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National Championship Preview and Prediction: Oregon vs. Ohio State

Marcus Mariota

Marcus Mariota

Oregon and Ohio State close out college football’s first four-team FBS playoff on Monday, Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas. Monday night’s matchup is uncharted waters for college football in the new postseason format, as the Ducks and Buckeyes have to regroup for the championship just one week after bowl victories. Oregon used five Florida State turnovers and 41 second-half points to defeat the Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State overcame a 21-6 first-half deficit to defeat Alabama – the No. 1 ranked team – in the Sugar Bowl. 

Both teams have been hit hard by injuries this season. Oregon suffered a couple of injuries to its offensive line in the regular season, including ailments to star left tackle Jake Fisher and center Hroniss Grasu. All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a knee injury after the regular season and is out for the remainder of the year. But those three players aren’t the full extent of the Ducks’ injury report. This team lost starting tackle Tyler Johnstone and receiver Bralon Addison before the first snap of the year. Despite all of the injuries, Oregon’s offense continued to perform at a high level thanks to Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Ducks averaged 47.2 points per game and rebounded from a loss against Arizona in early October to finish the year with nine consecutive victories.

While Oregon’s injuries have been significant at various positions, Ohio State’s losses have been centered on one position – quarterback – without a doubt the most important spot on the field. Braxton Miller was lost for the year in fall practice due to a shoulder injury, but redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett filled in admirably, leading the Buckeyes to an 11-1 regular season. Barrett suffered a season-ending leg injury against Michigan, which pushed third-stringer Cardale Jones into the lineup. Jones had only two career pass attempts prior to this season, but the sophomore delivered with solid performances in big games against Wisconsin (Big Ten championship) and Alabama (Sugar Bowl).

Oregon and Ohio State have met eight previous times on the gridiron. The Buckeyes have won all eight matchups. The last meeting between Oregon and Ohio State took place in the 2010 Rose Bowl.

Oregon vs. Ohio State (Arlington, Texas)

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 12 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Oregon -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Marcus Mariota

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When the College Football Playoff National Championship kicks off on Monday night, there’s no doubt the best player on the field will be wearing a white No. 8 jersey. Quarterback Marcus Mariota won Oregon's first Heisman this year, entering this game with 4,121 yards passing and 40 scores. The junior also has rushed for 731 yards and 15 touchdowns while tossing just three picks in 408 passing attempts. Additionally, Mariota is averaging 10.1 yards per attempt – the best in the nation – and boasts a quarterback rating of 184.4. The junior started slow in Oregon’s Rose Bowl win over Florida State but finished with 338 passing yards and two touchdowns. The Ducks are far from a one-man show on offense, as the line is one of the best in college football, running back Royce Freeman has rushed for 1,343 yards as a true freshman, and the receiving corps is loaded with speed and talent. Stopping Oregon’s offense falls to Ohio State co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Luke Fickell, while its offense shares some of the burden by attempting to slow down the pace and keep the Ducks on the sideline. No defense held Oregon under six yards per play through the first 14 games. Can Ohio State find a few answers? This assignment is no easy task, especially with just a week to prepare. On the positive side, teams with a good defensive line/front seven have been able to slow Oregon’s offense (at times). Ohio State has one of the nation’s most-talented front sevens on defense, headlined by end Joey Bosa, tackle Michael Bennett and rising star Darron Lee at linebacker. The Buckeyes are one of the nation’s most active teams around the line of scrimmage (105 tackles for a loss, 43 sacks) and need a big performance from the front seven in order to slow down Mariota. Of course, it’s going to be hard for Ohio State to completely keep Oregon in check all four quarters. The Buckeyes have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and limit the damage done by the Ducks’ skill players in open space. Ohio State may have to give up some yards, but this unit needs to limit big plays and force Oregon into longer drives than this team is used to.

2. Ohio State’s Gameplan on Offense

Oregon is going to rightfully garner the pregame attention as the best offense in Arlington. But let’s not forget about Ohio State’s attack. There are more similarities between these two offenses than some may realize, as coach Urban Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman have modeled the Buckeyes’ gameplan after former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly’s attack. This season, the Ducks have run 1,047 plays in 14 games. Ohio State has run 1,015 in 14 contests. And in terms of yards per play, Oregon is averaging 7.4, Buckeyes 7.0. While Ohio State’s offense isn’t as explosive as the Ducks, this unit is capable of scoring 40 points on Monday night. Quarterback Cardale Jones has kept Ohio State’s offense performing at a high level, but the key to Monday night’s game could be running back Ezekiel Elliott. The sophomore has rushed for 450 yards and four scores over the last two games and faces an Oregon defense that allowed 180 yards on 39 attempts against Florida State. Even though the Buckeyes want to play at an up-tempo pace, slowing down the game and allowing Elliott and Jones to control the flow of the game on the ground might be the best plan of attack. When Jones drops back to pass, the sophomore has a solid group of receivers at his disposal, including big-play threat Devin Smith (27.7 ypc), the steady Michael Thomas (50 catches) and rising star Jalin Marshall. When Ohio State moves into scoring position, the Buckeyes can’t afford to settle for field goals or have turnovers like Florida State experienced last week. Oregon’s defense is prone to allowing yards in exchange for turnovers and stops in the red zone. Ohio State has to grind it out with its rushing attack and eliminate the giveaways.

3. Turnovers, Third Downs, Red Zone Offense/Defense

While the good folks in Vegas pegged Oregon as a touchdown favorite, there doesn’t appear to be a significant advantage for either team on Monday night. Considering there’s very little separating Oregon and Ohio State, small aspects of the game like turnovers and red zone performance will be critical. In the Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the Ducks forced five turnovers. And for the season, Oregon has posted a positive or even turnover margin in every game. It’s critical the Ducks win the turnover battle (+20 for the season), especially since their defense will give up yards. Ohio State is +10 in turnover margin but lost 22 this year. The Buckeyes can be sloppy with giveaways, as Meyer’s team lost at least two turnovers in a stretch of four out of five games. However, in Ohio State’s last three contests, this team has lost only two turnovers. Oregon simply won’t beat itself with turnovers on Monday night. The Buckeyes need to find a way to force a couple of turnovers and finish with a zero in their giveaway column. These two teams are also among the best in the nation at converting third-down attempts. The final stat sheet may not look pretty for either defense in terms of yards or points allowed, but both units have to get off the field on third downs and get the ball back to their offenses. And when Ohio State is on defense, it has to find a way to make the Ducks kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. In the red zone, Oregon has scored 51 touchdowns on 76 trips. That news has to be concerning for Ohio State, as the Buckeyes are tied for 87th nationally in red zone defense. The motto for Ohio State is pretty simple on Monday night: Allow yards but give up only three points.

Final Analysis

There’s no shortage of intrigue for the Ohio State-Oregon showdown. For the first time since the 2006 BCS National Championship Game (Texas vs. USC), there’s not a team from the SEC in the final game of the college football season. The Ducks are looking to win their first national title in school history, while the Buckeyes are hoping to claim their first since 2002. Despite losing two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, coach Urban Meyer kept Ohio State in contention for the playoff and national championship. Meyer is one of the best in the nation, and his big-game experience could benefit the Buckeyes on Monday night. On the other sideline, Oregon has the No. 1 player in college football and an offense that is tough to stop with only a week to prepare. Will Mariota deliver in what could be his final college game? Or will the Ducks’ defensive concerns eventually be too much to overcome? Is this the game where a relatively inexperienced Cardale Jones struggles? All of those questions (and more) will be answered on Monday night.

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Here are the staff predictions from Athlon Sports, along with a pick for MVP honors:

 

Prediction

MVP Pick

Mitch Light

Ohio State 34-30 

QB Cardale Jones, Ohio State

Steven Lassan

Ohio State 38-34

RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State

Mark Ross

Oregon 37-31

QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

David Fox

Oregon 42-35

QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon