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As we approach the 2016 College Football Playoff, many are looking at the result as a fait accompli. Ask anybody who is going to win the CFP this year, and 99 percent of them will simply say "Alabama" or "Roll Tide."
It's a sensible answer. Alabama is the defending national champion, and it has looked like the best team in the country from the very first weekend of the season. Still, while Alabama is the favorite for good reasons, this is college football we're talking about here.
Strange things tend to happen in this sport, usually when you least expect them to.
If Alabama reaches the title game, one of the two teams they could possibly face there is Ohio State, and to overlook the Buckeyes is a dangerous gambit. After all, Ohio State was the first champion of the playoff era, and it's also been one of the best teams in the country all season long.
The Buckeyes are a team that can win their second national title in three seasons, and I'm here to tell you why.
1. They have the talent: Here's all you need to know about Ohio State and its depth. After last season, the Buckeyes had 12 players chosen in the NFL Draft with three taken in the first 10 picks, five in the first round and none taken after the fourth round. It's safe to say that just about any other program in the country that suffers those kind of losses will need a year to rebound, but not Ohio State. No, when it comes to the depth chart, only Ohio State can challenge Alabama when it comes to talent on the roster.
In the five years between the 2012 and 2016 recruiting classes, Ohio State put together classes in the top seven every season. Using the 247Sports Composite rankings, Ohio State has landed five five-star players and 80 four-star players in that five-year span. Aside from Alabama and Florida State, there just aren't many other programs that have recruited on such a high level in recent years. So no matter who the Buckeyes are playing, they're usually better than the players they're lined up against.
2. J.T. Barrett doesn't turn the ball over: Over the last three seasons, Ohio State's quarterback has thrown 807 passes and carried the ball 480 times. In those 1,287 touches, he's turned the ball over a grand total of 22 times (19 interceptions, three fumbles lost). Of those 22 turnovers, 11 of them came in 2014, Barrett's first season as a starter, and the year the Buckeyes won a national title.
This year he has seven turnovers (five interceptions, two fumbles). He's also accounted for 100 touchdowns over the last three seasons, so that's a pretty good touchdown-to-turnover ratio -- particularly for somebody who has the football in his hands so often.
Turnovers can play a key role in any game, but in a playoff game like the one Ohio State will play against Clemson, and a possible national title game after that where you're playing another great team, they take on even more importance. Barrett's ability to take care of the ball has been a major boost to the Buckeyes over the last three seasons.
3. Urban Meyer wins big games: Meyer is no stranger to the big moment. In his career as a head coach, Meyer has played in eight conference title games, two CFP games, two BCS title games and four major bowl games (New Year's Six, BCS bowls). In those 16 games, he's gone 12-4. Three of those games were against Alabama and Nick Saban (two SEC title games, and a CFP semifinal), and Meyer's teams have gone 2-1 in those games (he's 2-2 overall against Saban with a regular season loss to Alabama in 2010), including the most recent meeting in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
Of course, one of those four losses came to Dabo Swinney and Clemson in the 2013 Orange Bowl.
Still, when it really matters, Meyer's teams rise up to the challenge more often than not, and it's not a coincidence.
4. Their defense can score, too: Ohio State's offense is potent enough, but the Buckeyes defense has proven to be quite adept at changing games with scores of its own. This season, the Buckeyes returned seven interceptions for touchdowns. That alone is impressive, but the rate at which Ohio State does so is remarkable as well.
The Buckeyes have 19 interceptions as a team -- which ranks sixth nationally -- meaning they turned 37 percent of their interceptions into pick sixes. No other team in the country had six this season with Alabama and San Diego State finishing behind the Buckeyes with five apiece.
The Ohio State defense isn't just talented and capable, it's opportunistic, and its ability to not only force turnovers but turn them into scores is one of the many reasons the Buckeyes have reached the playoff. And it's one of the reasons they can win another national title.
5. They has the experience: While Ohio State's opponent in the Fiesta Bowl has been in this situation before, the Buckeyes can claim something that Clemson cannot: they've not only won a national title in the playoff era (as well as the BCS era) but beaten Alabama to do it. Clemson reached the title game last year but fell short against the Tide.
Should Ohio State get by the Tigers and head to the title game, it will do so with the confidence of a team that doesn't just believe it can beat Alabama (or Washington), but knows that it can. That kind of confidence goes a long way in games like these.
Glendale is where it's all going to finally come together.
That's how the season script you wrote in your head reaches its exciting conclusion. It's where Ohio State develops in all of the areas you've identified as being less-than-title worthy, or more pessimistically - championship repellant. Your list of needs begins with refinement in J.T. Barrett's footwork and passing accuracy - oh, sure. Isaiah Prince's pass-blocking at right tackle solidifying - of course!
BUT THERE'S MORE - a pass rush that reaches Deshawn Watson just half a second faster than it's been getting to lesser quarterbacks - obviously. Wide receivers that can actually get open and also catch the ball - yesssss. The offense must remember to not ignore Curtis Samuel - eureka! Why didn't anyone think of these sooner.
Glendale is the perfect setting for this to all finally come together. The emergence of those gaps was just the journey, and these stubborn bad guys will meet their demise in the desert. Only a true student of the game could pick up on those deficiencies in just a dozen games' worth of observation. Good job!
Still, there are some other gaps that aren't quite as easy to pick on as #ZoneSicks or #SlobProbs. The Buckeyes were fortunate to reach the desert for New Year's Eve and they cannot blink. They got into the playoff with no historic precedent. The fun history is what lies before them, and it is up to them.
So let's peel this onion a little further to reveal some of the sneakier tears - and potentially - the keys to securing Fiesta Bowl victory.
1. REPAIR THE DIRECTOR'S CHAIR
The end-of-regulation sequence against Michigan was - this is a highly-refined scientific football term - an unvarnished clusterfuck. All the times you've rewatched Curtis Samuel's Game-winning grand jété into the endzone were medicine for what occurred as the 4th quarter was slipping away while Ohio State's coaching staff and younger players did not control the R.
Don't crumble under pressure. You too, playcallers.
Equally important - they couldn't get multiple plays called and executed in a timely manner with the most important game in the world on the line. Go ahead and rewatch those miserable moments ahead of Fight Club's game-tying field goal as J.T. Barrett stared furiously at the sideline and his teammates while they fumbled around trying to decide on a play and line up correctly.
Up until that point the Buckeyes were barreling toward the endzone, not the uprights - they fell apart and settled for the tie instead of an outright regulation victory. Ohio State beat Michigan in spite of its late 4th quarter puckering, and its reward was a full month to get this kind of crisis management fire drill better organized for college football's brightest stage.
2. HERO BALL WITH A LEAD IS UNWISE
When both teams are loaded, momentum becomes an asset. WARNING - overused John Cooper quote forthcoming: You win the game the surest way possible.
Field the punt safely. The yardage after that is gravy.
Momentum is to be captured, groomed and protected at all costs. To wit, the last time the Buckeyes played the Tigers they had the momentum - and their foot on Clemson's throat - before they squandered it:
The biggest play of the game came in the third quarter when Ohio State led 29-20. (Philly) Brown attempted to field a punt with pressure bearing down on him and fumbled. Clemson scored on the ensuing possession and again on its next possession. In barely more than three minutes, the Tigers went from down nine to up by five.
More specifically, Philly attempted to field a punt, in traffic, while executing a spin move to create a momentum play in Ohio State's favor. Instead, the opposite happened. We've repeatedly seen this take place on punt returns even since he matriculated to the NFL - The Philly Brown Experience was succeeded by The Jalin Marshall Experience and then The Dontre Wilson Experience.
Secure the punt. Advance the ball wisely. Preserve momentum. Win the surest way possible.
3. NO OCTOBER SURPRISES...
The Buckeyes were favored by 19 at Penn State but, if you recall, they failed to cover the spread by in-excess of those 19 points. That was unexpected. While the offense was in pieces for much of the evening, the game teetered from W to L on two plays and both involved Ohio State's kickers. That was also unexpected.
This was supposed to extend the lead, not lose it.
The Nittany Lions were able to flip the field by getting to Cam Johnston on a punt deep in Ohio State's territory, and then they were able to turn a lead-extending field goal attempt by the Buckeyes into the deciding score in their favor. Ohio State had that stupid game won despite ignoring Samuel for most of the evening, having no real offensive intent and just playing horrendous, fundamentally unsound football in general.
So it's not just about preserving momentum when fielding a kick. One of the hardest things to do in football is win despite having a kick blocked. Penn State did it twice that night in October. The preferred number for Glendale - and the rest of eternity - is zero.
4. ...AND NO "OCTOBER SURPRISES" EITHER
In the spirit of this Election Year, this is with regard to unexpected negativity popping up at the least opportune time. Ohio State had too many of these the last time it faced Clemson.
Noah Spence became abruptly unavailable in the lead-up to the Orange Bowl. The team was also beat up far more badly than previously thought; possibly the result of Ohio State tampering down on that type of intel (also a product of having played an extra game in Indianapolis; a task from which the Buckeyes were spared this time around).
But as it turned out, Curtis Grant could barely run. Bradley Roby pulled his gimpy self out of the game. And on top of all that, a fucking flu virus made its way through the roster and spread quickly. Braxton Miller's QB career ended in the middle of that game and he still played through it. That wasn't Ohio State at 100% strength losing to Clemson. Sixty would be generous.
None of that 11th hour shit again, please. It's a big ask to control the uncontrollable, but it cannot be worse than it was last time.
5. RELEASE THE DEATH MACHINE
We saw it emerge in those three postseason games to end that glorious 2014 run.
We witnessed it in Ann Arbor last season only after the Buckeyes had forfeited their repeat bid, and then in Glendale after that. It's when every heart on the Ohio State sideline calibrates into a single terrifying drum beat. It's that moment when an Urban Meyer football team gels and comes to the confident realization that it is unfuckingbeatable.
Ohio State becomes self-aware and shreds everything in its path. There's no bit of bad luck that can stop it, either - not Wisconsin's clodding strategy of suffocating everything fun out of football, not Alabama's roster full of aliens and dozens of shadow coaches, and not even going 0 for 6 recovering fumbles against the Rose Bowl champions in Arlington. Everything in the Buckeyes' path gets burned to the ground.
They were not there yet against Michigan. There were moments - too early in the season, against Nebraska, at Maryland - but that machine hasn't been fully engaged yet. That moment is still to come.
But if that team makes an appearance in the desert on New Year's Eve, Ohio State will find itself preparing to play in the final football game of the season.