It's hard to believe that the Buckeyes came from the gut-punch news of losing Braxton Miller before the season, to a sloppy loss to Virginia Tech, to advancing all the way to the first-ever Playoff Championship Game against Oregon.
To try and get a handle on the game, and the season overall, we polled all of our staff to get a collective analysis and discussion on the Buckeyes' chances against Oregon this Monday night.
The Oregon offense is one of the best in the country. What is the most dangerous aspect considering Ohio State's defense - Mariota's accuracy, the running backs, the wide receivers in space, Oregon's tempo?
Chris: Gotta be the receivers in space. Mariota runs a lot of dink and dump passes and screens and death by 1000 papercut plays, so that's almost a given that he's going to hit his receivers. The running backs don't worry me because of how the front 7 has looked in the last few games, holding the three-headed rushing attack of Alabama (Sims, Yeldon and Henry) to just 170 yards total (no one back over 100, either); Oregon's bunch isn't the brute force that Bama's was, so that doesn't worry me. As for the tempo, the coaching staff probably has every player on defense counting to 16 seconds in their sleep, so I'm okay with that. But if Mariota hits his receivers (he will) and Eli Apple or whomever is a hair out of position, then Oregon has the Buckeyes right where it wants them.
A.J.: The scariest part of Oregon's offense has to be the tempo. Ohio State has shown it has enough athletes on defense to compete against the country's highest powered offenses. The Buckeyes already held Heisman finalists Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper in check in their last two ballgames. Now -- facing the Heisman winner Marcus Mariota -- Ohio State must deal with the quarterback's numerous weapons at receiver and tailback at warp speed. Oregon averages 21.6 seconds per play, which is a speed Ohio State hasn't seen all season. Oregon wore out Florida State's front four by the middle of the third quarter and essentially made the Seminoles quit. The Buckeyes have to get off the field before the Ducks can get moving with their no-huddle offense. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mariota and the Ducks scored 66.2 percent of the time after gaining a first down. It doesn't get much scarier than that.
Ian: I really think Oregon's offensive success and the scariest part about it going against Ohio State is by far the tempo at which Oregon plays and Marcus Mariota being the best quarterback the Buckeyes have faced all season. Often times during the Sugar Bowl, if the defense couldn't force a three and out or get off the field early, it seemed like Ohio State's defense was a bit gassed. Alabama's offense isn't a barn burner in any sense, which makes it that much more concerning. Especially in the first half, during their scoring run when they went up 21-6, the Tide were able to punch it in very easily once they got to the goal line. They tightened up in the second half, but you could point to the fact that Alabama amazingly went away from the run and started passing the ball. If Oregon takes advantage of the run, included with their extreme tempo of play, Ohio State's defense could be in for a nightmarish night.
Verdict: The tempo is probably the scariest aspect of the Oregon offense, but Mariota didn't win the Heisman for nothing.
If the Buckeyes were in a short-yardage situation with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, what play would you run?
Chris: BOMB IT TO EVAN SPENCER GO FOR THE JUGULAR COME AT THE KING AND BEST NOT MISS - kidding. Cardale Jones is a tank, and if the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, Oregon will be expecting Zeke to get the ball. I'd run the read option against the grain and Jones can keep it for the first/TD, or find a wide-out or even back to Zeke.
Alexis: Jump pass. I'm probably only partially kidding by that, but definitely some variation of a run-pass option for Cardale. Honestly at this point he's earned my trust to get tough yards when it counts. However if they want to air it out to Devin Smith - I fully understand.
Brett: It's hard to mess with success so why go away from the read-option that has been working so well with Cardale? Both Jones and Elliott have been running so strong lately that if the Buckeyes need just a couple yards I feel like they can get it with their physical running against this Oregon defensive line.
Matt: We all know Tom Herman would call a QB draw. In all seriousness, I'd put the ball in Ezekiel Elliott's hand and let him try his luck against the Ducks' interior line.
A.J.: This one is a no-brainer even though Tom Herman and Urban Meyer like to make things more complicated than they need to be at times. You've got to run the ball downhill with Ezekiel Elliott in short yardage and goal line plays all game long. The offensive line has become one of the best in the country and Elliott's 200+ yards in consecutive games reminds you of Carlos Hyde's dominance a season ago. Pound the rock, Urban!
Verdict: Give Elliott the ball!
What is the most important statistic that the Buckeyes have to win?
Ian: Turnovers! If Ohio State wants to beat Oregon in the national championship game, they cannot afford to turn the ball over. Against Alabama, the Buckeyes coughed up an early fumble that changed the early momentum of the game and threw an interception in the second quarter that led to another touchdown. Those two turnovers alone resulted in 14 points for the Tide and you'd better believe Oregon can do the same thing. Against Florida State in their semifinal game, the Ducks forced five turnovers over the course of the game and took advantage of them in their blowout win. The Ducks themselves had two turnovers (including a rare Mariota interception), so it's not impossible to force turnovers against Oregon. To win the game, the Buckeyes have to secure the ball during their possessions and force a couple of turnovers to help quell some of that offensive firepower from the Ducks.
Brad: Turnovers. We keep the ball, we win the game.
Luke: Turnovers. A lot of teams have gotten close (and Arizona was even successful), but if you beat the Ducks in turnovers, you can win, regardless of what Mariota and the offense does.
Brett: 3rd down conversions on both sides of the football. Not only do the Buckeyes have to convert a high percentage of their 3rd downs on offense to keep Oregon's offense off the field, but on defense the Buckeyes need to do what they did to Alabama to keep the Ducks from getting into their tempo.
Verdict: The rough consensus seems to be that the Buckeyes can't have a negative turnover margin.
Can Cardale Jones continue his efficient play in just his third start?
Alexis: We haven't lost Tom Herman just yet, so my feeling is that he will be prepared on Monday. One standout from the Sugar Bowl, was that J.T. Barrett was sitting right behind Jones on the bench (with his headset on), seemingly giving Jones advice and support throughout the game. If Barrett can be even a small influence on Jones for this last game, he should play better than his first two starts.
Matt: I'm not sure he was THAT efficient against Bama. I think Jones can 'not lose' the game for Ohio State. If he's chucking the ball 30 times, it's a problem.
Luke: He wasn't super-efficient against Bama early and late so I'm mixed. I don't think the Buckeye offensive brain trust would keep letting him sling it in a scenario where he's doing more harm than good but it's always just so hard to imagine his mercurial rise continuing without some regression to the mean.
Verdict: The Buckeye offense is powerful enough that Cardale just needs to avoid mistakes.
What is the most important matchup between Oregon and Ohio State? The Ohio State offensive line vs. the Oregon defensive line? Mariota vs. the Ohio State defensive backs? Cardale Jones?
Chris: Ohio State O-Line vs Oregon's D-Line. You beat Oregon by controlling the tempo, and keeping Mariota off the field. A steady diet of Elliot is needed, and this offensive line will have to dominate up front to allow for that. If Elliott can get to 6+ yards per carry, the Buckeyes will be in good shape.
A.J.: The biggest matchup is the Ohio State defensive line vs. Oregon's tempo. Ohio State boasts two All-Americans -- Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett -- on the defensive line, but it's important that Urban Meyer and the coaching staff keep them fresh for late in the game. Ohio State has to shift in different players along the defensive line to keep everyone fresh for the up-tempo offense they're going to face. It's going to be imperative that the Buckeyes get pressure on Mariota late in the game Monday. They can't give the Heisman winner time or he will carve them up.
Verdict: There wasn't much consensus here -- it's all important. The play of both lines seems to be a common theme, though.
Who are the offensive and defensive MVPs for the Buckeyes?
Chris: Offense - Devin Smith. He's probably going to be remembered as one of the top-5 Buckeye wideouts ever, at least in my mind. If he gets in the end zone, the Buckeyes win, plain and simple. He'll demand the most coverage from Oregon, but he has already proven he can make SEC defenders look stupid. Honorable mention: Cardale Jones. Defense - Michael Bennett. Bosa gets all the pub, but he also gets double and triple teamed. That leaves Bennett to go get him some. I think both will have big games and get to Mariota, but Bennett will be the difference maker. Honorable mention: Eli Apple
Zach: Offense - Zeke. He's playing like the best running back in the country. His versatility, speed, toughness - it's so enjoyable to watch. In the Sports Illustrated playoff preview an opposing Big Ten coach mentioned that his runs are ok up the middle, but he doesn't really have much bounce to the outside. That coach is a moron. Zeke is the total package. Defense - Vonn Bell. It really feels like it clicked for Bell in the second half of the season and that coincided with a huge jump by the defense as a whole. The Ducks will challenge OSU to make plays in space and this is where Bell excels be it in pass coverage or being physical against the run. He's the type of big time player that plays his best in big games.
Luke: If Jeff Heuerman's healthy, I like him as a wild card, but I'll say if the Bucks win it's Mike Thomas. Defensively, Joey Bosa certainly doesn't have to have the game he had against Wisconsin (as proven by the Alabama game), but if he makes some serious noise, I love Ohio State's chances.
Verdict: The answers were all over the place on defense, from Bosa and Bennett to Lee and Vonn Bell, but Elliott looks to be the offensive MVP.
Ohio State's defense has improved against the pass significantly since last season, but it has been mediocre against the run. Is that bad news against Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner or can the Buckeyes corral those two like they did Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten Championship game?
Brett: I want to say they can corral Freeman like they did Gordon but Wisconsin was pretty one-dimensional, while Oregon can beat their opponents a number of ways. Also I don't see the Buckeyes putting Oregon in such a big hole that it nullifies the run. I don't think Freeman destroys Ohio State on the ground either. He'll probably have a little more than 100-yards on the ground and maybe a touchdown or two.
Matt: Yeah, I'm worried. Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio State can't really sell out against the run, since the Ducks happen to have a QB who is pretty decent. I expect lots of yards and points.
Brad: I was surprised that Alabama didn't ride their big back Henry longer in the Sugar Bowl, given how he was gashing Ohio State, but when you're down you have to switch to the pass. If Ohio State can get a lead and keep that lead, Oregon won't be able to rely on the run game as much and the game becomes more predictable for the Buckeyes. It all comes down to Ohio State offense performing well.
Verdict: The Buckeyes were successful against the run in the last two games according to the box score, but that belies the fact that Wisconsin is one-dimensional and Alabama turned away from Derrick Henry when he had consistent success otherwise. Oregon's run game is an obvious concern.
This is the third-straight game that the Buckeyes have faced against a 2014 Heisman finalist. In the past two games, the Buckeye defense held Gordon to 2.9 yards per carry and Amari Cooper to 71 total yards. What does the defense have to do strategically to stop Mariota and what does his stat line look like if the defense is successful?
Brett: Gordon did his damage against teams on the ground, Cooper did his through the air. Now the truly toughest test for Ohio State will come in trying to slow down a player who can beat you both on the ground and through the air. Really the best defense for Ohio State in this one is going to be a good offense. Keeping Mariota off the field is key. If the Buckeyes want to win they're gonna need to do the unthinkable and make him turn the football over a couple times. Hard to put a number on yardage and completion percentage, but the turnovers are key.
Luke: I don't know it matters what they do. No one has really been able to contain Mariota. I know we were saying that each of the last two games, but if the Buckeyes do find a way to slow down the Heisman Trophy winner, they'll be more than worthy champions.
Bret: I say you make him uncomfortable as a passer. He is usually really smart with the ball and doesn't make many mistakes. But you can't let him pick you apart. Get pressure on him and you never know what can happen. He had a moment early in the FSU game where he almost threw a pick because of the pressure but it was dropped by Jalen Ramsey. It'll also be important to not let him break away in the read option game. He can take it the distance at any given time.
Marc: I think he has about 230 passing yards and one or two TDs if the d-line gets proper pressure.To get to him the defense needs well timed blitzes and I think the interior line just needs to bull rush and try to overpower the Oregon offensive line while Joey Bosa attacks from the outside.
Verdict: Mariota will get his, but the defense's best hope is to rattle him with pressure. A lot depends on how much pressure the defensive line can generate.
Are there any intangibles that matter to you? For instance, who has the head coaching advantage? Will there be a let-down in intensity from the thrill of the Sugar Bowl?
Alexis: Although playing Alabama and Nick Saban added a ton of energy into the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State has been working toward another championship since 2002, and I'm sure Urban Meyer wants to continue his record-breaking reputation in Ohio. Also, I would take seasoned Urban Meyer over recent newcomer Mark Helfrich any day.
Matt: I'm a teensy bit worried about an emotional let down from the Sugar Bowl. Also, I suspect this is going to be a pro-Ohio State crowd, if that matters.
Verdict: Few were concerned with a let-down game after the big Sugar Bowl win, but it seems like the head coaching advantage is certainly with Ohio State (though that may not be much of a factor anyway).
Finally, how does this game go and what's your final score prediction?
Chris: In the end, however, I think the difference is a Devin Smith TD bomb from the Howitzer of Cardale Jones. And when Smith scores, the Buckeyes win. Final: Ohio State 35 - 24 Oregon
Luke: I picked Ohio State earlier this week to win. If you'd ask me this morning, I'd go the Ducks by a field goal. I'll say the Buckeyes are victorious, but I have a lot more doubt now than I did when the matchup was official. Bucks 21 - Oregon 18
Zach: I feel much better about this game than I did against Alabama, but not as good as I did against Michigan State or Wisconsin. In some sense the Bucks are playing with house money and have been since Braxton went down. Why stop now? It's gonna get weird, but I'll say OSU 34-23. Go Bucks.
Brad: I think this game will be tight the whole time. This Oregon team does not quit, and neither do these Buckeyes. I'm thinking it's tied at 28-each into the third, but Ohio State wins 38-28.
A.J.: When the season started, I picked Ohio State to defeat Florida State, 31-24. Though the Buckeyes' opponent is different, I'm going to stick with the score prediction. The Buckeyes will control the time of possession and keep Mariota off the field for a large chunk of the game, and the Ohio State front seven will step up big time in shutting down the Oregon running game. There will be lots of celebrating in Columbus Monday night.
Verdict: There was a complete consensus that Ohio State would win in a close one. Luke had the lowest-scoring prediction of all -- everyone else predicted the winner to have 30+ points.