit?

Missouri

The Tigers will have their hands full on offense. Kirby Moore’s unit ranks 12th in SP+, but will face a mostly-intact Ohio State defense that ranks third in SP+, led by veteran coordinator Jim Knowles.

Mizzou’s offense has one advantage they will need to lean on in this matchup: the old adage about “shooting themselves in the foot.” Simply put, despite an ugly high-profile Brady Cook interception at the tail end of each loss, and a predilection for procedural penalties, Missouri’s offense was actually quite good overall at avoiding catastrophe.

Measured on a per-play basis, the Tigers offense is 33rd overall in Havoc avoidance – not a great number, merely good. Ohio State’s defense does not create Havoc, ranking only 60th in the nation in creating negative plays.

Rob Bowron’s Beta Rank system measures teams based on the type and quality of their drives, and is adjusted for tempo and for opponent; Missouri is ninth in the country at avoiding negative drives. For those unfamiliar with the system, that means the Tigers are elite at avoiding turnovers, penalties and TFLs that kill drives, and three-and-outs. Ohio State’s defense is 22nd in creating negative drives.

Another way to view it is through raw figures. Brady Cook has been excellent at ball control this season; the Tigers have only turned the ball over nine times this season, and Ohio State has only created 11 turnovers. Missouri is middle of the pack in sacks allowed (20 on the year), Ohio State ranks 97th in the country in sacks (22).

The Tiger offense will need to prize their possessions in this matchup, and do what they have done all year with their excellent avoidance of negative plays. The EPA-based metrics favor Ohio State’s elite defense, especially in the run game. While Cody Schrader has put up incredible box score numbers, the team’s overall rushing efficiency is only middle of the pack, ranking 46th in EPA/Play when rushing, and 44th in success rate on the ground. The Buckeyes defense is 15th and fifth in those metrics, respectively.

In addition to avoiding the negative plays on offense, the Mizzou defense will need to create some on the other side. Coordinator Blake Baker is a master of creating havoc; his stop unit ranks 13th in the country in creating negative plays. Ohio State’s offense is middle of the pack, 39th, in avoiding Havoc. With potential opt-outs at the skill positions and an inexperienced Devin Brown taking over at quarterback and making his first career start, Missouri has an opportunity to flip this game by creating negative plays and turnovers.

Ohio State

Of course, the Buckeyes will have a myriad of advantages over the Tigers – especially if most of their stars decide to play.

One man not opting out is head coach Ryan Day, one of the best creators of bespoke game plans in the sport. He has received some heat for conservative game management – particularly against Michigan – but he has rectified his team’s reputation for soft play while still maintaining a fleet of dangerous game-breaking skill position players.

There is concern about who will run the ball for the Buckeyes. Of their top backs, Chip Trayanum is in the portal and will not play. Miyan Williams is headed to the draft, and star TreVeyon Henderson is a possibility to follow him. That leaves lightly used Dallan Hayden and Evan Pryor, with a combined 38 carries on the season.

Henderson is a dynamic runner, the former #1 high school running back recruit, so if he opts out, the Ohio State rush attack will be limited, and that is already the weakest part of their attack. The Buckeyes' ground game ranks 46th in success rate — the Tigers are an excellent 18th in rush success allowed — and a woeful 129th in rushing explosives. They are ill-equipped to attack Missouri’s biggest defensive sore spot: Missouri’s defense has struggled to contain big plays on the ground, ranking 97th in that category.

Ohio State should be able to find big plays in the air against Missouri – but perhaps only on standard downs. The Missouri defense has a massive situational split on preventing explosives: it is 120th in preventing explosive plays on standard downs, but 20th on passing downs. The Buckeyes offense, for all its efficiency and strengths, has been at its weakest when teams know they should pass, falling to 105th in explosives on passing downs.

Blake Baker’s unit would be well-served to keep the Buckeyes behind the chains, which they should be able to do when Ohio State runs the ball, and force them into situations where his players have thrived all season, and where Ohio State has struggled. If Ohio State is able to move the ball through the air on standard downs, it could be a long night for the Tigers.

Conclusion

All of these different matchups and splits will be tested on Friday night, but the biggest question is: by whom? Ohio State will be led by Devin Brown at quarterback, replacing Kyle McCord, who transferred to Syracuse. While McCord was not as good as his predecessors CJ Stroud and Justin Fields, he had a season of experience leading a passing offense that was top ten by most metrics, thanks to the heroics of a spectacular group of receivers. Will Brown have that same arsenal? Will he be backed up by a top-5 defense with an intact two-deep? If so, the Buckeyes should be a clear favorite and have a talent and performance advantage. If Ohio State must compensate to replace stars, the door will open for Missouri to win their first New Year’s Six bowl game.