5 reasons Ohio State, not Clemson, is SEC's biggest Playoff threat
Clemson has been the bane of the SEC’s existence for the past few years. The Tigers have beaten Texas A&M in back-to-back years. They have beaten Georgia in some major recruiting battles – Bulldogs fans don’t need to be reminded that Clemson quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson attended high school in The Peach State.
Anything else? … Oh yeah, Clemson has met Alabama in the College Football Playoff four straight years and denied the Crimson Tide the national title twice, including last season’s CFP final when the Tigers handed Nick Saban his worst loss as Bama coach.
So Clemson, undefeated again this season, must be the biggest threat to the SEC’s national title hopes again this year, right?
Nope. Not this year.
Ohio State has every bit of talent that Clemson, Alabama and top-ranked LSU do. The third-ranked Buckeyes have won every game this season by at least 24 points. And they look like a team possessing one thing Alabama and Clemson, at least, have not demonstrated as often in 2019.
A never-ending hunger.
That’s one of 5 reasons Ohio State, not Clemson, is the SEC’s biggest Playoff threat.
That left-out feeling
The past two years, the Big Ten champion was left out of the CFP. Both times, it was Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have gone 12-1 each of the past two seasons but the CFP turned elsewhere. It’s understandable – both seasons, OSU was blown out by an unranked opponent for the lone loss – but for Buckeyes players who have been around for both disappointments, it has to be pretty infuriating. And for those questioning OSU’s schedule, computer whiz Jeff Sagarin’s program as having the 16th-best schedule in the nation. LSU is 27th, Clemson 54th and Alabama 61st.
Chase Young’s never-ending motor
The junior defensive end showed flashes of his enormous potential last season. This season Athlon’s magazine named him a first-team All-American. As high as those expectations were, he has surpassed them all.
At 6-6, 265 pounds, Young is built like a prototypical major college defensive end (or one in the NFL, where he will surely be playing this time next year). But Young matches his physical prowess with a no-quit attitude and the ability to have his best games when OSU needs them most. The best example was last week against then-No. 13 Wisconsin. Young had four sacks and five tackles for loss against the Badgers, both tying school records, and forced two fumbles in a 38-7 OSU win.
Little wonder Young is pegged No. 3 overall in the latest Bleacher Report 2020 NFL mock draft.
OSU’s front seven, apart from Young, is pretty good but not often regarded as great. Linebacker Malik Harrison is a strong playmaker and the team’s co-leader with 41 tackles; he is underrated in Young’s shadow.
The secondary, on the other hand, is superb.
Safety Jordan Fuller, the team’s other co-leader in tackles, is a stalwart in the OSU secondary. (Amazingly, Harrison and Fuller also tied for the team lead in tackles in 2018). Cornerback Damon Arnette is a steady, speedy presence. Corner Jeff Okudah is another defensive player that has lived up to his preseason billing, leading the Buckeyes with three interceptions.
And you know that mock draft that has Chase Young going No. 3 overall? It has Okudah going No. 4 (again, assuming the junior declares for the NFL).
Quickly jelling offense
Running back J.K. Dobbins is the first Buckeye ever to rush for 1,000 yards as a freshman, sophomore and junior – quite a feat considering the long line of Heisman Trophy-winning Ohio State running backs. The offensive line was perhaps OSU’s biggest question going into the season but it has come together extremely well behind left tackle Thayer Munford, the unit’s lone returning starter from 2018, and ESPN midseason All-American guard Wyatt Davis.
But really, all eyes are on Justin Fields.
Remember him, Dawgs fans?
OSU’s sophomore quarterback and Georgia transfer has completed 68.8% of his passes for 1,658 yards and has rushed for 319 yards. Fields has also brought some intangible assets such as his ability to escape pass rushers and extend plays.
Most of all, he has been darn near mistake-free: He has 24 TD passes and just one interception, a stat which belies his relative lack of experience in his first season as a college starter.
Ryan Day’s steady hand
This time last year, even though the Buckeyes started 7-0, the chaos surrounding them was bound to catch up. The atmosphere around Columbus was poisonous ever since preseason, when OSU fired receivers coach Zach Smith and the university suspended head coach Urban Meyer three games in the wake of allegations that he knew of domestic violence allegations against Smith. Meyer looked strained all season and, though the two things are unrelated, the defense fell apart frequently.
Finally, it all blew up in an ugly loss to Purdue.
Ryan Day, who went 3-0 as interim coach to start the 2018 season, was named permanent head coach after Meyer’s retirement and shook up the staff in all the right places. More important, there has been no evident drama surrounding the program in 2019 and the film indicates that Buckeyes players all have bought in. It’s obvious in the way that all 10 defenders hustle and block when a teammate forces a turnover, or in the way receivers never give up on a play when it looks like Fields is about to be buried by the defense.
None of these ingredients guarantees that Ohio State will run the table and make the CFP — challenges against Penn State and Michigan loom even before any thought of a Big Ten title game appearance. But these ingredients combine to make the Buckeyes the biggest threat to the SEC if they get there.