From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about asking “What If?”. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”What If?” articles here.
Ohio State was 23 yards away from erasing one of the most egregious mistakes in the history of video replay usage in sports officiating. The Buckeyes were still smarting from a textbook forced fumble by Jeff Okudah and the ensuing scoop and score by Jordan Fuller somehow being deemed an incomplete pass.
Regardless of how many steps Tee Higgins had taken with the ball, or the fact that it never wobbled at all in his sure hands, the officiating crew incredibly concluded that the pass was incomplete, changing the call on the field, and that eventually turned Ohio State’s final possession in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl into a must-score-a-touchdown situation.
Just 23 yards separated the OSU offense from a go-ahead touchdown, with 43 seconds remaining on the clock and the Buckeyes clinging to one final timeout. It had taken Justin Fields only one minute and six seconds to move the ball from the OSU 25-yard line to the Clemson 23. He looked calm, composed, and confident. He had an incredible receiving corps and a running back in J.K. Dobbins that had rushed for 174 yards and caught six passes on the night for 47 more. It was second-and-7.
Fields dropped back, his protection was good, and he scanned the field. The OSU quarterback saw Chris Olave running from left to right and heading for open space on a deep post route. But just as Fields let the ball fly into the empty space he saw ahead of Olave, the wide receiver suddenly stuck his foot in the ground and appeared as if he was going to head back to the left corner as he lost his footing.
The throw was a good one, and had Olave continued across the field, it would have been an easy touchdown, barring a rare drop by the current New Orleans Saints receiver. The Buckeye defense would still have had to prevent a Clemson score for 37 seconds — or fewer if there was any kind of return — and the Tigers had just one timeout left.
It was a moot point, as Nolan Turner caught the ball instead of Olave, and Ohio State’s season ended after a couple of Clemson kneel-downs.
The Buckeyes were the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff that season. No. 1 was a powerful LSU team led by former OSU quarterback Joe Burrow (we still called him Joey back then), whose swagger had seemingly rubbed off on the entire team and made Ed Orgeron look like a competent football coach.
Ohio State, and not Clemson, would have met LSU in the Sugar Bowl had Olave just continued across the field and made the easy catch. But could the Buckeyes have given the Bayou Bengals a better game than Clemson, which lost that natty, 42-25?
We’ll never know, but it would have been difficult. Because the title game was in New Orleans, it would have been more or less a home game for LSU — as it was against Clemson. Burrow was the best quarterback in the country that season, although not too far ahead of Fields himself. The transfer storylines would have been beaten to death in the media.
In my mind, that game would have come down to turnovers, game plan, and the battles in the trenches. Both teams had world-class quarterbacks, a bunch of future NFL receivers, excellent running backs, standout secondaries, and top-notch offensive and defensive lines. LSU probably had the edge at linebacker.
Ohio State had mostly handled Trevor Lawrence in the Fiesta Bowl, outside of a wild, 67-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. It seems likely the Buckeyes could have mostly handled Burrow’s running and scrambling. The OSU secondary would have had a tall task going up against Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, but they held up well against Clemson’s talented group, including Higgins, who is now a Cincinnati Bengal.
I believe this game would have been close. Dobbins would probably have gotten his yards, but could he have broken a couple for touchdowns? Would the interior defense have been able to handle the one-two punch of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Tyrion Davis-Price? Could Chase Young get to Burrow and become his worst nightmare for 60 minutes?
Critics of my optimism might point out that LSU squad had 14 players selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. But the Buckeyes weren’t far behind, with 10 players selected. The aggregate talent for such a matchup was pretty even. Those kinds of games come down to execution, game plan, avoiding turnovers and penalties, and in-game adjustments.
Again, we’ll never know if the Buckeyes would have won a national championship in Ryan Day’s first year as head coach if Olave had kept going across the field in the dying stages of that Clemson game, and if Ohio State had gotten a shot at LSU. I believe Ohio State was the only team in the College Football Playoff that season that was capable of beating that LSU team on any given night.
I don’t know if the Bucks could have done it in New Orleans, but I think the game would have been much closer than the national championship matchup we got when the Tigers played the Tigers. And in a close game, anything can happen — even an insane video review decision overturning a play, or a great receiver breaking off his route to give the other team an easy interception.
All we can do is ask... ‘What if?’