Ohio State and Oklahoma are two of college football’s top programs and meet on Saturday night for one of the most anticipated non-conference games of 2016. Just how big of a matchup is this game on Saturday night? Outside of the impact on the 2016 national title races (or even the early Heisman discussion), these two teams have combined for 12 Associated Press national titles, 12 Heisman winners and 1,739 victories. Needless to say, there’s a lot of hype (and justifiably so) for Saturday night’s contest.
The Sooners have little margin for error the rest of the way if they want to get back to the College Football Playoff. After a loss to Houston in the opener, Oklahoma needs to win out in order to get into the top four in early December. Regardless of what happens in this game, the Sooners still have tough matchups on deck in conference play. Oklahoma travels to TCU on Oct. 1, followed by the neutral site matchup against Texas on Oct. 8. These next three games should determine where Oklahoma falls in the national landscape. Will the Sooners get back in the mix for a playoff spot? Or is Bob Stoops’ team headed for a 9-3 type of season?
Ohio State enters this matchup at No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and aiming to add a huge non-conference victory to its resume before opening Big Ten play. The Buckeyes soundly defeated Bowling Green 77-10 in the opener and won 48-3 after a slow start against Tulsa last Saturday. There’s no question Ohio State has been impressive so far, but this is the toughest test Urban Meyer’s team has faced in 2016. And needless to say, this isn’t an easy environment for a team that returned only six starters and has a lot of new faces in the lineup this fall.
This is just the third all-time meeting between Ohio State and Oklahoma and the first matchup since 1983. The Buckeyes and Sooners split the previous two contests.
Ohio State at Oklahoma
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Ohio State -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Oklahoma’s Ground Attack
In the Week 1 loss to Houston, Oklahoma’s ground attack was held to just 2.7 yards per rush, while Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine combined for just 12 carries and 71 yards. However, this isn’t a new concern for the Sooners. The play in the trenches and performance of the ground game was a huge problem for Oklahoma in last year’s losses to Texas and Clemson. Ohio State’s defensive line featured three new starters this season but is still one of the best in the nation. Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard are both capable of producing double-digit sack totals in 2016, while freshmen Dre’Mont Jones, Davon Hamilton and junior Michael Hill anchor the interior with Tracy Sprinkle sidelined the rest of the year due to an injury in the opener. Ohio State hasn’t faced top 25 competition so far this season, but the Buckeyes have yet to allow a rushing score and limited Bowling Green and Tulsa to just two yards per carry. Oklahoma doesn’t need Perine and Mixon to both reach the 100-yard mark, but this duo has to be more productive and needs more overall opportunities to run the ball than they did against Houston. But this isn’t just on Perine and Mixon. Oklahoma’s offensive line has to step up and clear some rushing lanes for this talented duo.
2. Ohio State’s Young Playmakers
Ohio State entered the year with just six returning starters, which was the fewest of any Power 5 team for 2016. The Buckeyes were hit hard by losses on both sides of the ball, including at the skill positions on offense. Running back Ezekiel Elliott was a first-round pick by the Cowboys, and five of the team’s top six receivers also did not return for 2016. The lone returner of that top six? Curtis Samuel. The junior is off to a blistering start this fall, as he’s grabbed 14 receptions for 239 yards and two scores, while recording 162 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries. Samuel is just one cog in a talented, but young group of playmakers for coach Urban Meyer. Running back Mike Weber (6.3 ypc) has impressed, while Noah Brown (15.5 ypc), K.J. Hill (two catches) and senior Dontre Wilson are also expected to play a huge role in the offense on Saturday night. How will this young group of playmakers perform in their first road test of the year? Also, keep an eye on the battle between Ohio State’s ground game and Oklahoma’s rush defense. The Sooners limited Houston to just 2.2 yards per carry in the opener and want to keep quarterback J.T. Barrett in the pocket and not outside on the edge making plays with his legs. While Oklahoma’s front seven held its own in the opener, its secondary surrendered 321 passing yards. Jordan Thomas is one of the nation’s top cornerbacks, but the Sooners are expected to turn to true freshman Parrish Cobb on the other side. Can the Buckeyes exploit this one-on-one battle just like Houston?
3. The Quarterbacks
Two of the nation’s top quarterbacks will be on display in Norman on Saturday night. Baker Mayfield (and coordinator Lincoln Riley) played a key role in the improvement of Oklahoma’s offense last fall. Mayfield had a tough assignment in Week 1 going against Houston’s defense but completed 24 of 33 throws for 323 yards and two scores. He followed up that performance by completing 14 of 20 throws for 244 yards and three touchdowns in an easy win over ULM. Mayfield isn’t as dynamic as Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett on the ground, but he can use his legs to extend plays or run to escape pressure and scramble for key yardage. In the loss against Houston, Mayfield did not have a run longer than seven yards and was sacked five times. Can the Sooners’ offensive line provide enough protection for Mayfield to stay in the pocket and attack downfield? Or will Ohio State force Mayfield out of the pocket and limit his ability to take advantage of big plays when things break down up front?
On the other sideline, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett looks a lot like the player that finished fifth in the Heisman voting. Barrett never seemed to reach that level in 2015 after sharing the starting job with Cardale Jones. However, with full command of the starting job and the offense, Barrett has been sharp through the first two weeks. The junior has completed 35 of 35 throws for 498 yards and six scores, while rushing for 85 yards and three touchdowns. How can Oklahoma slow down Barrett and this high-powered Ohio State offense? Take a look at the gameplan against Houston. The Sooners limited Greg Ward’s mobility and forced the Houston receivers to win battles on the outside. The Cougars were able to accomplish that, but Oklahoma probably learned a few lessons in that Week 1 loss and could counter with more pressure to limit some of the problems at cornerback.
This game was circled all offseason as one of the best matchups for 2016 and it shouldn’t disappoint. Ohio State has cruised to a 2-0 start, while there’s a sense of urgency at Oklahoma after the loss to Houston in the opener. If the Sooners lose this one, any hopes of a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff are over. With two dynamic quarterbacks and talented playmakers on both sides of the ball, this matchup shouldn’t be hurting for points. Can Ohio State’s young skill players deliver in a tough environment? Will the Sooners’ offensive line and ground attack step up after a disappointing performance against Houston? This one is tough to call. The Sooners have the homefield edge, but the Buckeyes are better in the trenches and on defense. That’s the difference in this game.