Date: Saturday, September 9th
Time & TV: 6:30PM CT on ABC
Location: Columbus, Ohio
For the Oklahoma Sooners, this is a game that they have had circled on their calendar ever since that gloomy night in Norman last September when the Sooners fell to the Buckeyes, 45-24. Although Ohio State only ended up winning the game by 21 points, the game wasn't even that close. They dominated the Sooners in the trenches and dominated the OU secondary. This domination by the Buckeye defense led to Baker Mayfield throwing two interceptions while under constant pressure. In addition to exposing the Oklahoma offensive line following Cody Ford’s injury, the Oklahoma-Ohio State matchup last year highlighted the glaring issues the Sooners had in their run and pass defense. Fortunately, the defense improved later on in the season but by then the Sooners were effectively out of the CFP race.
The matchup this Saturday has major College Football Playoff implications and gives the Sooners a chance to show that they are still a major power in College Football. If Oklahoma wins, they will likely roll through their Big 12 schedule and could even afford to drop a game or maybe even two in Big 12 play. If they lose this game, they will likely have much less margin for error and may not be able to take a loss in Big 12 play and still make the CFP.
If Ohio State wins, it will give them some margin for error in Big Ten play and they may not even have to win their conference to make the playoff once again. If they get upset by the Sooners and somehow lose this game, they will likely have to win the Big Ten outright to make the playoff.
Here are some of the key matchups to watch that will likely decide the game on Saturday:
Oklahoma offensive line vs. Ohio State defensive line
Over the last two seasons, Oklahoma has compiled an impressive 22-4 record. The common narrative for Oklahoma Football over this time period has been that when Oklahoma wins the battle in the trenches, they win the game. In their four losses, Oklahoma was pushed around by more physical teams like Clemson and Ohio State, and to a lesser extent, Houston and Texas. To beat Ohio State on Saturday, the Sooners will have to hold their own against a powerful Ohio State defensive line.
The Buckeyes’ defensive line is well-stocked with NFL prospects like Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, Tyquan Lewis, Tracy Sprinkle and several other talented lineman. Some of these guys are future day-one draft picks, and this group has been hailed by national pundits as one of the best — if not the best — defensive front’s in the country.
This means that the Oklahoma offensive line of Orlando Brown, Ben Powers, Erik Wren Dru Samia and Bobby Evans Jr. will have their hands full on Saturday. Since the Oklahoma offensive line is also regarded as one of the best in the country, this will be a true strength vs. strength matchup.
Despite a big, powerful, and much-improved Oklahoma offensive line from a year ago, I am going to give the slight advantage to the Buckeyes here. They go 8-10 guys deep and really do a great job pressuring opposing quarterbacks and stuffing the run game. This doesn’t, however, mean that OU’s offensive line won’t have some degree of success on Saturday.
Advantage: Ohio State
Baker Mayfield & Co. vs. Ohio State secondary
After losing Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, and Gareon Conley to the NFL draft, the Buckeyes went into the 2017 season with serious question marks in their secondary. These questions were largely left unanswered in the first half of their season opener against Indiana, as Corners Denzel Ward, Damon Webb, Kendall Sheffield, and Damon Arnette struggled in coverage against the Hoosiers. Following a rocky first half, the Ohio State secondary buckled down and slowed down the Indiana offense late in the game to clinch the victory.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the Oklahoma offense is a whole different animal. Even if Baker Mayfield is flushed out of the pocket by the fierce Buckeye defensive line, he may be able to find targets like Jeff Badet and Mark Andrews down the field. The Ohio State secondary may be filled with former blue chip recruits, but it doesn't look like they have three first-round picks like they had last year. I expect Mayfield to carve up the young Ohio State secondary even though he may be on the run for much of the game.
Ohio State ground game vs. Oklahoma front seven
In his press conference this week, Urban Meyer made sure to note that even though experienced running back Mike Weber is available to play against the Sooners on Saturday, freshman J.K. Dobbins will get the start. Dobbins is the sort of player that the Sooners probably would have signed in the early 2000’s but have failed to get in recent recruiting cycles with the emergence of programs like Ohio State and Alabama as national recruiting powerhouses. Dobbins was a highly-touted prospect out of La Grange, Texas who was ranked by Rivals as the No. 2 all-purpose back in the 2017 class.
Dobbins showcased this talent in Week 1 and ran for 181 yards against Indiana. According to Meyer, the running ability of Dobbins will be complemented by Mike Weber, and they will both get reps during the Oklahoma game on Saturday. This is on top of the ability of star QB JT Barrett to take off and run with the ball when he needs to.
The potential problems with the Sooner front seven start at the defensive line, where defensive tackles like Neville Gallimore and Matt Romar sometimes had trouble pressuring the QB and even more trouble getting into the backfield to stall runners at the line of scrimmage against UTEP. This problem is compounded by the fact that the inside linebackers (Emmanuel Beal and Kenneth Murray) are still getting used to the new scheme and getting a feel for which gaps they are responsible for. Since Murray is a true freshman, he is sure to make a few mistakes with his positioning but you would expect senior linebacker Emmanuel Beal to know better. If these problems at the linebacker position are not improved and the defensive line continues to struggle, it could be a long day for the front seven. They may find themselves losing the time of possession battle and getting gashed on the ground like they did last year in Columbus. However, if they can truly figure things out and be assignment-sound, OU’s defense could potentially have a ton of success.
Advantage: Ohio State
Although OU is possibly being behind in two of the three key battles mentioned, they could thrive in other areas. Oklahoma’s secondary, which was an area of weakness in last year’s game, could actually be a real strength for OU this time around. And if oU can commit to the run game and pound the rock (even if they don’t find early success doing so), Ohio State could be in for a long night. Despite struggling early on, I think the Sooners somehow find a way to pull this game out. Their front seven will likely struggle to stop the run at times, but I think the Sooners are able to force a couple turnovers in this game to turn the tide in their favor. Mayfield will take a lot of hits, but he will hang tough and will likely have a “Heisman moment” at some point in the game. I originally picked Ohio State to beat Oklahoma in our preseason predictions, but I’m becoming more and more confident as time goes on.
Oklahoma 31, Ohio State 28
Speaking of close games between the Sooners and the Buckeyes, here is a clip from 1977, the last time the Sooners played the Buckeyes in Columbus. Keep in mind that this was back when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and Bob Stoops was playing safety for Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio.