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The similarities are eerie, almost like carbon copies of one another.
Ohio State, talented yet questioned, enters the College Football Playoff amid doubts. It is a big underdog. It then performs like the favorite.
This could be a description of the current group or the 2014 team that won it all. Both work.
In 2014, the first year of the playoff, Ohio State entered the final week of the regular season ranked fifth. After bludgeoning Wisconsin, it moved up to fourth amid controversy and stunned No. 1 Alabama in the semifinals before overwhelming No. 2 Oregon in the title game.
It was a decided underdog in both games, just like it was against No. 2 Clemson in this year’s Sugar Bowl and will be against top-seeded Alabama in the national championship game on Jan. 11 in Miami.
That 2014 group was motivated by its detractors. It was an ultra-skilled group that included running back Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and Michael Thomas. This team isn’t as good defensively, but it is better at quarterback — Justin Fields is a major upgrade over Cardale Jones — is loaded with playmakers and just might be picking the right time to hit its stride.
It dominated Clemson and Trevor Lawrence, owned the line of scrimmage and was the hungrier, more determined team in a stunning 49-28 victory in New Orleans. Some of that could be attributed to the loss a year ago to Clemson in the semifinals or the notion from so many — including Tigers coach Dabo Swinney — it didn’t belong in the playoff after playing in just six games.
The Buckeyes used that as ammunition. Now, over the next eight days, Ohio State will hear about how great undefeated Alabama is, how little chance it has as a seven-point underdog.
A similar sentiment was expressed after the Buckeyes beat Alabama in the first playoff. Oregon had just ended Florida State’s 29-game winning streak, was a six-point favorite and had the Heisman Trophy winner in Marcus Mariota.
It didn’t matter.
History could be repeating itself.
Below are other storylines for what has all the making of a very intriguing championship game:
Alabama’s DeVonta Smith has been an absolute terror all year, but lately the first wide receiver to be named the Associated Press Player of the Year has taken it up a notch, catching 22 passes for 314 yards and five touchdowns in the season’s two biggest games, the SEC championship win over Florida and playoff victory over Notre Dame. And Ohio State’s secondary is its defense’s biggest weakness.
Highly regarded cornerback Shaun Wade has struggled in coverage and the Buckeyes were 116th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game. This has mismatch written all over it.
Justin Fields was the big winner in the Sugar Bowl. He did his NFL draft stock wonders by setting an Ohio State bowl record with six touchdown passes and outplaying Lawrence, his friend and the likely No. 1 pick.
He played through severe pain, following the helmet-first hit by James Skalski to his right side, over the final 35:57 and made everyone forget his poor performances against Northwestern and Indiana. It was also a reminder of just how talented Fields is, the ability the athletic specimen has.
The guy has lost one game, last year’s playoff semifinal to Clemson, in 21 starts and has produced 77 touchdowns in that time. Now, he faces Alabama, with another chance to really prove himself in the eyes of evaluators. Prediction: Fields will again put up major numbers. This isn’t a classic Crimson Tide defense. Remember, it was shredded by Florida and Kyle Trask just a few weeks ago.
It really would be peak Nick Saban to respond to missing the playoff for the first time by going undefeated the following season without a single truly close call. The legendary Alabama coach is one win away from becoming the first man to win seven national championships, surpassing Bear Bryant’s six.
It’s hard to minimize the job he’s done this year. He lost arguably the sport’s most dynamic weapon in wide receiver Jaylen Waddle to a season-ending ankle injury on Oct. 24, lost a number of players to the NFL — in particular quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., and top receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III — and has the Crimson Tide back in the title game for the seventh time in 10 seasons.
Overlooked somewhat in the Sugar Bowl, after Fields’ brilliant performance and the one-sided nature of the game, was Ohio State’s performance in the trenches. They dominated Clemson, which rarely gets beaten up so badly up front.
Ohio State ran for 254 yards, allowed just 48 yards on the ground and harassed Lawrence most of the night, sacked him twice and forced him to get rid of the ball faster than he wanted.
The natural question of course is can the Buckeyes repeat that dominance against Alabama? Quarterback Mac Jones was sacked just 11 times all year and the Crimson Tide offensive line is one of three finalists for the Joe Moore Award, given to the best group in the country. Both are very tough to run against. More than any other matchup, this could decide the next national champion.