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RBR previews the Ohio State offense

Something old, something new: Urban Meyer remains consistent in that he always evolves.

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State should not be here right now.

This sentence is not the lead to some kind of rant about the shortcomings of the College Football Playoff Committee, nor an attempt to bury the B1G in advance of Alabama's first-round playoff game on Jan. 1 vs. the Buckeyes. Those types of arguments are basically made at this point, and meaningless at that.

No, Ohio State should not be here, because we as the college football commentariat have been attempting to declare the Buckeyes dead since before the season started.

Their season was over when Braxton Miller's arm came loose from his body.

Their season was over when Virginia Tech embarrassed them at Ohio Stadium in Week 2.

Their season was certainly over when J.T. Barrett suffered a gruesome injury vs. Michigan.

And yet here they stand. We can argue whether their current standing is warranted - certainly, they have been the beneficiary of both the national college football press (which began advancing the narrative that "Ohio State's playing better than anybody in the country!" around the time of their win over Michigan State), as well as a conference schedule that simply wasn't equipped to challenge them in any meaningful way. But they are here - in fact, S&P+ ranks them second, my snark be damned - and like Alabama, two wins away from a national championship.

Anyway, here's their offense.


While preparing for this piece, it occurred to me that, since I haven't watched much of Ohio State in 2014, I really had no idea what to say about their offense. Partially that's because B1G football is mostly unwatchable, but it's also due to the nature of Urban Meyer's spread attack - specifically, it is almost constantly evolving. The Urban Meyer offense at Utah looked different from the offense he installed at Florida for Chris Leak, which looked different from the offense he installed in the halcyon days with Tim Tebow, which was hardly the same as the offense that John Brantley operated during his final season in Gainesville. No doubt many of the principles remain, but to the untrained eye, the offense is a fluid, evolving mechanism.

So this is the dumbest, most obvious statement in the history of sports analysis, but the fact is, Meyer's strength as an offensive mind is simply locating the best playmakers in his offense and finding ways to feed them the football. If we want to be broad and general, the "spread option" is really predicated on putting athletes in one-on-one matchups, with an opportunity to break a tackle and make a big play.

This, of course, is what makes the matchup with Nick Saban's defense a fascinating one for football nerds: Saban's defense are consistently solid with their assignments and rarely miss tackles. Each of the matchups between Saban's Alabama and Meyer's Florida in Atlanta were a supreme battle of wills: Florida kept probing Alabama for a soft spot, and Bama simply wouldn't yield one.

Whatever we think about scheme, Meyer, et al, earned their labels as offensive masterminds in 2014: In the face of what should have been crippling injuries, the Buckeyes currently rank 8th in the country in total offense, with over 500 yards per game and over 7 yards per play. Their most impressive performance - and likely the reason they checked into a hotel in New Orleans last week - was vs. Wisconsin in the B1G Championship Game, in which they racked up 558 total yards, on a mind boggling 10 yards per play, in a 59-0 victory.


One of the reasons it can be difficult to pin down Urban Meyer's "offensive philosophy" is that it is dependent on the strengths of his signal caller. With Miller and Barrett behind center, the quarterback was among the leading rushers on the offense - Miller rushed for 1,200 yards in 2013, and Barrett was over 1,100 at the time of his injury. Both of them are relatively slight - in the 6-1 6-2 range, weighing 215-220 pounds.

The man who will take the field Thursday will be anything but slight. Sophomore Cardale Jones - he of the famous "ain't come to play school" tweet in 2012 - is a 6-5, 250-pound behemoth of an individual, and while he did carry the football 8 times for 35 yards vs. the Badgers - 20 of those yards came on one carry, and I don't have access to the game film so I have no idea how many of those "rushing attempts" came on called pass plays - his most potent weapon is his arm. Against the Badgers, Jones completed a mere 12-of-17 passes, for an incredible 257 yards (21 yards per completion!) and three touchdowns. For someone whose most meaningful snap to that point was one in which he obliterated an Illinois defender returning a fumble in the late stages of a blowout - particularly knowing that it was necessary to just to win but to influence the national conversation - that's historic by every measure.

Skill players

One constant for any iteration of the Urban Meyer offense: The rushing game will be solid. The 2014 version is every bit of that; as a team the Bucks average 260 yards per game, with 5.8 yards per rush on nearly 600 attempts. The bellcow of that is sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, averaging 6.5 yards per carry through 13 games, good enough for nearly 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. Like the rest of the OSU offense, Elliott feasted on Wisconsin in the conference title game - a mere 220 net yards on 20 carries, with 2 TDs.

Elliott is also among the leading pass catchers for the OSU offense (again, not surprising given what we think of in the "classic" Urban Meyer spread game), with 26 catches for the season (averaging 8 yards per catch). As noted in the Q&A, the Buckeyes are likely to put pressure on Alabama's linebackers with Elliott, tight end Jeff Heuerman (12.2 yards per reception) and H-back Jalin Marshall (14 yards per catch). Leading receivers Michael Thomas and Devin Smith are dangerous in open space, and the Buckeyes will attempt to put pressure on Alabama to tackle in the open field with all of them.

Now ... all of this is fruitful discussion, and meaningful in attempting to form an opinion of how we expect Alabama's defense to fare on such a big stage. If previous trips to New Orleans have taught us nothing else, however, we should know by now that these games are always a difficult read, mostly due to the long layoff between games. In a video game simulation? Sure, Alabama probably wins 7 out of 10 times (full disclosure: I don't know how video game simulation algorithms work). But these are 20-year-olds; sometimes they stay out too late; sometimes they're not interested; sometimes ... well, there are lots of sometimes.

So we'll end this one, more or less, in the same way we've ended every offensive opponent preview in 2014: If Alabama plays to its potential - if we do what we do - then every measurable statistic available suggests the Tide should be able to limit Ohio State's offense enough to advance to the College Football National Championship Game.

Let us hope for the best in 2015, then.