Ohio State enters 2019 CFB Playoff as the true mystery

This image is a derivative of The Shoe by Jason Pero (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you were to look at the four teams in the 2019 College Football Playoff, most of the stories are very clear-cut and easy to understand.

The Oklahoma Sooners are making their third straight appearance in the College Football Playoff and their fourth in the past five seasons. The Sooners have won five straight Big 12 Conference championships. They are playing a Southeastern Conference team in the postseason for the fourth straight season. They are meeting an SEC team in the playoff for the third consecutive season.

Oklahoma has never won a playoff semifinal (0-3) and has never beaten an SEC team in the College Football Playoff (0-2). The Sooners are regularly good enough to get this far, but they have not yet shown they can advance past this stage of a college football season.

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The LSU Tigers don’t always make the College Football Playoff or the college football national championship game. This is LSU’s first playoff appearance. However, LSU has a clear-cut identity as a program which plays for the national title once every several years, always in the Louisiana Superdome in this century. LSU’s last national championship game was in New Orleans in January of 2012. If LSU beats Oklahoma in the upcoming Peach Bowl, the Tigers will earn another berth in the Superdome on January 13 for the right to contest the national championship.

While LSU has the best player in college football, Heisman Trophy winner, Joe Burrow. The Tigers have the best offense in the sport.

The Clemson Tigers are making their fifth straight appearance in the College Football Playoff, and are attempting to play in a fourth national championship game in five seasons. Clemson has won two of the past three national titles and is gunning for three out of four. The team opposing Clemson this Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl, the Ohio State Buckeyes, have lost to Clemson in bowl games earlier this decade – once in the 2014 Orange Bowl (the last year before the playoff system was created), once in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, which was also a College Football Playoff semifinal. Clemson has beaten Alabama and Ohio State multiple times in postseason games this decade. CU is the school which deserves supreme trust in these kinds of games, entirely unlike Oklahoma.

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There you have it: Oklahoma is the great-but-not-great-enough team. LSU is following a familiar path to New Orleans behind the best player in college football this year. Clemson is the team everyone trusts, the most dominant program in the sport, even more than Alabama if you look solely at the last five years of college football. (More than five years? Then it’s Alabama.)

Oklahoma and LSU (in the Peach Bowl) plus Clemson (in the Fiesta Bowl) bring stories into the semifinals which are easy to grasp.

Ohio State, which faces Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona on Saturday night, is the one program which lives in between different worlds. The Buckeyes have climbed the mountaintop in the College Football Playoff era, but they have also been kicked in the teeth, reminded of their mortality.

Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff in 2014. The Buckeyes went through big, bad Alabama to do so. They defeated the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, a semifinal game, before beating Oregon and Marcus Mariota in the championship game. In three short seasons, Urban Meyer had taken hold of the Ohio State job and turned the Buckeyes into the No. 1 team in the land. People wondered if we were going to see Meyer and Nick Saban meet in many more semifinal or national championship games.

It never happened. While Alabama won the next national championship in the 2015 season and then 2017, Clemson became the program which joined Bama on the mountaintop, winning the national title in 2016 and 2018, both times over the Tide in the championship game. Ohio State is reasonably viewed as the third-best present-day college football program in the United States behind Clemson and Alabama. 

Moreover, purely in terms of playoff appearances, the Buckeyes (with three playoff berths) are behind Oklahoma (which has four).

Ohio State was king for a year in 2014, but the Buckeyes – as prosperous as they have been – have not matched the standard of Clemson or Alabama. They were weak enough that even when they won the Big Ten Conference championship in 2017 and 2018, they didn’t have a resume good enough to make the playoff. They won it all in 2014, but when they returned to the playoff two years later to face Clemson in a Fiesta Bowl semifinal, they were crushed, 31-0.

Does Ohio State, in 2019, have the talent to play with Clemson? Of course it does. The Buckeyes have Chase Young’s dynamic pass rush and J.K. Dobbins’ dynamic running, plus Justin Fields’ elite talent at quarterback and a host of other riches. If Ohio State wins, it’s not as though the Buckeyes would be the “little engine that could,” a scrappy underdog which willed itself to do the improbable.

Nevertheless, Ohio State bears the burden of proof in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl – partly because of the recent past, but also because Clemson has so fully earned the trust of college football observers. Clemson has lost only one bowl game over the past seven seasons. The Tigers lost the 2018 Sugar Bowl to Alabama, but in their other three playoff semifinal appearances, coach Dabo Swinney’s teams have scored three victories by an average of 26 points.

Clemson and Alabama met in the College Football Playoff – either the semifinal round or the championship game – in each of the past four seasons, splitting four national titles two and two. If one school lost, it was only because the other one stood in the way. Alabama beat Clemson in the 2015 and 2017 playoffs, Clemson getting revenge in the 2016 and 2018 playoffs.

Ohio State has been more a spectator than a participant in the last four national championship competitions. It’s an objective fact that Ohio State has not scored a point in any playoff game since the January 2015 national championship game victory over Oregon. The Buckeyes have won prestigious bowl games in the past four years since their national title: the Fiesta, the Cotton, and last season, the Rose Bowl. Yet, Clemson and Alabama have undeniably set a higher standard.

Ohio State is the college football program which exists in the top tier of the sport and has known what it tastes like to beat Alabama in a College Football Playoff game… but it has also failed to be as consistent as Oklahoma ever since it won its most recent national title.

The Buckeyes have the talent and the resources, but it has been a long time (five years is a long time, relative to Clemson and Alabama) since Ohio State has proved itself at the highest level of competition. Ohio State has made mincemeat of archrival Michigan and has remained the definitive Big Ten powerhouse of college football. The Buckeyes live in a world of great riches… but when they have tried to measure themselves against Clemson or Alabama the past four years, their wealth has been pocket change compared to the thousand-dollar bills sticking out of the fat wallets of Dabo and Saban, the two preeminent coaches in the sport.

Is new Ohio State coach Ryan Day ready to lead a successful uprising? Is Fields, a transfer from Georgia, ready to give the Big Ten its biggest bowl moment since Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama roughly five years ago?

Three of the four College Football Playoff teams are easy to identify and understand. Ohio State is the mystery. 

The Buckeyes will try to solve Clemson on Saturday in Arizona, and change the way they are viewed in the larger workings of college football.

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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