No. 3 Ohio State is the mystery of the 2020 College Football Playoff. While No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson and No. 4 Notre Dame have all played 11 games, Ohio State comes into the semifinals with only six games played. It feels like we've barely had a chance to get to know the Buckeyes, let alone determine whether or not they're capable of winning a national title.
But they are. While nobody would consider them the favorite, do not sleep on this Ohio State team. This is a team that we're yet to see play its best football in 2020, but if it does, it's capable of beating anybody in the country. So what makes Ohio State a threat? Let's break it down.
1. It has an elite quarterback
College football is continuously evolving, but the most significant change in recent years is that you need elite QB play if you want to win a national title. Gone are the days when you could win a national title with A.J. McCarron or Matt Flynn. Now you need a Deshaun Watson. You need a Jalen Hurts or a Tua Tagovailoa. You need a Joe Burrow or a Trevor Lawrence. The kind of QB who will not only be drafted in the first round, but early in the first round. Ohio State has that in Justin Fields.
Before the season began, Fields was projected to be the second pick in the 2021 NFL Draft behind Lawrence. Some even felt he should be the first QB off the board. That hype has slowed down this year as Fields has not looked as good as expected. After beginning the season by completing 72 of his first 83 passes for 908 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in three games, he struggled down the stretch. There were the three interceptions against Indiana, and in the Big Ten Championship, he threw two more while completing only 44.4% of his pass attempts. So the question is which Justin Fields shows up to the College Football Playoff?
If it's the same guy who struggled down the stretch, Ohio State isn't going to reach the title game, let alone win it. But if it's the Fields we saw in the first three games and all of last season? That's when Ohio State becomes a team capable of beating anybody. That player is still there, as Justin Fields is too talented to play poorly for long. With Chris Olave's return -- he missed the Big Ten Championship Game -- and Garrett Wilson, Fields has the weapons to go with the talent too.
2. It can pressure the quarterback
It would stand to reason that, if QB play has become more critical than ever, the ability to get to the QB matters more too. While a lot of attention has been paid to Ohio State's struggles in the secondary this year, its pass rush has gone mostly unnoticed. Maybe it's because we've just become accustomed to the Buckeyes having an excellent pass-rush, as they've sent elite edge rushers to the NFL every year. What stands out about this 2020 defense, though, is that it's not as much of a one-man show as it has been.
In previous years, it was about Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa or Chase Young. This year it's a collective unit. Ohio State's defense pressured opposing quarterbacks on 41.34% of their dropbacks this season. That is the third-highest rate in the country. When we look at individual players, among 587 players with at least 10 pressures in 2020, the Buckeyes defense has five in the top 40 in pressure rate. Tyreke Smith finished third nationally with a pressure rate of 23.68%. He's followed by Jonathan Cooper (11th, 19.72%), Javontae Jean-Baptiste (26th, 16.92%), Zach Harrison (32nd, 16.51%) and Tommy Togiai (36th, 16.08%). Haskell Garrett is the "underachiever" of the bunch, ranking 78th nationally with a pressure rate of 13.56%.
In other words, this isn't a fun bunch for an offensive line to go against because Ohio State doesn't need to blitz to get pressure. And I don't care who your quarterback is; there aren't many who play better when pressured than while standing in a clean pocket with all the time in the world. The best friend Ohio State's secondary has is the Ohio State pass rush, and if the Buckeyes get home, they can stop any offense.
3. It's only played six games
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has not been alone in his criticism of Ohio State playing fewer games and still being chosen for the playoff, but he's been the most vocal. And, whether you think Dabo is disingenuous (let's not pretend he wouldn't be arguing Clemson deserved a playoff berth had the shoe been on the other foot) or not, it doesn't matter. The fact of the matter is that Dabo's right. It is a lot easier to go 6-0 than to go 10-0 or 9-1.
Also, this is football we're talking about here. It's a physically taxing sport that takes a toll on your body the longer you play. So Ohio State is definitely at an advantage coming into the playoff because of the amount of games its played. It has fresher legs, and it's not as sore as the teams it'll be facing. That's not something the Buckeyes should feel the need to apologize for, as they didn't force the selection committee to hand them an invite.
It is something the Buckeyes should try to take advantage of, though.