Making the case for Ohio State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

Ohio State opened the season ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. Four months and 12 games later, the Buckeyes are ranked two places lower in the final College Football Playoff ranking, but that was enough to realize their preseason goal of returning to the playoff.

Having done that, No. 4 Ohio State (11-1) draw No. 1 Georgia in their Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl semifinal. That the Buckeyes will have to face the defending national champion Bulldogs (13-0) in their “backyard” – at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – is Ohio State’s penalty for having lost to Michigan 45-23 on Nov. 26 in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s one the Buckeyes are oh, so willing to pay.

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“I can just tell you that our team is very excited to be in this position in the CFP,” coach Ryan Day said. “There’s been a lot of juice, a lot of energy, in our facility. We’re looking forward to a great week in Atlanta.”

Ohio State is equal parts motivated by the chance to compete on college football’s biggest stage and to get another crack at the hated Wolverines. Following are some reasons why the Buckeyes can make that happen.

1. That high-flying offense

Quarterback C.J. Stroud is good; everybody knows that. If you weren’t certain about that, then you were after viewing the Heisman Trophy ceremony Dec. 10. It was the 6-foot-3, 218-pound signal-callers second trip to New York to attend that invitation-only party.

And while Stroud didn’t win college football’s most famous trophy – again – the highlight reels and statistics shared during that annual celebration of college football’s best left no doubt that the Buckeyes’ offensive captain is a force to be reckoned with.

The numbers alone make football aficionados to stand to attention: 3,340 yard passing, 37 TDs, six interceptions this season; 69% completion rate, 7,775 yards, 81 touchdowns, 12 interceptions in 24 career starts. He’s elusive, too, though not really in a run-threat kind of way. He just gets away to be able to throw. Opponents have sacked him only eight times all season.

In short, the Bulldogs haven’t seen a quarterback like Stroud. Georgia defensive lineman Zion Logue said Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker comes close, but teammate Smael Mondon disagrees.

“I don’t know what he’s seen to say that,” said Mondon, an inside linebacker. “They’re both good quarterbacks that stretch the field vertically.”

In front of Stroud is a veteran offensive line and outside of him is a world-class set of receivers. They feature a pair of 1,000-yard-plus wideouts in Marvin Harrison (72 receptions, 1,157 yards, 12 TDs) and Emeka Egbuka (66-1,039-9). Slot receiver Julian Fleming (29-462-6) and tight end Cade Stover (35-399-5) add to Stroud’s plethora of options.

Thankfully for the Bulldogs, the Buckeyes will play without their 1,000-yard receiver from last season, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who is opting out to heal from a chronic hamstring injury and prepare for the NFL draft.

“When we get into red zone, we’ve got to score touchdowns and not field goals,” said Harrison, the son of the NFL great by the same name. “That’s probably the biggest thing. We’re gonna need to score a lot of points against a Georgia defense that is probably the best in the country. It will be a challenge.”

“No. 1, how fast C.J. Stroud gets the ball out of his hands and where he’s looking, who he’s looking to get the ball to,” Logue said. “That’s just been my biggest thing.”

2. It is THE Ohio State

To those outside the Ohio State alumni and fan base, the all-cap “THE” they place in front of the university name is obnoxious and pretentious. But those inside would argue that their record of success has earned that distinction.

The Buckeyes count eight national championships in football. The last one came in 2014, but Ohio State ranks second in wins in FBS history, with 953. Annoyingly (for them), Michigan has 987.

Ryan Day is 45-5 in four years as the Buckeyes’ head coach. That’s a 90% winning percentage, better even than Kirby Smart’s gaudy victory rate of 84% at Georgia, which is one of the best seven-year starts in college football history.

Meanwhile, only Alabama and Clemson have played in more CFPs than Ohio State’s five. Georgia ranks fifth on that list with three, though the Bulldogs have made the final twice. The Buckeyes are 3-3 in the playoff, winning the first national championship under that format in 2014.

So, they’re not about to be overwhelmed by the moment. In fact, the Buckeyes and their fan base are supremely motivated by this opportunity.

Not only did they believe their season was over and dead after losing to the Wolverines, but now the carrot that is in front of them is the opportunity to play Michigan again in the national title game.

It’s the stuff Buckeyes dreams are made of.

3. Tough against the run

Even after spitting the bit in the fourth quarter against Michigan, Ohio State fancies itself a stout defense against the run. The Buckeyes gave up 252 yards and three rushing touchdowns in the loss to the Wolverines. But they’re still ranked among the top 25 in the country in rush defense and have surrendered only 10 rushing touchdowns in 12 games this season.

Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg gets the majority of the credit for Ohio State’s good work against the run, with a team-leading 112 tackles. But Eichenberg, Steele Chambers of Blessed Trinity in Roswell and their fellow linebackers are not the primary concern for Georgia.

When the Bulldogs’ ground attack occasionally has struggled this season, it has been against defenses that have sold out to stop it. Georgia’s opponents don’t always respect quarterback Stetson Bennett’s ability to pass the ball accurately deep down the field. Therefore, they commit safeties and nickel backs to stuffing the run, taking their chances with one-on-one coverage in the back third.

Bennett has burned many an opposing defense that adopted that strategy – hence the Bulldogs’ undefeated record -- but it has created occasional struggles. That was the case in both games against Alabama last season and against Missouri, Mississippi State and Kentucky earlier this season. Even Georgia Tech found some success employing such an approach.

The Buckeyes have better defensive personnel than all of those teams. They feature veteran safeties in seniors Ronnie Hickman and Josh Proctor and junior Lathan Ransom, all of who have recorded high tackle counts (137 combined).

Fresh on the Ohio State defense’s mind is what happened to them against Michigan. They were outscored 21-3 in the fourth quarter and gave up 252 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. They’re mentality is similar to what Georgia experienced after losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship game last year. That, of course, turned out differently in the national championship game.

“It was one of the worst feeling you’ll ever have, after that game,” Eichenberg said. “But we have another game to play now, top four, and that’s amazing. It feels like a new life, really. It’s awesome.”