For the fifth time in nine seasons, head coach Ryan Day and the Ohio State Buckeyes are heading to the College Football Playoff (CFP).
Ohio State (11-1) slotted in as the fourth and final team in the playoff field following Utah’s upset win over USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday, setting up a matchup with the top-ranked and defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs (13-0) in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31 in Atlanta, Georgia.
No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 TCU will square off in the other semifinal matchup, which will be hosted by the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona. The winners of both games will play for the national championship on Jan. 9 in Inglewood, California.
Ohio State entered conference championship weekend with its fate out of its own hands following last week’s debacle against Michigan, which cost the Buckeyes a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. But Christmas came early, however, as USC faltered in a play-in scenario on Friday, opening the door for Ohio State to regain control of its own destiny in the pursuit of a national title.
Following the rankings reveal on Sunday, Day met with the media and spoke of a re-energized team that aims to make the most of its second life.
“Today, there was just so much energy in the Woody (Hayes Athletic Center),” Day said. “You could feel it when you walked in early on. We had a team meeting before the selection, had a staff meeting before, and just talked about what the possibilities would be. And then when you saw our name come up, it was just a shot of adrenaline in the whole building. The goal was to be in the CFP at this point. That was it at the start of the season, and here we are. It was a strange way to get here, but that’s it. It’s a new season.”
Throughout the course of Day’s approximately 30-minute media session, and in the days leading up to Sunday’s selections, one word was continuously used by Day to express what lies before Ohio State at the end of the month: opportunity.
“I think this whole thing is an unbelievable opportunity,” he said. “You just never know how these years are going to go, and here we are. This opportunity wasn’t available a few days ago, it wasn’t available even yesterday, but it is now. I think that’s the thing as you look at last week, everyone was just dying to have this opportunity, to have a shot to go win this (title), and now we do. The whole team wants that opportunity, and life’s all about that. So what are we going to do with it? That’s the challenge this next month.”
Of course, now that Ohio State is back in control of its own destiny, all attention shifts to the massive challenge awaiting it in Atlanta. Coming off the program’s first national championship since 1980 a year ago, Georgia has been, arguably, even better this season under seventh-year head coach Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs polished off an undefeated regular season on Saturday with a 50-30 beatdown of LSU in the SEC championship, sending them to their third CFP appearance.
Despite losing five first-round draft picks from last year’s unit, Georgia once again boasts a top-10 defense led by defensive lineman and future first-round draft pick Jalen Carter. The Bulldogs are allowing an average of just 292 yards and less than 13 points per game, presenting the most difficult matchup the Ohio State offense has faced this season.
The Georgia offense has hummed along in its own right this season, wracking up an average of 39 points and nearly 500 yards of offense per game. Senior quarterback Stetson Bennett, who took home Offensive Most Valuable Player honors in last year’s national championship win, has thrown for 3,425 yards this season.
Add in Bennett’s ability to extend plays with his legs, much like another quarterback Ohio State struggled to stop in Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, and Jim Knowles’ Ohio State defense has its work cut out for it over the next three weeks.
Despite the daunting task, though, Day said he expects his team to play aggressively and loose in a game in which Ohio State figures to be a sizable underdog.
“I don’t know how many people are going to give us a chance in this game, but we’ll have to see,” Day said.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.