by Doc's Sports - 1/8/2015
There is no shortage of hype surrounding the Oregon Ducks heading into the National Championship Game. Quarterbacked by the Heisman winner, they absolutely crushed the most hated elite team in the country with an explosive offense and a pretty solid defense. Ohio State was great in their game as well, but the Ducks did enough to make them the solid favorites heading into this game. So now handicappers have to determine whether they are deserving of the attention. Is this team good enough to win and cover the spread? Can we trust them with our money? Here are five big factors to consider when trying answering those questions:
Is Oregon really a big-game team now?: I find Kirk Herbstreit annoying at the best of times. I was particularly annoyed, though, in the aftermath of his call of Oregon’s semifinal decimation of the Seminoles. He took it upon himself to lecture the world, telling us all it was time to give up the ridiculous belief that Oregon wasn’t a big-game team. His proof, of course, is that they had just won a big game. Never mind that they had unquestionably struggled in the past and that one game — or even two if you want to count the Pac-12 Championship Game — does not make a trend. It was a smug, childish argument, but it does raise an issue. This team has been far harder to trust in the biggest of games than they should be. Is that still the case, or is this a mentally-tougher team now than they have been? Can we trust them — especially when they are up against a coach who has won two National Championships and isn’t bothered by anything?
Will Mariota own this game, too?: Marcus Mariota is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, so needless to say he has had a very good year. He was, aside from a mostly meaningless interception, a machine against Florida State. He was every bit as good the three games before that, too. He is a great quarterback in top form, and if he is able to perform at his peak then he is unquestionably good enough to lead his team to a title on his shoulders. So, can Ohio State disrupt him and knock him off his perch? The defensive line for the Buckeyes is more than a little impressive as pass rushers, and the coaching staff is effective and creative. Can Ohio State out-scheme Mariota, or will the star shine bright yet again?
Will the injuries catch up to them?: Oregon isn’t facing a massive number of injuries, but they are certainly burdened by two very significant ones. The most significant is All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who will be missing his second game after injuring his knee. The Ducks are already not great against the pass, and Ekpre-Olomu was a rock that teams would not throw towards unless they absolutely had to. Without him they are definitely vulnerable — and Cardale Jones does not lack for an arm. The other big injury is Devon Allen, the receiver who hurt his knee on the opening kickoff against Florida State and is expected to miss this game. He isn’t a receiver with massive yardage to his credit, but he is explosive and has a nose for the endzone. Oregon is not short on offensive depth, but Allen will still be missed. Will these two absences have a big impact, or will the Ducks be able to overcome them and move on like they did against Florida State?
Can Royce Freeman shine?: Freshmen are not supposed to look or play like Oregon’s running back can. He’s an absolute bowling ball — a massive one. Thomas Tyner had the bigger day in the Rose Bowl, though Freeman did score twice. Against Ohio State and their very strong defensive line, though, the huge and strong Freeman could be a perfect match — the kind of player who can stand up to them physically and gain some real ground. Freeman has a chance to be a difference-maker in this game, and beyond only Mariota he has the biggest chance of breaking this game open for the Oregon offense.
Can they win the turnover battle?: When Oregon wins they typically do so in part by winning the turnover battle. In fact, no team in the country can match or beat their +20 turnover ratio on the season. Against a raw quarterback like Cardale Jones there is a decent chance that the Ducks can keep their success on this front rolling. There is one interesting factor here, though — the Buckeyes have scored six defensive touchdowns on the year, which is second best in the country. In other words, Ohio State can create some opportunities as well, and they make the most of them when they do. Does Oregon have the same turnover advantage here that they are used to, or is an edge minimized by the Buckeyes in this one?