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Oklahoma Sooners vs. Ohio State Buckeyes Preview and Prediction

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

Ohio State and Oklahoma meet in Columbus on Saturday night in a clash of top-five teams with College Football Playoff aspirations in 2017. While it’s only Week 2, the playoff and national title implications for this game are obvious. These two teams were the preseason favorite in their respective conferences, and a win here would be a good resume boost in December.

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield

Ohio State started its season with a 49-21 victory on Thursday night in Bloomington against Indiana. The Buckeyes’ revamped offense under coordinator Kevin Wilson got off to a slow start against the Hoosiers but eventually got on track, scoring 36 points over the final two quarters. Coach Urban Meyer’s team entered the year with few concerns on the roster. However, the passing attack and a revamped secondary were two preseason question marks this team needed to address. Against the Hoosiers, both of those units delivered an up-and-down performance, but there’s plenty of talent to expect improvement going into Week 2.

A new era for Oklahoma started last Saturday, as Lincoln Riley led the Sooners out of the tunnel for the first time as head coach. Bob Stoops leaves big shoes to fill in Norman, but Riley is one of college football’s top coaches on the rise. The 34-year-old coach had a successful debut against UTEP, as the Sooners won in dominant fashion (56-7). Riley’s offensive acumen and ability to coordinate a dynamic attack isn’t in doubt. With Baker Mayfield at the controls, Oklahoma should have one of the nation’s best offenses for 2017. But contending for the CFB Playoff rests with improvement on defense and navigating a schedule that features trips to Kansas State and Oklahoma State later in the year.

Ohio State and Oklahoma have three previous meetings. The Buckeyes own a 2-1 series edge, with the last game between the Buckeyes and Sooners taking place in 2016. Ohio State won 45-24 in Norman last fall. The only matchup between these two teams in Columbus took place in 1977.

Oklahoma at Ohio State

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Ohio State -7.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Oklahoma’s Offensive Line Against Ohio State’s Defensive Line

This is strength versus strength. In Athlon’s unit rankings for 2017, Oklahoma’s offensive line rated No. 1 nationally, and Ohio State’s defensive line checked in at No. 2 behind Clemson.

Last season, Oklahoma’s front five dominated at the line of scrimmage. This unit allowed only 21 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 5.4 yards per carry. However, in last year’s matchup against Ohio State, quarterback Baker Mayfield was sacked three times, and 86 of the team’s 178 rushing yards came on three plays. The Sooners allowed only one sack and averaged 9.1 yards per play in the opener against UTEP. The line is anchored by standout left tackle Orlando Brown, with Bobby Evans and Dru Samia earning recognition from Pro Football Focus for their performance in Week 1 against the Miners.

Greg Schiano’s defense dominated in the trenches during Thursday’s win over Indiana. The Buckeyes held the Hoosiers to just 17 rushing yards, collected five sacks and nine tackles for a loss. Those numbers could have been higher if not for Indiana’s gameplan to utilize quick throws and not allow Ohio State’s pass rush to disrupt the offense. Tyquan Lewis (two sacks) was the top player up front, but the Buckeyes also got key contributions from Sam Hubbard (one sack) and Nick Bosa (one sack). The interior is also loaded with depth and talent, which was instrumental in Ohio State only allowing 3.4 yards per carry in 2016.

Which unit will take control in the battle up front on Saturday night? Can Oklahoma’s standout line protect Mayfield and provide throwing lanes downfield? Or will the Buckeyes win the battle in the trenches, disrupting the Sooner attack and generating pressure on Mayfield?

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 2

2. Baker Mayfield Against Ohio State’s Secondary

The biggest question mark on Ohio State’s defense entering the 2017 season was its secondary. And after one game, it’s fair to say question marks remain about this group. The Buckeyes gave up 420 yards (on 68 attempts) and three touchdowns to Indiana’s passing attack last Thursday. The Hoosiers used an up-tempo approach, pushing downfield with quick passes and opportunities for bigger receivers to win one-on-one battles. Ohio State has lost a significant amount of talent to the NFL from its defensive backfield over the last two years, but this unit isn’t hurting for options. Denzel Ward was solid in the Week 1 win over Indiana and is the team’s top cover option. Sophomores Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield are listed as co-starters on the depth chart this week, while freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade provide depth.

While Ohio State had its ups and downs in pass defense last Thursday, the experience should pay off over the season, especially with another explosive offense on tap this week.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is one of the best in college football and is among the frontrunners to win the Heisman in 2017. The senior set the FBS record for passing efficiency (196.4) last season and is already off to a blistering start, completing 19 of 20 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns against UTEP. In addition to his efficiency, Mayfield is a dangerous playmaker with his legs and keeps plays alive with his mobility. Considering the talent Ohio State has up front, Mayfield’s ability to sidestep the rush and buy an extra second or two in the pocket could be valuable on Saturday night. But one question mark that remains about Oklahoma’s offense is the pass catchers. Tight end Mark Andrews is the go-to target for Mayfield, but the receiving corps has yet to be tested following Dede Westbrook’s departure to the NFL. Will Jeff Badet, Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb, Jeffery Mead and Mykel Jones step up on Saturday night to take some of the pressure off of Andrews? Considering how Ohio State’s defensive backs performed in Week 1, there will be plays for the Sooners to make on the outside.

3. Ohio State’s Offense

Ohio State’s offense didn’t exactly get off to the start most envisioned in the first game for new play-caller Kevin Wilson. The Buckeyes went 66 yards on 11 plays in their first series but failed to record more than 16 yards on four out of their next six drives. However, the second half was significantly better for Ohio State’s offense, as this unit scored touchdowns on four of its final five drives.

As expected with any new play-caller and scheme, Ohio State needs a few games to get acclimated to Wilson. And Saturday night’s game should be a good opportunity for the Buckeyes to take another step forward on offense versus an Oklahoma defense that gave up 5.9 yards per play in 2016. Quarterback J.T. Barrett finished Week 1 with 365 total yards and four scores, and he’s joined by a talented one-two punch at running back in true freshman J.K. Dobbins and sophomore Mike Weber. Dobbins led the team with 181 rushing yards in the opener, as Weber was sidelined due to injury. But similar to Oklahoma, Ohio State is looking for the right answers to emerge at receiver. Parris Campbell (six catches) and Johnnie Dixon (two) stepped up at the right time last week. Will Barrett’s connection with those two continue to improve in Week 2? And how involved will tight end Marcus Baugh be after grabbing two passes for 16 yards against Indiana.

Oklahoma’s defense returned six starters this fall but suffered a blow to the depth in the secondary when Jordan Parker was lost for the year due to a knee injury against UTEP. Against the Miners, the Sooners allowed only 3.5 yards per play and allowed only one drive to go longer than 20 yards. While the opener was a positive for coordinator Mike Stoops, the competition and challenge is significantly steeper in Week 2. Can the Sooners contain Barrett, Weber and Dobbins on the ground and force the Buckeyes to take to the air to win this one? And when Ohio State throws, will Barrett's connection with Campbell and Dixon improve after the second-half showing against Indiana?

Final Analysis

The matchup in the trenches presents an interesting angle to Saturday night’s matchup. Oklahoma’s offensive line should be able to protect quarterback Baker Mayfield, giving him time to target Andrews and the other receivers over the middle and downfield. But even if the Sooners have success attacking Ohio State’s secondary, can Oklahoma get enough stops on defense to win this one? The guess here is no. The Buckeyes use the trio of Barrett, Weber and Dobbins to move the ball on the ground, and the passing game connects on a couple of big plays in the second half to secure the victory.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

Prediction: Ohio State 34, Oklahoma 27