It all comes down to this. Ohio State and Oregon will square off in Dallas on Monday night in the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship Game. The Buckeyes will be looking to capture their eighth national championship in school history, with their last coming in 2002. On the other side, Oregon will not only be looking for their first ever win against Ohio State, but also their first football national championship in school history. It seems fitting these two schools are going against each other in the first championship game of the College Football Playoff after they were a part of the first college basketball national championship game back in 1939, which saw Oregon win 46-33 in Evanston, Illinois.
Ohio State will be looking to keep the momentum going not only after their thrashing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, but also after last Thursday's thrilling Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama in New Orleans. After struggling for most of the first half against the Crimson Tide, the Buckeyes used 28 unanswered points to build a 34-21 lead on Alabama. Ezekiel Elliott's 85-yard touchdown run with under four minutes left in the game was the capper that helped the Buckeyes erase some of their demons against the SEC in bowl games lately.
When J.T. Barrett went down against Michigan with a season-ending injury there were questions on how far Cardale Jones could take the Buckeyes. In his first two starts he has shown he has the ability to lead Ohio State to the national championship. The redshirt sophomore quarterback has had a tremendous amount of help from sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott in both contests so far, with Elliott surpassing 200 yards rushing in each game and also adding two rushing touchdowns in each contest.
Jones may have had to take on the vaunted Alabama defense in the Sugar Bowl, but now he'll have a whole different challenge in trying to go toe-to-toe with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. The redshirt junior shined in the Rose Bowl against Florida State, picking up MVP honors in the 59-20 win by the Ducks. In every bowl game Mariota has played in his career he has been the recipient of the game MVP trophy, and he'll be looking to stretch that streak to five against Ohio State in his final collegiate game.
Much like how Ohio State has the combination of Jones and Elliott, Oregon has the duo of Mariota and true freshman Royce Freeman on offense. Freeman has rushed for 1,343 yards so far this season, leaving him 33 yards shy of the Pac-12 record for a true freshman, as well as 18 rushing touchdowns. Freeman has similar size to Elliott and his emergence early on in Eugene allowed for the Ducks to move Byron Marshall from running back to wide receiver. Freeman has six 100-yard rushing games to his credit this season and finished two other games just a few yards short of the century mark.
|Team||Record||CFP||F/+ Rk||Line||Off F/+ Rk||Def F/+ Rk||ST F/+ Rk|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Offense||1||1||1||2||11||6||103|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Defense||20||29||52||7||9||34||8|
Ohio State's biggest advantages
Special forces. To beat Oregon on Monday night, Ohio State is going to need to do a lot of what they did against Alabama on kick coverage in the Sugar Bowl. Five of the eight kickoffs by Ohio State pinned Alabama inside their own 20-yard line. For the season Ohio State is second in the country with an average difference of 8.6 yards in starting field position, with TCU being the only team better with a 8.8 yard average.
The star of the Sugar Bowl on special teams for the Buckeyes was Corey Smith, who recorded tackles at the 10, 12, and 16-yard lines. The long field Alabama had to deal with didn't do the Crimson Tide many favors as they tried to get their offense moving. Two of Alabama's first half touchdowns came on turnovers where the Buckeyes gave them a short field, but when Ohio State was able to pin Alabama deep in their own end the Crimson Tide had trouble gaining any momentum.
Against Oregon's up-tempo offense Ohio State is going to have to continue their strong special teams play. Pinning the Ducks deep in their own end could allow the Buckeyes to put some added pressure on Mariota and possibly force the Oregon offense into some short drives ending in punts. Flipping the field and setting up their offense up with good field position will be crucial to the hopes of the Buckeyes. Ohio State is going to need to do this early and often since while it's impossible to keep Oregon off the scoreboard, putting them in an early deficit could put the Ducks in a position they are unfamiliar with.
Potential Achilles heel?. When Oregon did show some weakness against Florida State it was in defending the run. The Seminoles were having a lot of success getting to the edge when running the football and Dalvin Cook was having a strong game for Florida State before the fumble early in the third quarter. If Cook can have that kind of success against Oregon, Buckeye fans have to be salivating thinking what Ezekiel Elliott might be able to do on Monday night.
Elliott has stepped up biggest when the Buckeyes have needed him the most this season. At Michigan State in early November, the sophomore ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns. In The Game, Elliott ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns, including a late touchdown to seal the game after J.T. Barrett was injured. All Elliott has done against Wisconsin and Alabama is rush for 450 yards and four touchdowns. One last stellar performance looks to be needed if Ohio State wants to emerge victorious.
What Ohio State needs from Elliott is to stay near his 6.9 yard per carry average on the season. If Elliott can keep the chains moving, and also keep the clock moving, the chances of the Buckeyes to win this game increase exponentially. Elliott taking advantage of the holes the Oregon has shown this season have a two-fold effect. Not only does it keep Mariota off the field and out of rhythm, but it also gives the Ohio State defense more time on the sideline to avoid wearing down from the tempo of the Oregon offense.
King Cardale. It's hard to say Ohio State has any advantages on the defensive side of the ball when going up against a talent like Marcus Mariota, so for the final advantage the Buckeyes have we'll stay on the offensive side of the football. For a redshirt sophomore who has had his first two starts come in the biggest games of the season for Ohio State, Cardale Jones is playing like a seasoned veteran. Jones has more than held his own against two of the toughest defenses in the country, and now will be taking on a Oregon defense that will be without All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
With Oregon missing such a contributor in their secondary, Jones would be wise to try and find Devin Smith downfield. On throws over 20 yards this season, Smith leads Power 5 conference receivers with 16 catches for 709 yards, with 10 of those 16 catches going for touchdowns. Those 16 catches represent half of the 32 total catches Smith has on the season. An early touchdown from Smith might send Buckeye Nation into a frenzy, as Ohio State is 22-0 in games in which Smith catches a touchdown.
The combination of running ability that Jones has to go along with his cannon of an arm could spell trouble for an Oregon defense that has given up 422 yards per game this year. While the number of yards Oregon has given up through the air this year could be a product of building such big leads and forcing their opponents to pass, but it has to be encouraging to Jones and the rest of the Buckeye receivers. Especially when Ohio State is afforded the luxuries of Smith over the top, Michael Thomas over the middle, and Jalin Marshall on the short and shovel passes.
Oregon's biggest advantages
Pedal to the metal. The pace Oregon can score points is truly remarkable and if Ohio State doesn't have a handle on getting some stops early it could make for a long night. This season the Ducks have recorded 66 plays of 25 yards or more, with 22 of those plays resulting in touchdowns. In the Rose Bowl, Oregon had five plays that went for 25 yards or more. With those big plays, drives have been short for the Ducks. 41 of Oregon's 84 drives resulting in touchdowns have been two minutes or shorter, with another 10 of those drives lasting 2:15 or less. The longest drive of the Oregon season came late against Michigan State and clocked in at 6:31.
Since 2010, 53 of the 60 victories by Oregon have been by 14 points or more. When the Ducks get ahead on their opponents they don't let off the gas. The scary thing is they are playing better against ranked teams this year. Against top-25 teams the Ducks are averaging a 26.5 point margin of victory, while against unranked teams they are winning by 24.1 points. When Oregon wins, they win big and they don't care who they are playing. With the few mistakes they make offensively it is important for their opponents to get up early if they want a shot at winning, and more often than not it doesn't happen.
Look no further than the Rose Bowl to look at how Oregon can put away teams. Florida State was hanging around and scored a touchdown with just over eight minutes to go in the third quarter to close the gap to 25-20. The Ducks answered with a 56-yard touchdown less than a minute and a half later, forced a Florida State fumble, and then scored another touchdown two plays later. Oregon ended the game with 34 unanswered points to move on to the national championship game.
The best of the best. We'd be remiss if we didn't include Marcus Mariota on a list of advantages Oregon has in this game. All Mariota did this year complete 68.6% of his passes for 4,121 yards and 40 touchdown passes while only tossing three interceptions. Oh yeah, he also rolled up 731 yards on the ground and added another 15 rushing touchdowns. When teams try to take away the pass from Mariota, he'll beat you on the ground. If teams load up against the run, he'll beat you with his arm. How can you defend against that?
In just three years for Oregon, Mariota has thrown 103 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions, which gives him a 7.92 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The next closest quarterbacks to Mariota's mark were Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford, who both threw 88 touchdowns and 16 interceptions which gave them a 5.50 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Not only that, but Mariota is the 4th quarterback with 10,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in a career, sitting 3,192 yards behind Dan LeFevour in combined yardage of those quarterbacks. The big difference is LeFevour set his mark in four years, while Mariota is in just his third season.
What really is impressive about Mariota is he gets all his receivers involved. The options are going to diminished on Monday with the recent suspension of wide receiver Darren Carrington, who caught two touchdowns against Florida State, and the loss of Devon Allen to a knee injury suffered in the Rose Bowl. Oregon does have some depth at receiver this year which could help them to counteract those losses. This season 12 different players have caught touchdowns for the Ducks, which only trails TCU for most in the country. Ohio State will have to keep tabs
on Byron Marshall, Dwayne Stanford, and a handful of other receivers because with the stats Mariota put up this year he has a strong rapport with all of his wideouts.
Deuces wild. With all eyes on Mariota, running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner could be the beneficiaries of some open field. The Buckeyes just allowed Derrick Henry to gain over seven yards per carry in the Sugar Bowl. Had the Crimson Tide not been playing catch-up in the second half it looked like Henry could have improved on those numbers had he had the chance to gain some more carries. While Ohio State was strong against Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Buckeyes struggled against Jeremy Langford, David Cobb, and Tevin Coleman this year.
Thomas Tyner saw playing time for the first time in nearly two months in the Rose Bowl after a shoulder injury kept him out of the previous three games. Tyner wasted little time in getting back into the swing of things, gaining 124 yards on just 13 carries and adding two rushing touchdowns to Oregon's scoring barrage. It was the first game this season in which Tyner went over 100 yards on the ground, but he did show in 2013 he can do damage in the running game after amassing nine touchdowns and a 6.2 yard per carry average. While Freeman gives Oregon some power in the running game, Tyner gives them a little more of a speed element.
Ohio State doesn't have to just account for Freeman and Tyner in the running game, as Mariota was the second-leading rusher on the team. The Buckeyes can't sleep on Oregon working to get former running back Byron Marshall the football on some running plays as well. While the junior only had one carry in the Rose Bowl against Florida State since everything else was working so well for the Oregon offense, Marshall did receive five carries or more in six games this year. Ohio State can't afford to commit too many resources to stopping the pass because Oregon just as much talent in their running game, and they have shown they can keep opponents off-balance just as well, if not better, than the Ohio State offense has this year.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 38, Oregon 37
Win Probability: Ohio State 56%
Vegas and F/+ may disagree, but as you can see, this one really couldn't be closer. Both teams will look to leave everything on the table with no next week to play for and huge, program defining narratives potentially at stake. Urban Meyer's stared down being a Vegas underdog three times previously this season and three times emerged victorious.
The Buckeyes get their third straight Heisman finalist -- and this one the winner of the sport's highest honor. Ohio State will look to follow up on Ezekiel Elliott's consecutive 200 yard rushing performances, and with the Ducks not looking impenetrable from a rush defense perspective all season long, the Buckeyes might find themselves some success. As is often the case against one of college football's very best all season long, turnovers could ultimately determine who's hoisting the new College Football Playoff trophy at night's end.
When everything's said and done, either Urban Meyer is going to be just the second coach in college football history to win a national championship at multiple schools or Mark Helfrich is going to put his name into the upper echelon of the sport. Meyer's studied Oregon's offense, both under Chip Kelly and Helfrich, and neither team will feel particularly uncomfortable going against what they see on the opposing side of the line of scrimmage. Win or lose, we could be in for an instant classic. And if everything plays out how F/+ thinks it will, this could be the sort of game we talk about in the same breath as the last time Ohio State won a national championship.