College football’s four-team playoff concludes on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas when Ohio State and Oregon meet to decide the national championship. The Ducks are looking for their first title, while the Buckeyes are after their first national championship since 2002.
Oregon is around a seven-point favorite by the Vegas experts for Monday night’s game, but there’s not much separating the Ducks and Buckeyes in the depth chart breakdown.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best player on the field, but Ohio State owns an edge on defense, and running back Ezekiel Elliott has eclipsed over 200 yards in back-to-back games.
National Championship Position-by-Position Breakdown
So far, so good for Cardale Jones. Since replacing J.T. Barrett after a season-ending injury against Michigan, Jones is 32 of 55 for 500 yards and four touchdowns. The sophomore also has 52 rushing yards over the last two contests. The coaching staff would probably like Jones to raise his completion percentage (58 percent), but the sophomore has thrived under pressure by hitting on 7 of 10 passes on third down with seven yards or more to go in 2014.
Marcus Mariota is without a doubt the best player on the field in Arlington. And stopping the junior and Oregon’s up-tempo offense is the biggest challenge for Ohio State’s defense, especially with just one week to prepare. Heading into Monday night’s showdown, Mariota's season stat line is simply ridiculous: 280 completions on 408 passes for 4,121 yards and 40 scores. Efficiency is an underrated aspect of Mariota’s game, as the junior enters the championship with just three picks and averages 10.1 yards per attempt. Mariota also ranks second on the team with 731 rushing yards and 15 scores.
Ezekiel Elliott was overlooked in the hierarchy of Big Ten running backs this season, but the sophomore has made plenty of noise in his last two games. Elliott gashed Wisconsin for 220 yards and recorded 230 yards on 20 attempts in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Expect Elliott to see a heavy workload on Monday night. For the season, Elliott has 1,632 yards (6.9 ypc) and 14 scores. When Elliott needs a break, the Buckeyes can work in Curtis Samuel or H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson.
True freshman Royce Freeman helped the Ducks eliminate question marks about their physicality on the ground. Freeman enters the championship matchup versus Ohio State with 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns (No. 1 in Pac-12), averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. Sophomore Thomas Tyner (511 yards, 5 TDs) returned from injury to record 124 yards on 13 attempts against Florida State and should see 10-15 carries to keep Freeman fresh for the fourth quarter. Byron Marshall (383 rushing yards, 1 TD this season) was the team’s leading rusher last year, but he’s switched to an all-purpose/receiver role in 2014.
The Buckeyes may not have Oregon’s depth of options at receiver, but this unit has made progress under coach Urban Meyer. Devin Smith leads the nation with a robust 27.7 yards per catch average on 32 receptions and has scored four touchdowns in the last two games. Michael Thomas caught seven passes for 66 yards in the Sugar Bowl, placing the sophomore at 50 receptions in 2014. Corey Smith, Evan Spencer and tight ends Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are also major contributors. The Buckeyes also get partial credit here for H-backs Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall (13.5 ypc).
The loss of Devon Allen to a knee injury from the Rose Bowl is a significant blow to Oregon’s receiving corps. Allen was one of the Pac-12’s top freshmen in 2014, recording 41 catches for 684 yards and seven scores. The Ducks also received more bad news at receiver this week, as Darren Carrington failed a drug test and is out for Monday night's game. While Allen and Carrington will be missed, this unit was also able to overcome the loss of Bralon Addison in the preseason and perform at a high level in 2014. Without Allen, leading receiver Byron Marshall (66 catches) and Dwayne Stanford will see more passes in their direction. Freshman Charles Nelson (4 catches for 40 yards in Rose Bowl) is a gamebreaker that could see more time, and tight end Evan Baylis emerged as another threat by catching six passes against Florida State.
This unit needed to be revamped with the departure of four starters in the offseason. Left tackle Taylor Decker was the only returning starter for 2014, and this group struggled early. In the loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes allowed seven sacks. However, the offensive line progressed throughout the year and limited opponents to just 15 sacks in nine Big Ten games. Decker and guard Pat Elflein are the standout performers, but freshman guard Billy Price, center Jacoby Boren and right tackle Darryl Baldwin have each started all 14 games this season. The Buckeyes have averaged at least five yards per carry in seven straight games.
A healthy Jake Fisher (LT) and center Hroniss Grasu (C) (both first-team All-Pac-12 in 2014) made a huge difference in the performance of Oregon’s offensive line. The Ducks had to mix and match personnel up front all year due to injuries and has not allowed a sack in their last two games. Fisher and Grasu are two of the best in the nation at their position and helped pave the way for rushers to average 5.5 yards per carry. Freshman Tyrell Crosby (RT - 8 starts in 2014), sophomore Cameron Hunt (RG - 13 starts) and senior Hamani Stevens (LG) round out the starting five. The Ducks' 5.5 yards per carry average ranks No. 12 nationally. In the Rose Bowl win over FSU, Oregon gashed the ' Noles for 301 yards. Winning the battle up front is a must for UO on Monday.
The Buckeyes have one of – if not the No. 1 – defensive line in college football. This unit limited opposing rushers to 3.9 yards per carry through 14 games and held Wisconsin to just 71 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship. End Joey Bosa was quiet in the Sugar Bowl, but the sophomore is one of the top defensive players in the nation. Bosa recorded 53 tackles (20 for a loss), 13.5 sacks and forced four fumbles in 2014. Tackle Michael Bennett is another All-American up front, as the senior came on strong at the end of the year to finish with 14 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. End Steve Miller returned an interception for a touchdown against Alabama, while junior Adolphus Washington joins Bennett on the interior.
The Ducks ranked eighth in the Pac-12 (4.2 ypc allowed) in rush defense and was susceptible to plays on the ground against Florida State in the Rose Bowl (180 yards, 4.6 ypc). While Oregon will give up yards, this unit was disruptive at times against the Seminoles. And Don Pellum's line has generated at least two sacks in four consecutive games. Ends Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) present a challenge with their length and athleticism, and this duo combined for 18.5 tackles for a loss this season. Oregon uses a lot of odd-man fronts, but Armstead and Buckner can create havoc against the Buckeyes’ offensive line. Junior Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp are the main contributors at nose guard. Oregon's defensive line will play a critical role on Monday night. Can this unit stop the run? UO has played better up front in recent weeks.
Similar to the offensive line, the Buckeyes went into fall practice with some concern in this group. Standout Ryan Shazier left for the NFL, and while there wasn’t an issue about talent, this unit needed to find its next playmaker. Mission accomplished. Junior Joshua Perry led the team with 118 tackles, but freshman Darron Lee recorded 16.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and three forced turnovers. Lee’s emergence helped ease the loss of Shazier, while senior Curtis Grant (58 tackles, 5 INTs) provides steady play at middle linebacker. Talented true freshman Raekwon McMillan (49 tackles, 6 TFL) is the team’s top reserve.
This unit delivered a solid performance against Florida State and needs to have another big game on Monday for the Ducks to win the national title. Tony Washington returned a fumble 58 yards for a score and recorded a sack, Rodney Hardrick forced a fumble, and Derrick Malone made four stops. Outside linebacker Tyson Coleman recovered a fumble and made three stops against FSU. All four players will be tasked with slowing Ohio State’s rushing attack, as well as limiting the plays by Cardale Jones outside of the pocket. Sophomore Torrodney Prevot also recorded a sack against Florida State and joins Washington and Christian French (6.5 sacks in 2014) as key pass-rush threats for coordinator Don Pellum.
Fixing the pass defense was a priority for new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash this offseason. Ohio State allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more and gave up 31 touchdown passes last season. Even without first-round pick Bradley Roby, the Buckeyes have made progress against the pass. Ohio State limited opponents to 15 passing scores – tied for third in the Big Ten – and opposing quarterbacks were held to a 55.1 completion percentage. Cornerback Doran Grant had a standout year (58 tackles, 5 INTs, 9 PBU), while the young safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell combined for 10 interceptions. While Ohio State has made progress against the pass, the matchup against Oregon will be its toughest of the season.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was a big loss for the Ducks, but Chris Seisay held his own in the Rose Bowl. The redshirt freshman made six stops in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State and will be under the spotlight once again on Monday night. On the other side, Oregon senior Troy Hill was one of the Pac-12’s top cornerbacks in 2014 and needs to follow up his Rose Bowl effort (9 tackles, 2 PBU) against a dangerous receiving corps. Safeties Erick Dargan and Reggie Daniels combined for 17 stops in the Rose Bowl. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson (35 tackles in 2014) is a future star but also a key contributor in a backup role. Dargan was the team’s top ball hawk in the secondary, picking off seven passes in 2014. Similar to the run defense, Oregon will give up some yards through the air. However, the Ducks limited the big plays (eight of 40 yards or more) by opposing offenses.
Winning the field position battle is an underrated part of any game, and punter Cameron Johnston (45.3) is a key weapon on special teams for the Buckeyes. Kicker Sean Nuernberger is 13 of 20 on field goals this year and has missed 5 of 10 attempts from 40 yards or more. Returns are in good shape with Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall on special teams. Marshall averages 12 yards per punt return, while Wilson averaged 24 yards per kickoff return this year.
The impact of Allen’s knee injury isn’t just limited to offense, as the redshirt freshman averages 26.1 yards per kickoff return. In his absence, freshman Charles Nelson (20.3 yards per kickoff return) will see additional time on special teams. Nelson is one of the nation’s most dangerous punt returners (15.5 ypr, 2 TDs). Kicker Aidan Schneider passed Matt Wogan as the No. 1 kicker this year and connected on 9 of 10 attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler (39 yards per punt) isn’t used much (41 attempts) thanks to an explosive offense.
Urban Meyer is one of the nation’s best coaches and has been an instant winner at each of his four FBS coaching opportunities. The Buckeyes are 37-3 under Meyer’s direction and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular season game. Prior to Ohio State, Meyer won two national titles at Florida, went 22-2 at Utah and 17-6 at Bowling Green. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and was hired as Houston’s new head coach. The additions of assistants Chris Ash (safeties, co-defensive coordinator) and Larry Johnson (defensive line) made a huge impact on Ohio State’s defense.
Mark Helfrich inherited a national championship contender from Chip Kelly, and the second-year coach is 24-3 in his first two years at Oregon. Helfrich and this staff did a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season and the Ducks have a nine-game winning streak entering the national championship. Coordinator Don Pellum has stabilized the defense after a slow start, holding the last four opponents to 20 points or less. Pellum's defense has been opportunistic with 30 forced turnovers and held Florida State to field goals - not touchdowns - in the red zone last week. Offensive play-caller Scott Frost guided the Ducks to an average of 40 points per game for the fifth consecutive season.