In front of media on Wednesday, No. 3 Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said, "This is going to be one of those prize fights."
Meyer's young Buckeyes will take on Bob Stoops' No. 14 Oklahoma Sooners in Norman on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, Fox), a battle between two of the most consistent winners in college football. The schools have combined for 55 top-five finishes (OU 30, OSU 25), and the two coaches have combined for 13 (Meyer seven, Stoops six).
After a season-opening loss to Houston, Stoops' chances of staying in the Playoff race depend on a win over Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a little bit more room.
The last time these two coaches faced, "prize fight" might have been an understatement. The 2008 BCS championship game pitted Meyer's and Stoops' best teams, with Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, and Brandon Spikes taking down Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy, and Oklahoma's monstrous offensive line. The game was decided by the simple art of finishing drives -- Florida scored 24 points in four scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent's 40), while OU scored 14 in five. Two huge Gator stops in the second quarter made the difference.
Saturday night's contest could be decided by small margins as well.
1. Can Ohio State run?
It’s hard to complain about Ohio State’s output so far. Against Bowling Green and Tulsa -- two mid-major bowl teams a year ago — the Buckeyes have averaged 63 points and 597 yards. New feature back Mike Weber and jack-of-all-trades Curtis Samuel are averaging 6.8 yards per carry, and quarterback J.T. Barrett’s passer rating is a cool 178.6.
We saw some glitches against Tulsa, though, especially early. Ohio State managed only a 28 percent success rate in the first quarter, while Weber ended up with an opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) of only 29 percent, about 10 percent below the national average. The Buckeyes got rolling in a 48-3 win — averaging 5.7 points per scoring opportunity didn’t hurt — but the delays could end up being a harbinger.
Oklahoma has thus far shut down run games.
Houston’s Duke Catalon and ULM’s Ben Luckett combined to rush 32 times for just 137 yards (4.3 per carry), and the Sooners rank third in rushing success rate allowed. Houston managed to convert enough big plays on passing downs to make up the difference in a 33-23 Cougar win — Greg Ward was 13 for 20 for 226 yards on such downs, and rangy junior Steven Dunbar caught seven of 11 balls for 125 overall. But the Sooners were good at pushing the Cougars behind schedule, and Barrett’s track record on passing downs is mixed (he completed just two of six on passing downs last week).
Meyer is aware of potential run issues. He told media, "Obviously, our offense is balanced, but we really start with the run game. It's going to be hard to run the ball against them. I know Houston had some success in the air against them, but had very little success running the ball." (Meyer knows quite a bit about Houston — he spoke with UH head coach and former Ohio State assistant Tom Herman about OU in detail.)
If this comes down to Barrett looking downfield on passing downs, Noah Brown could be one of the game’s key players. The 6’2 sophomore has been quiet this year (six targets, four catches, 62 yards), but his ability to stretch the Sooners down the sideline will come in handy if Meyer wants to replicate Houston’s formula.
Based on Ohio State’s recipe, though, expect a lot from Samuel.
Meyer’s goal is to use the H-back position as part-running back and part-slot receiver — he called it his "Cadillac position" this summer — and thus far Samuel has been spectacular: The junior has rushed 21 times for 162 yards and caught an incredible 14 of 14 passes for 239.
Oft-injured fellow H-back Dontre Wilson has eight carries for 66 yards and has caught 6 of 7 passes for 75.
Weber has passed early tests, but Samuel could be the key to both avoiding passing downs and thriving in them.
So, too, could OU’s defensive health. Lineman Charles Walker and linebacker Tay Evans were both hurt against ULM and have been limited in practice. We’ll see how big a role lineman Austin Roberts plays after serving a suspension against ULM.
Then again, less playing time for Walker and Roberts could mean more for freshman Neville Gallimore, who had a monstrous day vs. ULM: 5.5 tackles, three for loss, and this:
2. Will Oklahoma run?
In the first two games, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine have combined for 38 carries, 286 yards, and three touchdowns. They have gained at least five yards on 58 percent of their carries, and Mixon's explosiveness has translated in both the run game (9 yards per carry) and the pass (6 targets, 5 catches, 77 yards).
Perine left the Houston game early with a shoulder injury suffered on a massive hit. He returned later on, but the combination of his absence and a sudden Houston turnaround -- UH kicked two field goals to take a 19-17 lead late in the first half, then returned a missed field goal 109 yards in the third to go up nine points -- led to the Sooners abandoning the run. They rushed 50 percent of the time in the first half and 18 percent in the second.
If you filter out garbage time, Oklahoma is rushing only 51 percent of the time on standard downs (93rd in FBS) and 24 percent on passing downs (100th).
Coordinator Lincoln Riley has cast his lot with quarterback Baker Mayfield, and with good reason: Mayfield's great. Last year's fourth-place Heisman finisher is completing 72 percent with five touchdowns to no interceptions, and that's without last year's go-to guy, Sterling Shepard.
OU's standard-downs success rate of 61 percent is fifth in the country, and it was a solid 50 percent against Houston. The pass-heavy approach has worked fine.
But the Sooners managed only a 26 percent success rate on passing downs against UH, well below the national average of 32 percent. Staying on schedule could be as important to OU as it is to Ohio State.
The Sooners haven’t managed a ton of big plays so far.
Perine has been efficient, but while we know he’s explosive, he hasn’t broken into the defense’s second level many times yet. Mayfield’s top two targets, Dede Westbrook and Mykel Jones, are averaging just 8.4 yards per catch. Mixon’s explosiveness could be key, but a lack of explosiveness means a lack of margin for error — you have to remain mistake-free for eight to 10 plays to matriculate down the field.
Each of Ohio State’s first two opponents are extremely pass happy; they ran just 56 percent of the time against the Buckeyes on standard downs and 15 percent on passing downs. It played right into the hands of an active Buckeye secondary.
Ohio State is young in the back, but sophomores Malik Hooker (safety) and Marshon Lattimore (corner) have already defensed eight passes, and the Buckeyes have already picked off seven passes and recorded four sacks. It's early, but Ohio State ranks eighth in defensive back havoc rate and 14th in the ratio of passes defensed to incomplete passes.
While OU obviously has more talent than either BGSU or Tulsa, Ohio State’s early defensive play has belied its youth and hinted at an elite future level. The Sooners’ offensive success might depend on both how well they run and how frequently they choose to do so.
3. Ohio State can tilt the field, which matters greatly.
Meyer has fielded some of the most consistently solid special teams units in the country. Ohio State ranked a surprisingly low 56th in Special Teams S&P+ last year, but the Buckeyes are ninth in the early going this year.
Cameron Johnston is averaging 51 yards when he gets the rare opportunity to punt, and Ohio State has owned kickoffs -- first in kick return success rate, 39th in kickoff success rate.
The combination of special teams and offensive and defensive efficiency has allowed the Buckeyes to control the field so far.
Against Bowling Green, their field position margin was plus-9.0 yards per possession (31.6 on offense, 22.6 on defense), and against Tulsa it was plus-8.6 (35.1-26.5).
Against Houston, Oklahoma dealt with a minus-6.1 margin.
The correlations between field position success and wins are extraordinarily high, and the margins are small. If Ohio State is able to tilt the field in its favor, the Buckeyes could position themselves to overcome a home-field advantage.
S&P+ projection: OU 38, Ohio State 33
Win probability: OU 61%
Ohio State is still a wild card. The young Buckeyes have already proved their massive upside, but with a freshman leading rusher and no seniors among the top 11 tacklers on defense, the Buckeyes might be too young to skate through 12 games without a couple of losses.
Might one of those come on Saturday night? Or will OU's pass-heavy ways and passing-downs struggles play right into Ohio State's hands?