It is the final day of the 2014 college football season.
Hmm. That was more depressing than I intended. Let's try this: Monday night comes the climax of the 2014 college football season. The peak. The uttermost moment. The defining hour. Before withdrawal sets in, we get one final, delicious matchup. Monday night's championship game, the first of the Playoff era, pits two fun teams (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN in Arlington, Texas).
Here are some final thoughts on the final showdown.
1. Carrington is a big loss.
More than almost any offense, Oregon takes whatever part of the field you give it. The Ducks will go between the tackles if you're spread out too far. They will hit you with the option on the corner if you're soft there. They'll throw sideline to sideline if you aren't mindful of numbers advantages. And thanks to depth at the skill positions and Marcus Mariota's accurate arm, they'll go downfield a lot, too.
They are simultaneously patient and aggressive.
Oregon's skill position depth has been tested, and to date, the Ducks have passed. No. 1 receiver Bralon Addison got hurt in the spring, tight end Pharaoh Brown got hurt as he was emerging as a go-to weapon, and speedster Devon Allen was lost on the first play of the Rose Bowl. None of this mattered because the Ducks still had Byron Marshall and Dwayne Stanford to stretch Florida State horizontally, and they still had Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson to poke holes downfield.
Now they only have Nelson; Carrington will miss the title game after failing an NCAA drug test.
As easy as it might be to say that Oregon's probably fine because Nelson, Marshall, and Stanford are still in uniform, not to mention Keanon Lowe, tight end Evan Baylis, etc., Carrington's absence could be huge. With opponents doing a better job of keying on the shorter passes to Marshall, Carrington had become Mariota's favorite weapon. He caught four passes for 99 yards against Colorado and Oregon State, then caught seven for 126 against Arizona in the Pac-12 title game, then caught seven for 165 against FSU. Nelson himself had 16 catches for 262 yards in the last four games, emerging as a co-No. 1. These two gave Mariota almost impossible balance -- on any given play, he had two quality horizontal options and two quality vertical options.
Maybe the remaining receivers are still too much for Ohio State to handle, but that's a maybe. And in a game in which both offenses seem to hold the advantage, if Oregon's own advantages are cut by Carrington's absence, that could tip the scales in the Buckeyes' favor.
There will be points
How does Ohio State stop Oregon?
Oregon is relentless, flexible, and unforgiving. Can Ohio State slow down the run enough to force mistakes in the passing game?
There will be points
2. Surge, not tempo.
As much as we heard about Oregon's high tempo during the Rose Bowl (and during every Oregon telecast, for that matter), there's a point in the lovely Land-Grant Holy Land game preview that I wanted to emphasize. It's the surge, not the tempo, that kills you.
Since 2010, 53 of the 60 victories by Oregon have been by 14 points or more. When the Ducks get ahead on their opponents they don't let off the gas. The scary thing is they are playing better against ranked teams this year. Against top-25 teams the Ducks are averaging a 26.5 point margin of victory, while against unranked teams they are winning by 24.1 points. When Oregon wins, they win big and they don't care who they are playing. With the few mistakes they make offensively it is important for their opponents to get up early if they want a shot at winning, and more often than not it doesn't happen.
Look no further than the Rose Bowl to look at how Oregon can put away teams. Florida State was hanging around and scored a touchdown with just over eight minutes to go in the third quarter to close the gap to 25-20. The Ducks answered with a 56-yard touchdown less than a minute and a half later, forced a Florida State fumble, and then scored another touchdown two plays later. Oregon ended the game with 34 unanswered points to move on to the national championship game.
You can slow Oregon down, and you can beat Oregon. But it requires 60 minutes of discipline. Nobody's better at turning cuts into gashes. The Ducks ramp up the pressure, going deep on offense and ratcheting up the defensive pressure, when they have an opponent on the ropes.
And the touchdown-turnover-touchdown combination has taken down so many teams through the years. You think you're doing pretty well, and in two minutes, a seven-point deficit has become a 21-point deficit.
Ohio State is probably as well-suited to handling the surges as anybody in the country. For one thing, the Buckeyes are as good as anybody in the country. That tends to matter.
But for another, the Buckeyes' efficient running game might be the best neutralizer in college football. It's a lot easier to ramp up defensive pressure when you're able to force passing downs, and nobody avoids passing downs better than Ohio State.
Plus, despite losing quarterback J.T. Barrett to injury, the Buckeyes don't appear to be any more turnover-prone with Cardale Jones behind center. So far, they have been less giveaway-inclined. After turning the ball over eight times in Barrett's last four games, they have suffered just two in two games with Jones. That's a small sample, obviously, but Jones has been poised (almost to the point of aloofness) and smart with the ball thus far. We'll see if that continues.
3. No rust!
The long bowl break, combined with the adrenaline of the moment, have slopped up the opening minutes of a lot of huge college football games through the years. Look no further than last year's BCS Championship game for an example.
But while adrenaline should be through the roof, these teams played just 11 days ago, not 30. Call it a pleasant offshoot of a playoff: minimal rust.
4. I'm rooting for Oregon ...
As a bit of a sports socialist, as a fan of a school that isn't a blue-blood, I am all for occasionally seeing proof that college football's ruling class can add members.
Oregon has needed all sorts of good fortune to reach its second national title game in five years -- four straight good coaching hires (almost an impossible feat), the wealthiest of wealthy benefactors (Nike's Phil Knight) -- and the Ducks have a blue-blood level of resources and facilities. An Oregon win wouldn't in any way signify some coming age of parity in this oligarchical sport.
Still, it's been nearly 20 years since a team joined the "first national title" club. That's ridiculous. I want that streak to end.
5. ... but I'm leaning Ohio State.
The F/+ numbers have loved Ohio State since early October and are projecting a score like Ohio State 38.2, Oregon 37.5. These numbers miss on some teams, but they've had a bead on the Buckeyes for a while. So I was already favoring the Buckeyes before Carrington's suspension. Now I'm feeling slightly comfortable in that lean.
That said, this is going to be such a fascinating game. Even without Carrington, the matchups are close enough that slight advantages could have serious magnitude. If Oregon is giving up all sorts of yards between the 30s but is holding the Buckeyes to field goals and maybe a turnover on downs or two, that might be enough to derive an overall advantage. If Ohio State wins the field position battle, as is customary, settling for a few field goals might not matter. If Oregon is able to force the mistakes that Jones has thus far been able to avoid, maybe the Ducks hit one of those 1-2-3 combinations and build separation.
I can't wait for this one, and not only because it's the last college football game for almost eight months.