Ohio State Football: Buckeyes embracing opportunity to play defending champs

COLUMBUS -- The word of the day at the Ohio State football facility Sunday was “opportunity.”

Head coach Ryan Day used it about a dozen times after the Buckeyes learned they are the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff and will play No. 1 Georgia in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31.

The news resuscitated national championship hopes that looked dead after a 45-23 loss to Michigan on Nov. 26.

ExploreWhat went wrong against Michigan?

“We weren’t going to feel sorry for ourselves, but we needed help and we got help,” Day said, referring to USC’s loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday night. “We put two good practices in last week and then it all came together this weekend, and now here we are.”

Ohio State made the playoff twice in Day’s first three seasons as head coach, and he said the staff can take cues from the plan it used to prepare for a rematch with Clemson in year two.

After a bitter 29-23 loss in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl to the Tigers, the Buckeyes came back with a dominant 49-28 win over the same team a year later in the Sugar Bowl.

“We’ll use the same formula as we prepare to play in this game,” Day said. “The fundamentals are the first part we have to hammer in the first week. Then we game plan and do as much as we can on campus.”

The Buckeyes plan to travel to Atlanta on Dec. 26 then have what amounts to a normal week of preparation for the game.

The Bulldogs not only are the top-ranked team in the country but the defending national champions.

They beat Alabama in the National Championship Game last season after losing to the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game, ending a national championship drought of 40 years.

Georgia lost a modern record 15 players to the NFL Draft last spring, but coach Kirby Smart has them undefeated and leading the nation in rushing defense (77 yards per game).

“They just put 50 on LSU in the SEC Championship Game,” Day said. “We are going to have to be on our game and play really good.

“We’ll see as the preparation goes. These guys will have our guys’ attention in a big way. They know how they have to play in order to win this game. How fun is this going to be to go play down there with a team that has had it all taken away from them and now they have an opportunity again?

“We’re just excited to get to work here.”

The Buckeyes opened the season ranked No. 2, one spot ahead of the Bulldogs in the Associated Press poll, but things haven’t gone quite as expected for Ohio State.

Even before a humbling loss to then-No. 3 Michigan in the regular season finale, the Buckeyes endured some ups and downs from week to week with the offense misfiring at times and the defense going through growing pains under new management.

None of that will matter when the ball goes in the air on New Year’s Eve, though.

“Again, I keep saying opportunity because if you think about what an amazing story this could be, but I think our guys understand that,” Day said. “They know what happened, and they know what could happen. So the goal was to be in this situation. Not fourth, not to lose (the Michigan) game, but to be in the CFP two games away from winning the national championship.”

Health played some role in Ohio State’s offense showing some inconsistency during the year.

Top running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams were both in and out of the lineup nearly from the start, and right guard Matt Jones and center Luke Wypler both played through injuries. Right tackle Dawand Jones also missed a game, but the biggest missing piece was star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who suffered a hamstring injury in the opener against Notre Dame and appeared only briefly in two games the rest of the year.

Day did not make it sound like he will be back for the bowl game, but he was optimistic about everyone else who missed time along the way to this point.

“Everybody else we should have,” Day said after saying to expect an announcement of some sort on the Smith-Njigba front in the coming days. “That was a part of the story this year. To be at full strength or almost at full strength will be important to go beat these guys. It will be great to get a little bit more rest.”

PEACH BOWL

Saturday, Dec. 31

No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 1 Georgia, 8 p.m., ESPN, 1410

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