Rob Oller: 2020 football season feels like 2014 all over again for Buckeyes
- Trey Sermon is channeling his Zeke Elliott
Sometimes the obvious sneaks up on you like a big city in the middle of nothing.
In this case, the 2014 football season represents the tall buildings, when Ohio State came from nowhere to win the first College Football Playoff national championship. The long stretch of highway is 2020, where the only spikes on a flat horizon were positive COVID-19 results.
For weeks, there was nothing to see. As other conferences suited up, the Big Ten ordered a fall break from football that parked the Buckeyes at a rest stop. When the Big Ten season finally began, on Oct. 24, there was nothing that screamed, “Wow, this feels so familiar.” Through four games, only an Ohio State fan with an electron microscope would have found similarities between the 2014 and 2020 seasons.
J.T. Barrett, like Justin Fields, was a better runner than advertised — remember that 189-yard rushing performance at Minnesota? — but no one would compare the two seasons based on quarterback play. Barrett mostly managed games. Fields wins them. Plus, Barrett took a back seat to Cardale Jones after breaking his ankle against Michigan.
Then the Clemson game happened, and you were not alone if you saw a bit of 2014 come back to life. This time, however, instead of Jones coming in to save the season after Barrett went down, it was Fields coming back in to save the day following his injury. After taking a shot to the ribs on a helmet-first hit by Clemson linebacker James Skalski, Fields hobbled to the sideline medical tent as Buckeye Nation held its breath.
One play later, after receiving at least one dose of painkillers — but no diagnosis, according to Fields — the quarterback returned to throw a touchdown pass to Chris Olave, thus cementing his spot in Ohio State lore.
Tailback Trey Sermon, meanwhile, was securing his own place in school history by going 2014 Ezekiel Elliott on another 2020 opponent.
Flashback time: Trial lawyers will tell you memories are not to be trusted. So let me ask, what do you remember about Elliott’s 2014 season? Most OSU fans recall that Zeke did not explode onto the scene until the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin, when he rushed for 220 yards and two touchdowns on 20 attempts.
It is true that Elliott was not “special” until Wisconsin, but the signs were already there. Before putting 220 on the Badgers, 230 on Alabama in the CFP semifinal and 246 on Oregon in the title game, he rushed for 121 against Michigan and 107 against Indiana.
Flash forward: Sermon bruised Clemson for 193 yards one week after breaking Eddie George’s single-game record by rushing for 331 yards against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game.
Deja vu II? Sermon showed signs of having a breakout performance even before Northwestern, having rushed for 112 yards on 10 carries against Michigan State in a game in which the Buckeyes were missing three starters on the offensive line.
Zeke Sermon, anyone? Or Trey Elliott? Or forget the comparison and let Sermon have the limelight to himself. To these eyes, Sermon is not as fast as Elliott. But he runs just as hard and is more dangerous after contact, not unlike Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt.
Prediction: if Sermon rushes for something in the neighborhood of 200 yards against Alabama the Buckeyes will defeat the Crimson Tide in Monday’s national championship game. (Caveat: as long as the Buckeyes keep 'Bama tailback Najee Harris from getting 200 of his own.)
Speaking of Alabama, this is where 2020 and 2014 find one more Ancestry.com connection. It is hard to overstate how much Ohio State fans enjoyed finally beating the Crimson Tide, which had been the Buckeyes’ nemesis until that Jan. 1 night in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama was 3-0 against OSU and came into the game a nine-point favorite. This year's Buckeyes are 7½-point underdogs.
Clemson was 4-0 against Ohio State until the Sugar Bowl upset; the Tigers were favored by 7½ points.
Finally, 2020 falls under a similar umbrella as 2014 in that both seasons saw the Buckeyes’ title hopes hinge on hunkering down during above-average levels of adversity. In 2014, it was the loss of Braxton Miller two weeks before the season, the early-season loss to Virginia Tech and the injury to Barrett.
In 2020, it has been the start-stop nature of getting in seven games while dealing with roster musical chairs due to COVID-19.
Honestly, how many of us saw 2014 coming in 2020? Now all Ohio State needs to do to complete the circle is win the championship on Jan. 11 — one day earlier than it happened six years ago.