The last stop for Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich before he came to Eugene wasn't a particularly impressive one. Helfrich struggled to move the ball with an under-talented, inexperienced Colorado. But Chip Kelly, knowing he could outfit Helfrich with plenty of tools, saw enough to sign him up.
It was almost the same story with Urban Meyer and Tom Herman. A graduate of Cal Lutheran who got his master's at Texas while serving as a Mack Brown graduate assistant, Herman spent a few years as Sam Houston State's receivers coach, then got hired as Texas State's offensive coordinator by his 30th birthday. After two years there, he spent two more at Rice, where he crafted an offense that ranked 13th in Off. F/+ in 2008.
Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads snatched him up in 2009, but Herman got Helfrich'd. He was given error-prone quarterbacks and minimal skill talent, and his three Cyclone offenses ranked 49th, 87th, and 92nd in Off. F/+. Those numbers don't scream up-and-comer, let alone savior for an Ohio State offense that had itself cratered in 2011.
But while Meyer is an elite recruiter of high school talent, one who doesn't need to mine for two-star diamonds, he is a world-class identifier of coaching talent.
His first Bowling Green staff featured a Notre Dame graduate assistant named Dan Mullen (the head coach at Mississippi State), former Brown offensive line coach John Hevesy (Mullen's offensive co-coordinator), former Arkansas State offensive line coach Greg Studrawa (who became LSU's offensive coordinator for two years), former Villanova running backs coach Stan Drayton (on Meyer's Ohio State staff), Gregg Brandon (who would succeed Meyer at BGSU), Tim Beckman (who went on to spend three years as Toledo's head coach and is heading toward a fourth year at Illinois), and Tim Banks (currently Beckman's defensive coordinator).
When Meyer moved to Utah, he retained stud defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham (who eventually succeeded him) and lured Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Sanford (who would go on to become UNLV's head coach), then hired eventual Wisconsin and Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen.
At Florida, his staff at one point featured Mullen, Texas head coach Charlie Strong, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday, Boston College head coach Steve Addazio, and North Texas head coach Dan McCarney.
Some of those hires were obvious successes. Others were leaps of intuition.
Thriving with youth
Nick Saban might be college football's best recruiter and micro-manager. Meyer might be college football's best hirer. And Herman might have been his most inspired hire.
Meyer, Herman, and former Mark Mangino and Brian Kelly assistant Ed Warinner have combined to create one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in the country. At least, they have with help from elite recruiting, both from this staff and the previous one. Blue-chipper Braxton Miller passed for at least 2,000 yards and rushed for at least 1,000 in both 2012 and 2013. And when he was hurt in 2013, backup Kenny Guiton (a three-star senior) looked equally strong.
The other side
The other side
When Miller got hurt in the 2014 preseason, four-star redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett exploded; he was on pace for 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing before an injury late in the Michigan game. His replacement, four-star sophomore Cardale Jones, led the Buckeyes to 101 points and nearly 1,100 yards against Wisconsin (No. 18 in Def. F/+) and Alabama (No. 2).
Recruiting, coaching, and scheme have put Ohio State's offense ahead of schedule. The Buckeyes have not only reached the national title despite featuring an all-underclassman backfield, using freshmen and sophomores as three of the top five receiving targets, and starting only one senior offensive lineman. They've gotten here because of it.
Oregon's defense, like Ohio State's, brings its own set of strengths. The Ducks are ninth in Def. F/+ thanks to a bend-don't-break unit that forces passing downs, swarms the ball, prevents big plays, and stiffens in short-yardage situations. Even without star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks frustrated Florida State's Jameis Winston, picking off a pass, sacking him twice, and limiting him to a decent seven yards per attempt. They killed FSU in short-yardage and held the Seminoles to 6-for-16 on third downs. This isn't a pushover unit.
Still, these offenses are the stars. In the national final, we could have the best kind of shootout on our hands -- one in which the point totals rise as the defenses make plays of their own.
Can you pull off bend-don't-break against the Buckeyes?
|Ohio St. Offense||Oregon Defense||Advantage|
|Rushing percentage||61.3% (49th)||53.9% (109th)|
|S&P+ (overall quality)||140.4 (1st)||113.5 (27th)||Buckeyes|
|Success Rate (efficiency)||53.5% (11th)||45.7% (57th)||Buckeyes|
|IsoPPP (explosiveness)||0.87 (21st)||0.68 (26th)||push|
|Rushing Success Rate||56.1% (6th)||42.9% (32nd)||Buckeyes|
|Rushing IsoPPP||0.71 (43rd)||0.57 (21st)||Ducks|
|Passing Success Rate||49.4% (38th)||48.9% (94th)||Buckeyes big|
|Passing IsoPPP||1.14 (13th)||0.78 (23rd)||Buckeyes|
Alabama was done in by big plays. The Tide dominated the Sugar Bowl field position battle, with an average starting field position 14.6 yards better (32.8) than Ohio State's (18.2). But the Buckeyes flipped the field with eight gains of 20-plus yards. Run or pass, there were big plays, even before Ezekiel Elliott's game-icing 85-yard touchdown.
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Oregon's defense gives you ways to move the football, but if you're relying on big plays, that might be a problem. Opponents have figured out that while Oregon's run front is pretty tough, the Ducks will give you short passes all day. At least, unless you're Florida State. Oregon attempted to account for FSU's strength (passing) and got gouged by the Seminoles' run game.
Attempting to account for Ohio State's strength means doing whatever you can to limit the Buckeyes' absurdly good run game. But the Buckeyes are so devastating because they only lean so much on the run. Like Oregon, the Buckeyes are more than happy to take free yards through the air.
With Jones behind center, Ohio State's approach hasn't changed much. With Barrett, the Buckeyes rushed 62 percent of the time on standard downs; in two games with Jones, it's 59 percent. Jones has a big frame and a bigger arm, and while Barrett averaged 13 yards per completion, Jones has averaged 15.5 against two stout defenses. Jones is not only an unscouted surprise, he's also proved talented and, perhaps as important, unflappable.
Ohio State has another Oregon similarity: the Buckeyes spread the ball around. Sophomore Michael Thomas is the most frequent target on standard downs; he has caught 32 of 45 passes for 468 yards and five scores on such downs this year. But eight other players have been targeted at least 15 times, from seniors Devin Smith and Evan Spencer, to youngsters Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, to tight ends Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman, to running back Elliott.
When you've got such a large base of talent, and you've got quarterbacks that are more mature than their experience should allow, you can take whatever the defense gives you. And a defense always gives you something.
|Ohio St. Offense||Oregon Defense||Advantage|
|Rushing percentage||43.0% (14th)||22.4 (123rd)|
|S&P+ (overall quality)||180.1 (1st)||105.0 (54th)||Buckeyes big|
|Success Rate (efficiency)||43.5% (1st)||34.7% (109th)||Buckeyes biiiiiig|
|IsoPPP (explosiveness)||1.29 (17th)||0.93 (6th)||Ducks|
|Rushing Success Rate||42.7% (2nd)||40.8% (126th)||Buckeyes biiiiiig|
|Rushing IsoPPP||0.98 (93rd)||0.93 (23rd)||Ducks big|
|Passing Success Rate||44.1% (2nd)||32.9% (79th)||Buckeyes big|
|Passing IsoPPP||1.51 (4th)||0.93 (13th)||push|
Oregon's passing-downs pass rush isn't bad. The Ducks bring down the quarterback 9.4 percent of the time, 28th in the country. Christian French and three other Ducks have at least four sacks, and we saw Oregon get creative when it came to interfering with Jameis Winston's pocket comfort.
The problem is that, if the Ducks aren't logging a sack, they're probably giving up a chunk of yards. Look at those success rates above: they are 109th in passing-downs success rate, 79th against the pass and an incredible 126th against the run. They prevent gashes on second- or third-and-long, but they're willing to give you the six yards you need on third-and-6 or the seven yards you need on second-and-10.
Oregon's defense is one of the best in the country in short-yardage situations. The Ducks rank fourth in Power Success Rate, allowing run conversions on third- or fourth-and-short just 51 percent of the time. Their ability to stuff FSU close to the goal line assured them a halftime lead in the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State isn't Florida State. The Buckeyes are better than the 'Noles in short-yardage situations. And despite shuffling at quarterback, they're better on passing downs.
Meyer's and Herman's offense treats second-and-long as a nice running down. (That's another similarity to Oregon.) They know they are devastating on third-and-manageable, and they execute as such. But when they do throw on passing downs, they still have the second-best success rate in the country, just 0.3 percent behind Auburn.
When your running game is this good, it serves as a hearty distraction even in obvious passing situations. Ends and linebackers might not come at your quarterback with the same ferocity if they know they might accidentally let a runner go right by with the ball. And while Braxton Miller had the tendency to hold onto the ball and take lots of sacks, that issue has not afflicted Barrett and Jones. Hell, it almost hasn't affected Jones at all: he has taken one sack in 22 passing-downs throws.
Again, the distribution is devastating. Thomas again leads the way, catching 18 of 25 passing-downs passes for 278 yards. But six others have been targeted at least 10 times, from Elliott (13-for-15, 107 yards) to Heuerman (7-for-10, 77 yards), and with defenses so stretched out, options like Marshall (13-for-16, 213 yards) and Smith (11-for-15, 341 yards) become deadly.
If Oregon can prevent big plays like it has most of the year, then maybe the Ducks can get away with their bend-don't-break routine and turn this into a battle of finishing drives. Not only do they have one of the best drive-finishing offenses in the country (5.3 points per opportunity, second in FBS), they have one of the better drive-finishing defenses (3.6 points per opportunity, 13th). If they and their opponent have the same number of opportunities (i.e. drives with a first down inside the 40), they come out 1.7 points ahead each trip.
But a bend-don't-break routine is a terrifying thought against an offense as good as Ohio State's. A "have one of the best defenses in the country" approach didn't do great things for Alabama, did it?
Three key Ohio State stats to watch
1. Points per scoring opportunity. Oregon's strength is forcing field goals or turnovers as opponents near the end zone. If Ohio State is finishing drives with touchdowns, the Ducks' offense will face severe pressure to keep up.
2. Rushing success rate. This is an obvious key for both. But Oregon did just allow a 62.5 percent rushing success rate to Florida State, and the Ducks hemorrhage rushing yards on passing downs. Oregon should run the ball well, but it will be hard to keep Ohio State from doing even better.
3. Count the 20-yard gains. Oregon's chances of stopping Ohio State come down to preventing big plays and eventually forcing errors. The Buckeyes don't make many errors, but if they're breaking off big gains like they did against Alabama, they're hitting 40 points by the end of the third quarter.