It did not take long for the headlines to start appearing, all with a common theme: Ohio State dominates USC in 24-7 victory in Cotton Bowl.
Just as soon after those headlines appeared did people begin to criticize the College Football Playoff committee’s decision to omit Ohio State from the top-four teams.
But this game proved one thing to me: the committee got it right. Neither No. 5 Ohio State nor No. 8 USC deserved to be included in the playoff.
The score shows a defensive battle between two Power Five champions. But the game looked quite the opposite of how the score turned out.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold seemed to have Ohio State’s number right out of the gate. He made tough throws look easy and receivers often made similarly challenging catches look routine. He completed 26-of-45 passes for 356 yards, 79 more yards than Ohio State had total offense.
The problem for USC and for Darnold was that what mistakes he made, they were major. The pick-6 he threw into the hands of safety Damon Webb was a terrible read, and Webb made him pay. The two fumbles he had were both the result of a constant torment of pressure from Ohio State’s defensive line that the USC offensive line failed to stop for much of the day. His top receiver, Deontay Burnett, also had a bad fumble in Ohio State territory that set the Buckeyes up in great field position.
And overall, Ohio State scored 21 of its 24 total points after turnovers. Similarly, the only points USC was able to put on the board came when H-back and punt returner K.J. Hill muffed a punt on the Ohio State 15-yard line. Neither team scored in the second half. The only real chance either team had came when USC missed a 28-yard field goal attempt that bounced off the right upright.
USC’s offense crossed the 50-yard line just seven times when it didn’t begin with the ball off a turnover, and Ohio State managed to cross it only three times when not set up by a turnover. Ohio State’s offense, which ranked No. 5 in scoring entering the game, had 13 total first downs while USC, led by a likely top-five NFL draft pick quarterback and a potential early-round running back, had 23.
If Ohio State was a playoff team, it would have dominated a porous rushing defense that had given up 1,195 rushing yards to just five other top-30 rushing attacks. It would have decimated a passing defense that had allowed the 30th-most passing yards per game (246.5 per game).
It would not have struggled to run the ball and muster just 163 yards on 38 carries. It would not have only passed for 114 yards and completed just 11-of-17 passes.
And on the flip side, Ohio State’s defense should have been better against Darnold. While it forced some crucial turnovers, Darnold deserved more blame than Ohio State credit for his interception. He made some throws that were tough to make, but there were plenty others that were more the result of poor coverage.
Ohio State’s defensive line and offensive line were really the only two units that lived up to the billing of a potential playoff team. The defensive line dominated USC to the tune of 14 tackles for loss, including eight sacks. On the other side, Ohio State’s offensive line only allowed four tackles for loss, three being sacks.
But a playoff-caliber team needs to click more than Ohio State did against USC. Had that been a Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia or Alabama, Ohio State probably does not come out on the winning side of that matchup. It might not have been shutout again, but the way that offense played against a middle-of-the-road USC defense would not have fared well against top-six defenses like Alabama and Clemson. The way Darnold tore Ohio State apart, there is little doubt a Baker Mayfield, who already torched the Buckeyes once this season, would have again had his way with them.
Ohio State had a fine season. It ended as Big Ten and Cotton Bowl champions. But it was not a playoff team. I’m sure if Alabama loses to Clemson, many will berate the committee for getting the No. 4 team wrong. But Alabama would have to lay an Ohio State vs. Clemson 2016-edition egg for this to look like the wrong decision by the committee.