Oregon–Ohio State Preview: Breaking Down the Inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship

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From an analytical standpoint, championship games are always strange beasts. At a distance, they appear tame, knowable — ideal subjects to be studied, classified, and tagged before the ball is even kicked: After 14 games apiece, including semifinal matchups against other championship-caliber opponents, we know more about Oregon and Ohio State entering tonight’s national championship tilt than we have at any other point this season. Once they come to life, though, these types of showdowns often turn out to be wild, unpredictable affairs that look nothing like the field guides suggested. On Monday morning, we’re necessarily dealing in tendencies, averages, and generalizations accumulated over a full season; on Monday night, the story that unfolds is under no obligation to correspond to those assumptions. The championship is its own, all-defining animal.

It goes without saying at this point that Oregon and Ohio State are both outstanding outfits that deserve to share the big stage after winning their conference championships in dominant fashion and subsequently dispatching Florida State and Alabama — the teams that would have squared off for the championship, no questions asked, under the BCS — in the semis. More specifically, the Ducks and Buckeyes arrive in Arlington with two balanced, wildly prolific offenses, each of which averages upward of 500 yards and 45 points per game. Stylistically, the two sides are similar; statistically, they’re separated in most categories by margins so thin they’re virtually meaningless. Some games promise a collision of offense vs. defense, Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object. In this one, the dynamic is more offense vs. offense, Force vs. Force: Neither offense has met much resistance since midseason, while both defenses have been quite movable at times.

That probably doesn’t make for the most compelling advertisement, but it might portend the most compelling game on the field. Too often, championship collisions result not in an explosive fusion of both sides’ best qualities, as promised, but in the stronger side obliterating the other, as in Alabama’s unwatchable, defensively driven wins over LSU and Notre Dame to cap the 2011 and 2012 seasons, or Seattle’s annihilation of Denver in last year’s Super Bowl. In those cases, the effect wasn’t so much a collision of equals as a negation: One team looked like the very best version of itself, while the other merely crumbled. In a game in which both offenses are capable of scoring in bunches and overcoming mistakes, it’s more difficult to keep the pendulum moving in just one direction.1 This year, both the point spread (Oregon –6) and the over/under (74.5 points) suggest the down-to-the-wire barn burner that the finale of the inaugural playoff deserves.

Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know. How will Ohio State’s enigmatic quarterback, Cardale Jones, handle the stage in just his third career start? Do the Buckeyes have an answer for Oregon’s unflappable quarterback, Marcus Mariota, that no other team has had? Can the Buckeyes keep pace with the Ducks’ furious tempo and suppress their tendency to slam the door on opponents with brief, concentrated bursts of points? Is Oregon’s underrated defense up for the physical gantlet of facing Ohio State’s offensive line? Who knows? Make a list of what a champion should look like, and neither of these teams checks off every box. If both show up looking like the versions of themselves we saw on January 1, though, we should at the very least get a game that justifies the hype.

When Ohio State Has the Ball

ezekiel-elliott-ohio-state-alabamaKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A Great Lake’s worth of ink has been spilled over Ohio State’s resilience at quarterback, a position that has withstood season-ending injuries to not one but two All–Big Ten performers, and for which Urban Meyer may well possess some kind of alchemical cheat code.2 Compared to preseason expectations, however, the offensive line has arguably been the more pleasant surprise.

At the start of fall camp, the front five featured just one returning starter from 2013 (junior Taylor Decker, who was transitioning from right tackle to left) and was generally labeled a liability in most season forecasts. But the lineup that took the field in the season opener (Decker, right tackle Darryl Baldwin, center Jacoby Boren, and guards Pat Elflein and Billy Price) went on to start all 14 games, jelling in the process into one of the most formidable run-blocking units in the nation: In seven games since the calendar turned to November, the Buckeyes have churned out 270 yards per game on the ground, on 6.7 yards per carry. Entering tonight’s game, Ohio State ranks second nationally in Adjusted Line Yards (a statistic devised by Football Outsiders specifically to separate the success of running backs from the success of their blockers) and is the only FBS team that has gained at least 5 yards on a majority of its carries. No one who watched the Buckeyes’ semifinal romp against Alabama’s then–no. 1 run defense needs to be reminded how nasty these dudes are.

15.1.10-When Ohio State Has the BallThe direct beneficiary of the front line’s dominance is sophomore tailback Ezekiel Elliott, the latest in a long, unbroken line of oversize thumpers in the OSU backfield,3 and potentially one of the greatest if his postseason outbursts against Wisconsin (220 yards and two touchdowns on 11.0 yards per carry) and Alabama (230, 2, 11.5) are any indication of future returns.4 Elliott was a perfectly decent back in the regular season, turning in six 100-yard games on the ground en route to 1,182 yards, but he gave no indication of the breakaway capacity he flashed in the Big Ten title game and Sugar Bowl. Through eight games, he failed to break a single run that gained 30 yards, a barrier he has eclipsed seven times since. Against the Badgers and Crimson Tide alone, Elliott ripped off runs covering 54, 60, 81, and 85 yards, and needed less than a quarter to surpass the century mark in both games. Between their newfound game-breaking tailback and Jones’s rumbling, dump-truck-like presence between the tackles, the Buckeyes have everything they need to pound out a living on the ground, and potentially to leave tread marks.

The indirect beneficiary of the muscle up front is the resident deep threat, senior wide receiver Devin Smith, who at this point has flown by far too many cornerbacks to keep flying under the radar. Nationally, no other target this season has averaged more yards per catch (27.7) or come anywhere near matching Smith’s over-the-top big-play rate, which now includes 12 touchdowns and 17 receptions of 30 yards or longer on just 32 catches overall. And yet there he was in the Sugar Bowl, hauling in a pair of bombs that covered 40 yards and 47 yards,  on third-and-long against man coverage despite the Tide’s assurances that Smith had their full attention after watching him burn Wisconsin for three long touchdowns a few weeks before. Jones isn’t as accurate as J.T. Barrett on a down-to-down basis5 or as mobile as Braxton Miller, which might limit the playbook in certain ways. But whatever the Buckeyes have lost in the transition to Jones has been more than compensated for by his expansive arm strength, a lethal complement to an all-consuming ground game. The more resources Oregon is forced to commit against the run, the more thinly it will be stretched downfield, and vice versa.

Then again, that dynamic is nothing new for the Ducks, whose last encounter with an oversize artillery piece of a quarterback went rather well. The Rose Bowl win over Florida State was a perfect (and perfectly timed) distillation of Oregon’s ideal defensive blueprint: Despite a ghastly performance in terms of total defense — FSU racked up 528 yards, the vast majority in the first three quarters — Oregon was able to minimize the damage on the scoreboard by limiting big plays (FSU’s longest gain was just 24 yards); stiffening on its own side of the field (six of FSU’s 10 trips into Oregon territory failed to yield any points, while two others resulted in field goals); and swarming like sharks when it began to sense blood in the water in the second half (FSU committed turnovers on five of its first six possessions after halftime, turning a neck-and-neck game into a stunning blowout in a matter of minutes).

While Jameis Winston and his teammates were hardly immune to mind-numbing gaffes going into that game, the totality of the Seminoles’ Rose Bowl meltdown was inseparable from the pressure the Ducks apply on opposing offenses as a matter of course; even for attacks that manage to move the ball in spurts, as many have this season, the margin for error opposite Oregon’s offense is razor thin. Winston cracked under that pressure for the first time in his career. After stopping him, containing a raw sophomore making his third career start should be the easy part.

Key Matchup: Ohio State OL Jacoby Boren vs. Oregon DT Alex Balducci. Before the scoreboard forced Florida State to abandon the run, the Seminoles had considerable success running right at Oregon, springing tailbacks Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams for 183 yards on 6.8 per carry. At 6-foot-1, 290 pounds, Boren doesn’t boast nearly the size or prospects of Florida State’s center, Cameron Erving, a converted tackle who’s listed at 6-foot-6, 308 pounds and will likely go in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. But Boren was one of the key pieces in the Buckeyes’ rushing success against Alabama, and if he can get the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Balducci moving in the wrong direction in the middle of the line, the Ducks will either have to compensate in a way that leaves them vulnerable on the back end or resign themselves to getting mashed for most of the night.

When Oregon Has the Ball

byron-marshall-oregon-florida-state-triHarry How/Getty Images

Unlike Ohio State’s front, Oregon’s offensive line has been ravaged by injuries from start to finish: Nine linemen have logged at least one start this season, not including the original starter at left tackle, Tyler Johnstone, who went down in August with a torn ACL. Four of five opening-day starters missed time to injury, and no one up front started all 14 games at the same position.6 As of midseason, the line was shaping up to be a glaring liability — including sacks, the Ducks managed just 144 yards rushing in a 31-24 loss to Arizona, on just 3.5 yards per carry — that threatened to undermine Mariota’s reliable brilliance and put coach Mark Helfrich squarely in the crosshairs for failing to fully capitalize on what he inherited from Chip Kelly.

15.1.10-When Oregon Has the BallFrom that point on, though, the ground game has been on a steady roll, averaging 260 yards rushing over the last nine games, and actually looks like Oregon’s biggest advantage against Ohio State’s defense. Despite the shuffles up front, the Ducks rebounded from their early torpor to lead the nation in Adjusted Line Yards, indiscriminately rolling regardless of the competition: In six games against ranked opponents,7 Oregon averaged 241 yards rushing on 5.3 per carry, virtually identical to its output (242.5 yards per game on 5.7 per carry) against unranked opponents. In their last two games, the Ducks have rolled up exactly 301 yards on the ground against both Arizona and Florida State. Resident workhorse Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner weigh at least 215 pounds and arrive at the second level like Volkswagens, and either is capable of a big night against OSU’s supremely athletic yet surprisingly inconsistent front seven, depending on where the Buckeyes’ priorities lie early on and how the game unfolds from there. But aside from Mariota, who keeps the entire operation afloat, the specific pieces on this offense remain as interchangeable as ever within the whole.

So far, the ensemble approach has also worked out just fine at wide receiver, where seven Ducks have hauled in at least 20 receptions this season, with at least four touchdowns apiece. Tonight, though, Mariota will be operating for the first time without three of those targets: Darren Carrington (suspension), Devon Allen (injury), and Pharaoh Brown (injury), who collectively averaged 17.6 yards on 103 catches. Carrington, especially, was beginning to distinguish himself as a downfield weapon before he reportedly failed a drug test.

On the one hand, Mariota is the most consistent passer in college football, bar none, and is hardly lacking for proven targets with Byron Marshall, Dwayne Stanford, Keanon Lowe, and Charles Nelson still active. Even Brown’s replacement at tight end, Evan Baylis, alleviated concerns with an out-of-the-blue gem of a performance in the Rose Bowl. On the other hand, Ohio State has fared about as well against opposing quarterbacks as Mariota has against opposing secondaries, and it has already put the clamps on Mariota’s fellow Heisman finalists, Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper, in consecutive games. If the Buckeyes hold up well enough against the run to force Oregon into obvious passing situations on second and third down, the pass rush, led by unanimous All-American Joey Bosa, looks like a potential edge.

Key Matchup: Oregon WR Byron Marshall vs. Ohio State LB Darron Lee. Lee, a redshirt freshman, was the Defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl due mainly to his efforts against Bama’s old-school, power-oriented running game, but his role could be very different against Oregon’s spread sets. Rather than bring in a fifth defensive back, Ohio State often conscripts Lee into its nickel packages, which leaves him in space to handle the kind of quick, safe throws and bubble screens that make up the bulk of the Ducks’ passing game. With Oregon’s usual downfield threats on ice, Marshall, a converted running back who leads the team with 66 catches, stands to play an even more prominent role on those horizontal throws, which will be that much more difficult to turn into positives if his fellow wideouts can’t get Lee blocked in the open field.

Special Teams, Turnovers, and Other Whimsy

jalin-marshall-ohio-state-alabama-triStacy Revere/Getty ImagesIt’s standard operating procedure ahead of winner-takes-all blockbusters to acknowledge the role of the kicking game, which has the capacity to distort the normal offensive/defensive flow of the game and occasionally decide the outcome. (For example: Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return to push Florida State ahead of Auburn in the fourth quarter of last year’s title game.) Unfortunately, attempting to predict a big play on special teams is akin to predicting a lightning strike, especially in a game in which neither side is especially good or bad in any particular aspect.

Oregon’s kickers, Aidan Schneider and Matt Wogan, have been reasonably accurate, connecting on 16 of 19 field goal attempts, but have limited range (neither has attempted a kick beyond 42 yards). Exceptionally named Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger has a bigger leg, good for a long of 49 yards, but has also been more erratic, including a pair of misses from inside 30. In the return game, Oregon’s Nelson and Ohio State’s Jalin Marshall have both taken punts back for touchdowns this season, but certainly haven’t made a habit of it, and at any rate roughly 80 percent of punts by both teams have gone unreturned. Neither side has returned a kickoff for a score, and the only blocked punt, by Ohio State, resulted in a Buckeyes fumble on the recovery that gave the ball right back to the Kent State offense they’d just stopped. Special teams will matter; we just have no way of knowing how they’ll matter.

There is one certainty in the kicking game, which is that Oregon will follow its first touchdown by looking to go for two instead of kicking the point-after, a bit of ritual gamesmanship inaugurated by Kelly in the name of maximum aggression. If the score remains close enough in the fourth quarter for one point to make a difference, the success or failure of that try could have a lingering impact. If it does, though, it will be a first for the Ducks.

The turnover game is even more crucial and even tougher to predict, although it’s worth pointing out that Oregon finished with fewer giveaways (10) and a better turnover margin (plus-20) than any other FBS outfit, largely due to Mariota’s preternatural aversion to interceptions. On the other side of that number, though, the Ducks defense has recovered 18 fumbles — four of them in the FSU win alone — more than all but two other teams. The Buckeyes have been more prone to making interceptions, having generated multiple picks in eight games; if they get one against Mariota they’d better take full advantage of it, because they’re almost certainly not going to get another.

Uniforms: Oregon, blessed and cursed in equal measure by an infinite array of options, chose wisely in the Rose Bowl, decking itself out head-to-toe in a sweet apple-green getup that accomplished the rare feat of looking both fresh and (by Oregon’s standards) relatively conservative at the same time. For the championship, on the other hand, the Ducks are going in precisely the opposite direction, eschewing not only school colors but any hint of color whatsoever:

Ohio State? As always, Ohio State will look like Ohio State. Advantage: Ohio State.

Mascots: Fellow Grantlander Holly Anderson is an unabashed cheerleader for the Oregon Duck for purely mascot-related reasons, but when push comes to shove Puddles can hold his own in a street fight, too, as he once proved by neutering the Houston Cougar in a beatdown that has been viewed on YouTube more than 2 million times. Meanwhile, the 2010 version of Brutus Buckeye achieved a different kind of Internet immortality as the victim of a premeditated ambush by Ohio University’s Rufus Bobcat — the kid in the Bobcat suit later said he tried out for the express purpose of assaulting Ohio State’s mascot — a moment of such instant and enduring infamy that it completely negates the fact that Brutus once looked like this. Advantage: Oregon.

Humanizing Moment: Many people were moved by Mariota’s emotional Heisman acceptance speech, in which the most outstanding player in the country choked back tears on national television. But Elliott’s on-air performance after being named Offensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl surely left many viewers in tears, as well, albeit for an entirely different reason.

I hope he was awarded an extra Buckeye for the part involving the water bottle, I really do. Advantage: Ohio State. 

Patron Saint: Ohio State’s program came of age under longtime coach Woody Hayes, a rage-prone paragon of the old school who led the Buckeyes to three national championships, eight Rose Bowls, and 15 top-10 finishes before his infamous, career-ending assault of an opposing player at the end of the 1978 Gator Bowl. Since Hayes arrived as head coach in 1951, Ohio State has the best winning percentage of any major program in the intervening six-plus decades. Oregon, on the other hand, is a nouveau riche contender that was never considered a national player (or even a West Coast player) until former Oregon track star turned Nike CEO Phil Knight began to heap truckloads of money on his alma mater in the mid-’90s. Uniforms notwithstanding, the most tangible results of Knight’s largesse include an indoor practice facility, a renovated stadium, and a lavish athletic performance center, and if the Ducks deliver a national championship tonight, the title will move to the top of the list. Advantage: Push.

Deep Breath … Prediction

marcus-mariota-oregon-fsu-triMark J. Terrill/AP

This is the moment Oregon has been building toward for more than a decade — the last, essential step in its ascent into the sport’s top tier. That kind of upward mobility has become virtually impossible: We haven’t seen a first-time champion since Florida in 1996. But the Ducks came close four years ago, when a less talented team than the one that will take the field tonight lost the title to Auburn on the final snap, and, frankly, the return trip seems overdue. With a win, Oregon will complete the circle and Mariota will ride into the NFL as one of a very small handful of eternally revered college quarterbacks since the turn of the century. With a loss, it will retreat into rebuilding mode in 2015 with lingering doubts over whether the window has closed. Ohio State, meanwhile, is in the title game ahead of schedule; the Buckeyes may be on the verge of a new dynasty under Meyer, but this roster is a young one, ultimately built to win next year when the lineup will consist almost solely of Meyer’s recruits. This is the Ducks’ time.

Mariota commits an uncharacteristic turnover early on, but is otherwise his usual, flawless self en route to exceeding 400 yards of offense. Elliott kicks off his 2015 Heisman campaign with a huge first half, including a long touchdown run that gives the Buckeyes an early lead. Jones connects on the occasional bomb but struggles to find his rhythm as a passer and gradually descends into a Winston-like flurry of mistakes in the second half. And Oregon capitalizes on the turnovers with at least three consecutive touchdowns in the span of a few minutes in the third and fourth quarters, effectively putting the score out of reach despite a late Ohio State rally. Oregon wins, 45-34.

Filed Under: College Football Playoff, College Football, 2014 College Football Playoff, College Football National Championship, College Football Playoff Semifinals, Oregon Ducks, Ohio State Buckeyes, Florida State Seminoles, Alabama Crimson Tide, Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Mark Helfrich, Marcus Mariota, Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall, Darren Carrington, Urban Meyer, Cardale Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, Devin Smith, Joey Bosa, Heisman Trophy, Pac-12, Big Ten, Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Nike, Phil Knight, Uniforms, Football Fashion, Mascots, College Mascots, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton