DALLAS — Ohio State is an underdog, somewhere in the range of five to six points, in the College Football Playoff national championship game tonight.
This is interesting to discuss and debate. It might be a motivational tool for OSU’s coaches. It might even turn out to be right.
But what does it really mean?
If history is any indicator, it means you might as well flip a coin. Half of the time you will be right. Half of the time you will be wrong.
The Bowl Championship Series was the way college football determined a national champion from the 1998 season through the 2013 season.
In those 16 years, the team established as the favorite by the odds makers won eight times and the underdog won eight times.
Ohio State won as a 7-point underdog when it beat Miami 31-24 in double overtime to win the 2002 national title.
Oregon lost as a 1-point favorite when it was beaten 22-19 on a last-second field goal by Auburn in the final game of the 2010 season.
On its way to this game, Ohio State has beaten Wisconsin and then Alabama as an underdog.
So OSU’s players say they are not surprised to play that role again tonight against Oregon.
“I’m sure somehow we’re not going to be good enough and we’re going to be underdogs but that’s how it goes,” OSU defensive lineman Michael Bennett said after the Buckeyes’ 42-35 win over Alabama in a playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl.
“We’re just going to go out there and play the game and see what happens,” Bennett said.
So, what is going to happen? Or, at least, what will Ohio State have to do to win this game and its first national championship since the 2002 season?
A possible path to victory start with something simple that has worked extremely well in wins over Wisconsin and Alabama. That would be to hand the ball to Ezekiel Elliott often and block hard for him.
OSU did that when Elliott ran for 230 yards against Alabama in a 42-35 win in the Sugar Bowl and did it before that in a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
Both those teams had higher rated defenses against the run than Oregon, which was seventh against the run in its own league, the Pac-12. The Ducks gave up 156.1 yards a game on the ground and that number might have been higher if so many opponents hadn’t been trying to come from behind by throwing the ball.
There also could be some vulnerability in Oregon’s defensive backfield with its best cornerback, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, out with a knee injury.
Defensively, one of the keys is keeping Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in the pocket and not allowing him to be a dual threat.
As a passer, Mariota (4,121 yards, 40 TDs, 3 interceptions) is extremely efficient. He has 103 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in his career. Limiting his running game (731 yards, 15 touchdowns) might be the best way to rein him in.
The biggest key might be for Ohio State’s defensive line to win the battle against Oregon’s offensive line.
The Ducks, much like Ohio State, are a team whose spread offense starts with a power running game. They have had a 1,000-yard rusher for eight years in a row.
If the running game doesn’t go, the relentless pace Oregon’s offense is known for could slow down.
The conventional wisdom says Oregon’s speed and relentless pace of running a play every 16 seconds could wear Ohio State down like it has done to so many other teams.
But the conventional wisdom might be wrong.
Ohio State has speed, too, and has turned into a relentless team in its own right. Ohio State has found strength where it didn’t expect it and developed it in other areas where it didn’t see it earlier in the season.
The prediction: Ohio State 49, Oregon 42.
Contact Jim Naveau at 419-993-2087 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.