ATLANTA — At first glance, Ohio State appears to be in an unfamiliar place.
How could the Buckeyes, one of the most recognizable brands in college sports, possibly be labeled as the underdog heading into a big game? It’s a fact that has caused a fair amount of double-takes and fact-checking, but it’s the situation the program finds itself in as it prepares to face No. 1 Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Peach Bowl on Saturday night.
The Bulldogs are 6-point favorites, making it the first time Ohio State has been the dark horse since a 52-24 loss to Alabama in the national championship game two seasons ago. The Buckeyes were a 9-point underdog then, but have been favored in every one of their 25 games since.
Saturday’s spread makes sense. Georgia is the defending national champion, after all. The Bulldogs were a perfect 13-0 this season, including winning the SEC title. On top of that, the game will be played at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a mere 70 miles from UGA’s campus. And Ohio State is coming off a second straight demoralizing defeat to Michigan.
Even so, the Buckeyes are playing in their fifth CFP semifinal, have made it to the title game twice, and won it all in 2014.
Ohio State’s players don’t really care much about this storyline, though. They don’t care that they’re being discounted against the big, bad Bulldogs.
“I feel like we’re still Ohio State. We’re still the Buckeyes. Georgia is Georgia for a reason,” quarterback C.J. Stroud said this week. “I don’t want to say that I feel like the underdog. I do feel like they are counting us out. That’s fine. We’ve been counted out plenty of times.”
Stroud is right. Upon further review, Ohio State has actually been an underdog at this particular juncture of a season more times than you might think.
Of the previous four semifinal matchups it has played, OSU has been an underdog three times, winning twice. After the 2014 season, which featured the first-ever four-team playoff, the Buckeyes were a 9.5-point underdog against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and won 42-35. Even after Ezekiel Elliott ran for 230 yards and two touchdowns, Ohio State found itself a 6.5-point underdog in the national championship matchup against Oregon. The Buckeyes won 42-20.
The ensuing years have gone like this:
- 2016-17 Fiesta Bowl vs. Clemson: Ohio State was a 1-point favorite and lost 31-0
- 2019-20 Fiesta Bowl vs. Clemson: Ohio State was a 2.5-point underdog and lost 29-23
- 2020-21 Sugar Bowl vs. Clemson: Ohio State was a 7-point underdog and won 49-28; then the Buckeyes were a 9-point underdog in the title game against Alabama and lost 52-24.
- 2021-22 Peach Bowl vs. Georgia: Ohio State is a 6-point underdog and ???
“There’s never been a time where I stepped on the field that I felt a severe disadvantage to a player across from me,” said Ohio State receiver Emeka Egbuka. “I haven’t played Georgia yet, but I feel like with the confidence that we have as a team and our ability, we’ve been counted out before. So it’s nothing new to us.”
Coach Ryan Day said at media day this week that there’s been “friction” among his defensive players during practices. Not in a negative way, but more in a motivated, need-to-prove-something kind of way. Of course, this stems from getting bullied by Michigan two years in a row and as a result having their toughness questioned.
Ohio State was the bookies’ favorite in both of those games, too — by 6.5 points in 2021, and by 9 points in 2022.
“Well, they should be, and we all should be,” Day said of his defense being ‘pissed off’ heading into Saturday. “We know what we need to do in this game to win, and that’s kind of the way this month has been for a lot of us at practice every day. There’s been an edge. There’s been friction. There’s been conflict. There’s been a lot going on, and that’s a healthy thing.
“And so the one good thing about this, we’re going to go play. We’re not going to sit there and worry about what if or anything like that. Nobody really gives us a chance to win this game anyway. So we’re going to let it all out. We’re going to play as hard as we possibly can and look up after four quarters and see where we’re at.”
It’s kind of funny to think of a Goliath program like Ohio State accepting and relishing its role as a long-shot David — though some pundits think that if there’s going to be an upset in either semifinal, the Buckeyes have the better shot than TCU does against Michigan.
This is a team looking for redemption. It needs to put an end to lingering concerns about Michigan, and questions about whether the program itself is at some kind of crossroads. The only way to do that is beat Georgia and win the national championship — which could end up being another battle against the Wolverines.
Adding an underdog narrative only motivates them further.
“I think we have an opportunity to do something real special here, and more than anything, I just want them to go out there and play as hard and as fast as they can,” Day said.” This is what life is. Life is about going through obstacles and being strong and not veering away from hitting the issues head-on, dealing with conflict, and then improving from it. And we got an unbelievable opportunity on Saturday night.”
Added receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.: “I always thought it was Ohio against the world, even before this game. So nothing really changes.
“Me personally, I’m glad we can play them in Atlanta, in their kind of home arena. [I] kind of always like being the villain and underdog going into the game.”
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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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