Midway through the college football season, an Oregon-Ohio State matchup in the national championship did not seem likely. The Ducks had just lost to Arizona, and the Buckeyes were a one-loss team with a freshman quarterback in J.T. Barrett who was still getting his feet wet at the collegiate level.
Nobody expected the first championship game of the playoff era to be played without an SEC team in the running for the title, especially since the conference has had a representative in the final game in each of the past eight years and several SEC teams were in the playoff conversation throughout the entire season.
As the two teams prepare for the inaugural championship of the College Football Playoff in Arlington, it is not too difficult to see why they were able to finish their respective seasons without another loss. Both teams are extremely fast and athletic, they both have dynamic offenses and both teams’ defensive units have improved as the season progressed.
I will break down Monday’s national championship game and make a prediction at the end of the article.
This is a very interesting matchup between Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Ohio State’s Cardale Jones. Mariota is obviously the better quarterback, but Jones has played terrifically in both of his starts this year.
Jones is much bigger at 6’5” and 250 pounds, and he likely has one of the strongest arms in all of college football. He is also a solid runner, and he took advantage of Alabama with several first down scrambles in the semifinal game. He also torched the Tide on third down, driving Nick Saban crazy while repeatedly converting on 3rd-and-long.
However, Mariota is simply on another level. His decision making skills are unparalleled, he runs the ball like a running back and makes Houdini-like plays in the pocket. Ted Miller of ESPN.com wrote in a recent article that Mariota has a chance to be the best college quarterback of all time if the Ducks beat Ohio State. He won the Heisman Trophy this year as the best player in college football, and is the obvious choice for this matchup.
While both teams are known for their up-tempo offenses and eye popping statistics, both offenses have the uncanny ability to run the ball between the tackles. Ohio State does this with Ezekiel Elliot, while Oregon uses both Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner to churn out rushing yards.
Both teams had tremendous success in their respective semifinal matchups. Oregon dismantled Florida State’s defense, imposing their will from the beginning en route to 301 rushing yards. Freeman and Tyner rushed for two touchdowns apiece, and Mariota pitched in a few impressive runs as well.
On the Buckeyes’ side, Elliot has played his two best games of his college career in OSU’s last two games. The sophomore running back from St. Louis rushed for more than 200 yards and more than ten yards per carry in both games, and there is no reason that he won’t continue his onslaught of opposing defenses in the championship game.
Advantage: Ohio State
Wide Receiving Corps
Oregon received some unfortunate news on Friday evening when they learned that wide receiver Darren Carrington will not play in the championship game due to a failed drug test. That loss is compounded by the fact that speedster Devon Allen will not play either due to a leg injury he suffered on the opening kickoff against Florida State. They will also be without starting tight end Pharoah Brown, who was injured against Utah.
On the other hand, Ohio State comes into Monday’s showdown in full force. Devin Smith is the team’s leading receiver and one of the nation’s best deep threats, Michael Thomas leads the team in catches with 50 and freshman Jalin Marshall is an all-purpose receiver that the Buckeyes like to use on jet sweeps.
While Ohio State’s receiving corps is completely healthy and has the edge on paper, it will not really matter on Monday. Oregon will find a way to utilize underrated tight end Evan Baylis, he caught six passes for 73 yards against FSU, and will be able to keep Ohio State off balance all night.
So the Buckeyes will get the advantage, but that is a bit misleading because Mariota is so good that he can make the receivers better than they really are. The receivers, especially for OSU, are important, but they are not going to be the difference in the game.
Advantage: Ohio State
Massive struggles to protect the quarterback were one of the reasons Oregon lost to Arizona, but they improved drastically as the season transpired. All six of the Ducks’ offensive lineman missed time this year, but they are now healthy. Center Hroniss Grasu and tackle Jake Fisher are two of the best lineman in the country, and they must perform if the Ducks want to control the line of scrimmage against Ohio State’s vaunted front seven.
Ohio State has a solid offensive line too, as they opened up enough holes to spring Elliot to 230 against an Alabama defense that had not allowed anyone to go over the century mark all year. However, they don’t have the depth that Oregon does.
This category is very similar to the receivers. Ohio State has an exceptionally talented defensive unit, led by All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, but it is almost a foregone conclusion that they are going to give up boatloads of yards to Oregon anyway.
Oregon is without top cornerback Ifo Epkre-Olomu, who was injured before the semifinal game, but they still managed to hold Florida State’s Rashad Greene to only 59 yards on six catches. The Ducks have held its opponent to fewer than 28 points in their past six games, and they will come into Jerry World with plenty of momentum after smothering Jameis Winston all game long in the Rose Bowl.
Lindsay Schnell of Sports Illustrated had an interesting take on the defensive competition. In SI’s National Championship roundtable, Schnell wrote this:
“Ohio State has been statistically superior this season (the Buckeyes rank 17th in total defense, allowing 333.6 yards per game, compared to Oregon, who ranks 84th with 421.9 yards allowed per game), but no team has played better than Oregon over the last two games. The Ducks forced five turnovers in their Rose Bowl semifinal and are loaded with confidence.”
In addition, the inexperienced Cardale Jones could easily make a few mistakes, and if the Ducks can take advantage of those, they can win the game.
Special teams are not usually needed by the Ducks, as they rarely punt or kick field goals. But when they have settled for three, they have been pretty successful. Kickers Aidan Schneider and Matt Wogan have combined to make 16-of-19 field goal attempts, but coach Mark Helfrich rarely opts for field goals outside of 40 yards.
Ohio State, on the other hand, was forced to settle for two field goals early in the game against Alabama. They converted both, and those six points ended up being pivotal to the final score.
In the return game, Ohio State has the obvious edge, especially since Devon Allen won’t play. Kick returner Dontre Wilson is a speedster who can change the game if given a crease, and punt returner Jalin Marshall is averaging 12 yards per return this year including a 54-yard touchdown.
I don’t expect special teams to be the deciding factor of the game, but if the Buckeyes can consistently get great field position, their chances of winning increase exponentially.
Advantage: Ohio State
This one isn’t very difficult to decipher. Urban Meyer is a proven winner and one of the best coaches in all of college football. He won two National Championships at Florida, and has done well in big games in the past. Mark Helfrich will be coaching his first national championship game as a head coach, and it will be interesting to see if the pressure gets to him at all.
Both offensive coordinators are supremely talented as well. Oregon’s Scott Frost garnered plenty of head coaching interest at the end of the season but wasn’t offered, and Ohio State’s Tom Herman accepted the Houston head coaching job but will coach the Buckeyes in the championship game.
The coaching matchup will definitely be intriguing as both staffs will bring their A-game to the field, but I can’t go against Meyer.
Advantage: Ohio State
As you read this article and assemble all the pieces in your head, you’re probably thinking that Ohio State will run away with the title. And it’s true, they have the edge in more areas when the game is broken down. However, I still think Oregon will win the game.
After watching the Quack Attack dismantle the Seminoles two weeks ago, it doesn’t look like their offense can be stopped. They were second in the nation in total yardage and points per game, they have an impeccably balanced attack that moves at an unstoppable pace and they have the best player in all of college football.
It’s a recipe for success, and it’s why Oregon will walk out of AT&T Stadium on Monday night as national champions.
Final Prediction: Ducks 49, Buckeyes 38