Ohio State (13-1) vs. Oregon (13-1) Jan. 12, 8:30, ESPN
Here's The Deal: Does this feel like the first Super Bowl? Is it ready to get the hype and attention as one of America’s new really big sporting moments? It’ll get there at some point, but for now, it’s just a really, really good football matchup, and it’s a telling one.
The BCS era served its purpose. It might have been forced, it might have been an effort by the bowl types to remain relevant, and it might have been way too confusing, but there was no such thing as a cheap national championship under the system.
There might have been a few controversies, and there were some complaints at times, but for the most part, college football crowned a deserving champion far more often than other sports with their wild cards and seemingly all-inclusive playoff tournament.
But this year, with the way the human polling would’ve went, and with the projected computer side factored in, the 2015 BCS championship would’ve matched up No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Florida State.
And you wondered why college football ever needed a playoff.
There’s no SEC team in the first College Football Playoff national title game, but the conference got its shot. TCU might have missed out, but it didn’t win the tie-breaker for its own conference championship. There’s little real controversy about Ohio State vs. Alabama, and once it’s all done, and once the confetti starts flying around, it’s going to be as satisfying a conclusion to any college football season in history, partially because we got that extra playoff round.
It might have been just one extra step, and there really isn’t that big a change from what we had in the BCS era, but it feels monumental. It feels like it’s something different. The BCS championship turned into a playoff championship – that’s it. There was still a Rose Bowl, just like there is every year, and there was still a Sugar Bowl, just like there is every year, but this one tweak to the post-season brought the fans back, brought the excitement back, and it brought the sport up as a whole. Now it’s up to Ohio State and Oregon to bring it home with a great game.
Is this finally Oregon’s time? Is this when the program takes that one next step up and goes from being one of the college football elite to a college football national champion? It’s been really, really, really close, and now it might have the right make-up and the right blend of talents to pull it off.
Oregon beat Penn in the 1917 Rose Bowl to finish the season 7-0-1, and while there were some bright spots here and there, but for the most part this has been a college football program – no more, no less – up until a stunning run to the 1995 Rose Bowl. The program was building, and building, and building, and then it all came together under Chip Kelly, who took things to a whole other level with four straight BCS appearances with a shot at Auburn in the 2011 BCS championship and two Rose Bowls, losing to Ohio State in 2010 and beating Wisconsin in 2012.
After a year of adjustment under first-year head coach Mark Helfrich, the Ducks fixed the glitch. They added more power running to their offense. They got even nastier on defense. They played with even more swagger, but with just as much explosion.
How amazing has the Oregon offense been over the years? This season, only eight teams averaged more than 40 points per game. Going back to 2009, the Ducks have hung 40 points or more in 60 of their last 77 games. This year’s team has kept is all going with a frightening blend of tempo, speed and efficiency, and while this might not be the jaw-dropping force it was under Kelly, it’s every bit as lethal.
Slight pun intended, Oregon plays with a chip on its shoulder. It bristles at the idea of being a finesse team, and it seems very, very motivated to get the title for Helfrich, who seems to be the perfect mesh of taskmaster and player’s coach. If Kelly was a zero-fun-sir drill sergeant who kept everyone on their toes, Helfrich is more of a motivational type by example. There’s confidence oozing from every part of the program, but without any bluster or bragging.
Oregon shows up, it does what it does, it hangs 50 points on the board, and it moves on.
Ohio State knows a little bit about playing with an attitude, too.
This is the biggest of big programs, and yet it’s been able to play like a disrespected Group of Five team ever since the 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech. It took a little while to get the machine rolling – Navy came much, much, MUCH closer to pulling off the upset than the Opening Day 34-17 final score might suggest – but like Oregon, the results were breathtaking. They just came in a different way.
Alabama’s offense was inconsistent throughout the year, and Florida State needed a half or so every other game to get up to speed, but Ohio State’s offense was pure dominance against everyone but Penn State and Minnesota, and even then it came up with 31 points in each game.
The Big Ten wasn’t given much credit nationally, mainly because it was mediocre, and Ohio State suffered from it. It didn’t help that Virginia Tech struggled after coming up with its big win in Columbus, but it took the Buckeyes rolling through the rest of their schedule, and a 59-0 win over Wisconsin, to demand that the playoff committee let them in.
This is the first appearance in a national championship game since getting pushed around by LSU for the 2008 BCS title. Long known for its problems against the SEC, Ohio State blew that up with one massive win against Alabama in the 2015 Sugar Bowl, and now it’s looking to erase the memories of two ugly BCS championship performances – the blowout brutality against Urban Meyer’s Florida team to go along with the los to LSU – ever since shocking the world against Miami in the 2002 Fiesta.
It’s Urban Meyer gunning for his third national championship. It’s Oregon trying to shoehorn its way in to get the only thing out of its grasp during its amazing run. It’s going to be a fun and wild national championship, and no matter how it turns out, it’s going to feel right.
This is the ninth meeting all-time between the two with the last showdown coming in the 2010 Rose – a 26-17 Ohio State win and the first coming in the 1957 Rose. The Buckeyes are 8-0 in the series.
Why Ohio State Might Win: Oregon might bristle at the idea of being a finesse team, and it might have decent size on both sides of the ball, but it’s about to get pounded on. Ohio State battered its way against the mighty Alabama run defense for a full four quarters, but it just couldn’t seem to score early on. The constant banging took its toll late as the seas parted for Ezekiel Elliott’s 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth. Ohio State ran 42 times for 281 yards and two scores against the Crimson Tide. The ground game will work.
- Is it possible that the Oregon offense can be stopped by a great defensive front? The Buckeye line has underachieved a bit compared to all the preseason expectations and hype, but Joey Bosa is among the nation’s premier pass rushers and the D should be able to get into the backfield without too much of a problem. A top pass rush doesn’t bother Marcus Mariota or the Oregon offense, but the Buckeyes have the ability to get wide.
- Extra practice time favors Ohio State. It’s one of the quirks of the new playoff world – there’s no real limit on how much the Buckeyes can prep for the game, meaning they can get in more time and more work to get ready for the Oregon offense – if that’s possible. It’s not like getting ready to stop the triple-option, but there’s a ton of discipline involved with trying to slow down the Ducks, and that comes with reps. Ohio State is getting them.
- The balanced Ohio State attack should roll at will. Lost in the Florida State shuffle was the ease with which the offense moved, coming up with 348 passing yards from Jameis Winston and 180 on the ground, with Dalvin Cook averaging 6.9 yards per pop and Karlos Williams averaging 6.7. Ohio State averages 510 yards per game – it should hit that without much of a problem.
- Oregon kills teams on takeaways and turnover margin, and while Ohio State isn’t nearly as strong in the category, it’s a +10 on the year and only lost the turnover battle four times. The Buckeyes can’t be a -3 and have any hope to win the game, but under Meyer, there haven’t been too many problems against anyone but Indiana, going -6 against the Hoosiers over the last three years and doing a great job against everyone else.
Why Oregon Might Win: Yeah, turnover margin really does matter. Oregon has yet to be on the wrong side of the turnover battle this season and has been a +20 so far, second in the nation to only Michigan State. As Florida State found out, any mistakes can quickly turn an interesting game into a laugher against a team that can fly up the field in seconds. Ohio State isn’t going to turn the ball over five times, but it has to expect that any mistakes are going to turn into points, which means …
- Is Cardale Jones finally going to play like a third-string quarterback? It’s not quite fair or quite right to label him as a true third-stringer considering he might have the best arm in college football and he’s a better pro prospect than Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, but this is still his third game with the spotlight on. As good as Wisconsin and Alabama were defensively, neither one was a terror when it came to getting to the quarterback. Oregon’s pass rush is just good enough and just dangerous enough to bother Jones, and if he’s not getting time to hit his downfield throws, he’ll make mistakes.
- Tempo, tempo, tempo. There’s being able to move the ball, and then there’s Oregon’s ability to score and move the ball. Six of the seven Duck touchdown drives against Florida State came in three minutes or fewer. On the year, Oregon averaged a ridiculous 20.5 yards and 1.74 points per minute of possession. By comparison, OSU averaged 16.5 yards and 1.45 points per minute of possession.
- Marcus Mariota is No. 1 in the nation in passer rating with a 184.35. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett finished No. 2 with a rating of 169.82. How explosive it the Heisman-winner? Mariota averages 10.4 yards per pass, and no one else finished over ten and just five quarterbacks finished with nine or more. Who led the nation in yards per attempt last year? Jameis Winston – national champion. Cam Newton led the nation in 2010 – national champion.
- Ohio State’s defense stuffed Wisconsin’s running game cold, but the pass rush had a lot to do with Bucky’s 1.02-yard average. For the most part, the teams that could run the ball were able to against the Buckeye front seven. That’s the argument against Lane Kiffin’s Sugar Bowl – he didn’t feed the beast. The Crimson Tide averaged five yards per pop. Minnesota averaged five yards a crack, Michigan State 5.2, Navy 5.9 and Indiana 7.8 yards per carry. On the year, Oregon averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
What’s Going To Happen: If you like defense, look away. Neither D has a prayer of stopping the other team’s O, with Ohio State coming up with fantastic balance to keep moving the attack up and down the field, while Oregon is going to be Oregon with points and yards coming at a breathtaking pace – both offenses will do what they’re expected to do. The difference will be mistakes, with Ohio State’s three turnovers being just enough of a difference to allow the Ducks to get by in a firefight. The last team with the ball might win, but it’ll be Marcus Mariota who puts the game away in the final minute in what should be a classic – at least as far as College Football Playoff national title games go.
Prediction: Oregon 48 … Ohio State 40
Line: Oregon -6.5 o/u: 75
2015 CFP Title Preview: Oregon vs. Ohio State
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