Pace makes race for Michigan-Ohio State

November 23, 2018 04:41 PM

Saturday’s blockbuster Big Ten battle featuring #4 Michigan at #10 Ohio State (FOX, noon ET) presents a tricky challenge for handicappers. Oddsmakers have known for a while that “everyone wants to bet Michigan” because Ohio State’s looked so vulnerable. That’s why the Wolverines are favored by more than a field goal on foreign soil in Columbus.

How can anyone bet on a Buckeyes team that lost 49-20 at Purdue…missing the point spread by 41 points?! Ohio State is 1-7 its last eight against the spread, with the last four non-covers all being by double digits. 

Michigan feels like a sure thing if you focus on their best games and Ohio State’s worst. The problem is, Michigan’s best usually comes in Ann Arbor. Road offense has been an issue vs. bowl caliber opponents.

Michigan Visiting Bowl-Bound Foes

Lost at Notre Dame 24-17 laying 2 points

Only beat Northwestern 20-17 laying 15 points

Beat Michigan State 21-7 laying 7.5 points

That game in East Lansing was an ugly 7-7 late in the fourth quarter before Michigan finally started moving the ball. Ohio State won by a similar 26-6 score two weeks ago on the same field (its only point spread cover in the last two months). 

Bottom line…Michigan hasn’t been “Final Four caliber” away from Ann Arbor. 

Ohio State feels like a pretender because of so many market misses and poor overall defense. It’s possible that BOTH teams are national pretenders playing in an over-marketed “corporate partners with everybody” conference. We won’t know that until bowl season.

In addition to the home/road dynamic, VSiN wants to point you to an analytical factor few are talking about. Pace. Ohio State plays racehorse football, leading the nation in offensive plays per game at 82.5. Michigan is much slower, ranking a bit below the national average at 68.2. 

It’s common to hear discussions about pace in basketball, particularly since the Golden State Warriors help revolutionize the NBA with controlled chaos. When handicapping pro or college hoops, isolating which teams can take others out of their comfort zones is very valuable. That may be the hidden key to picking Saturday’s football winner in Columbus. 

If Michigan can disrupt Ohio State’s lightning-fast offensive rhythm, and keep the Buckeyes’ talented playmakers off the field for long stretches, the point spread is probably too low. Michigan’s offense will march down the field the way Purdue (and Nebraska…and Maryland…and TCU earlier this season) did so easily. Ohio State’s defense ranks #85 nationally in yards-per-play allowed at 5.9.

If Ohio State and a loud home crowd can speed up Michigan’s metabolism in a way that creates a loss of composure, who knows? The Wolverines have only committed eight turnovers this season…but half of them came on the road against Notre Dame and Michigan State. Michigan protected the ball well vs. Northwestern, but had its second-worst penalty game and worst in offensive first down volume. 

The team that imposes its pace has a better chance of imposing its will. Which teams can do that away from home? A question to put front and center in your analytical process as we approach Championship Week, the bowls, and the final four.

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