Oregon vs. Ohio State: Predicting who will win the national title

Editor’s note: Throughout the season, Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel have presented their weekly picks.

Below are their selections for the College Football Playoff championship game. Enjoy.

National championship game: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Mandel: Over the past 10 days I’ve talked myself into and out of both Oregon and Ohio State countless times. Never have I been less certain of a national championship game pick. Maybe it’s because the two teams are so similar. Maybe it’s an unavoidable consequence of the playoff, with both teams coming off impressive semifinal bowl wins against respected opponents. Whatever the case, the only outcome that would surprise me is if the final score is 17-16. This one will almost certainly be a shootout.

I finally made up my mind Sunday afternoon: I’m picking the Buckeyes. Part of me thinks it’s nuts to pick against Marcus Mariota. But a bigger part of me thinks Ohio State is on a run not unlike Urban Meyer’s first national championship season at Florida, in 2006, where the Gators did not truly crystalize as a juggernaut until the conference championship. Similarly, Ohio State was impressive at times during the regular season but never more so than it has been its past two games in beating Wisconsin 59-0 and Alabama 42-35.

I don’t worry about quarterback Cardale Jones and the Ohio State offense. If anything they should play better than they did against Alabama, because Oregon’s defense is not as good as the Tide’s. In fact the Ducks had very little success slowing down Florida State in the Rose Bowl but were ultimately able to cause a series of turnovers. Ohio State obviously can’t afford to do the same. But I see tailback Ezekiel Elliott shredding the Ducks. I also see Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman using Jones in an almost Tebow-like running role to help try to control the tempo and keep Oregon’s offense off the field. The Ducks will have a hard time bringing him down.

The bigger question is whether Ohio State can do what few teams have done before and slow down Mariota. The guy is a cyborg, having thrown for between 313 and 367 yards in six of his past eight games. But Mariota is not Oregon’s entire offense. He does rely on the help of tailback Royce Freeman. Ohio State’s defensive line, led by Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett, is much stronger than Florida State’s. I see the Buckeyes slowing down Freeman and forcing Mariota out of the pocket, and Ohio State’s back-end players are better than most at avoiding big plays when coverage breaks down.

Finally, Ohio State has a big advantage on special teams, and a game like this could come down to one missed field goal, one big kick return or one too many well-placed punts. 

The pick: Ohio State 42, Oregon 39

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Feldman: I’ve flip-flopped on my pick four times this week. I’ve gained that much respect for Ohio State with the Buckeyes’ win over Alabama. I wasn’t surprised that OSU could hit big plays in the passing game — their receivers are very athletic and the Tide’s corners have been very vulnerable for quite a while. The part that I didn’t expect was for Ezekiel Elliott to run wild against Nick Saban’s defense.

The Buckeyes’ O-line’s improvement has been one of the best-kept secrets in college football this season, and Elliott’s a budding star. He’s a punishing runner with home-run speed. I expect him to do a lot of damage against the Ducks, especially after watching how deep Oregon played its safeties against the Noles and how big the gains were for running back Dalvin Cook. OSU likes to stretch the field even more than FSU, so I wonder how involved Oregon’s DBs will be able to be in trying to derail Elliott before he gets it cranked up.

I also am a big fan of OSU safety Vonn Bell. He was a big reason why the Buckeyes short-circuited Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten title game and then contained Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl. And now, he’ll get an even stiffer test: the third Heisman finalist and winner, Marcus Mariota.

Ohio State hasn’t faced a QB who can run like Mariota can. The Buckeyes also haven’t faced anyone who capitalizes on an opponent’s mistakes the way Oregon does. The Ducks exploited every FSU miscue in the Rose Bowl and turned it into a touchdown. I doubt Urban Meyer’s team will be as sloppy as the Noles were, but this is still only Cardale Jones’ third game, and this is the first time the other QB has been the team’s strength. I think Jones may have a few more hiccups this time around.

I’m not putting that much stock in the Ducks being really hobbled at wideout without Devon Allen and Darren Carrington. I think Allen’s a bigger loss, but keep an eye on freshman Charles Nelson and junior Byron Marshall. I also like the Ducks’ RB tandem of Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, who is back healthy again. I expect the Ducks’ offense to keep rolling and eventually overtake the Buckeyes in a shootout. And unlike in other times, where Mariota either ran out of bounds or slid, don’t be surprised if he hits another gear and runs away from the Ohio State defense.

The pick: Oregon 45, Ohio State 38