Ohio State Facing Historically Difficult Path to National Title With Playoff Following A Grueling Three-Game Gauntlet

By Colin Hass-Hill on December 9, 2019 at 8:35 am
Chase Young

Ryan Day never complained about the Big Ten schedule that he inherited. Never moaned about Ohio State ending the season with back-to-back games at home against Penn State and on the road versus Michigan followed by an opportunity to win the conference title the following week.

He could have said something, even at least to speak about the uncommon difficulty of the end-of-season trio of games, but he chose not to do much of that.

“When the schedule comes out, we’re going to go play wherever they tell us to play,” Day said on Oct. 14. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that because it’s not really under my control or something that I can worry about.”

Day had a bit more to say on Sunday, though, when the Buckeyes dropped from No. 1 to No. 2, mentioning that he thinks his team shouldn’t have slipped, especially after topping its third top-15 opponent in a row. LSU’s 37-10 destruction of Georgia was enough in the College Football Playoff committee’s mind to swap them, and he didn't agree.

Regardless, in a move any coach would make, Day said he has moved on, indicating he has also sent that message to the players on his team. 

“So we've got a big challenge ahead of us as we start to prepare for Clemson,” Day said.

Next up on the schedule comes a matchup with third-ranked Clemson, the undefeated defending national champion. Day used the word "big" to describe the game. Others, who think the challenge began a couple of weeks ago, might view it as unprecedented.

No team that has won a national championship in the playoff era has ever ended the season by beating more than three opponents ranked in the top 25 in the final five games. In order for the Buckeyes to achieve their ultimate goal, they’ll have to defeat five top-15 teams in a row.

First it was No. 10 Penn State, which the Buckeyes dispatched with a 28-17 victory at home. Day called that win “emotional” for his team. The next week, they went on the road and decimated No. 14 Michigan for a 56-27 victory. After the game, his first against the Wolverines as a head coach, Day teared up. On Saturday, Ohio State beat No. 8 Wisconsin, 34-21, to win the Big Ten championship. At halftime, the Buckeyes faced a 14-point deficit, their largest of the season, before overcoming it with a 27-point run in the final two quarters.

“There were players coming off the field with so much emotion that there was actually tears coming out of their eyes,” Day said. “It was one of the coolest experiences I've ever been a part of, and then to celebrate with that team after coming back like that, that was the best game we've had all year because of that, and we found out a lot about ourselves.”

Josh Myers added: “I'm so proud of the way we turned around and came back and just gritted our teeth and won that game. That was war, now. That was brutal.”

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Next up comes Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 28. And if Ohio State wins, either No. 1 LSU or No. 4 Oklahoma will be waiting in New Orleans for what could be a high-scoring national championship game.

In the meantime, Ohio State at least gets a few weeks to regroup after three draining games in a row.

“We're OK, physically, to be honest,” Day said on Sunday. “But I think emotionally and mentally we need a little break here. We need to get away. So we'll do a little lifting, a little running here, but what it takes to go win a game like that after the couple games we had leading up to it is just not easy to do. It was truly March Madness. It was like playoff football.”

If the CFP is a continuation of March Madness, welcome to a Final Four that doesn’t include any Cinderellas.

“To be honest with you, top four teams in the country, I don't think anyone really wants to play,” Myers said. “You do because you're a competitor, but when you're looking at advantages for yourself, all four of these teams are great football teams.”

Both Ohio State and Clemson certainly fit that description.

The Tigers are one of the few teams that can match the Buckeyes in overall talent. Day called games against the Wolverines and Nittany Lions “talent-equated,” but that was always a bit of a stretch. Ohio State has out-recruited and out-developed both fellow Big Ten programs in recent years. Clemson, though, won’t find itself at any disadvantage in either of those departments, having earned its way into five straight College Football Playoffs and won two of the last three national championships.

Clemson has talent across the board, too, in a manner similar to Ohio State. As arguably the two most complete teams in the country, they rank near the top of the Football Bowl Subdivision in almost every major statistical category, including:

  • Points per game: Ohio State (No. 1, 48.7), Clemson (No. 4, 46.5)
  • Points per game allowed: Ohio State (No. 2, 12.5), Clemson (No. 1, 10.6)
  • Passing yards per attempt: Ohio State (No. 10, 9.3), Clemson (No. 15, 8.7)
  • Passing yards per attempt allowed: Ohio State (No. 1, 5.3), Clemson (No. 1, 5.3)
  • Rushing yards per carry: Ohio State (No. 6, 5.67), Clemson (No. 1, 6.46)
  • Rushing yards per carry allowed: Ohio State (No. 6, 2.82), Clemson (No. 9, 2.82)

Both teams are also top 15 in the nation in third-down conversion rate, opponent third-down conversion rate, turnover margin, sacks, interceptions and chunk plays.

“If we want to go win the whole thing, we have to be able to play everybody, so now we've got a chance to go play Clemson,” Day said.

Waiting for the Buckeyes two weeks later, should they win, would be LSU or Oklahoma. Both teams have two of the nation’s most explosive, daunting offenses that could pose problems for Ohio State's defense.

Had the Buckeyes remained at No. 1, they would have spent the next three weeks preparing to face the Sooners, who haven't been as strong on defense. Instead, they're once again taking the more difficult road, facing a Clemson team that has looked like possibly the most dangerous in the country in recent weeks.

Been there, done that? Sure. But to win a national title, now the Buckeyes have to take that path again.

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