ATLANTA — C.J. Stroud smiled ever so slightly.
Yes, the Ohio State quarterback acknowledged, he knows the narrative. He hears the doubts. He has seen the criticism.
The Buckeyes were fortunate to even get selected for the College Football Playoff after they were manhandled by Michigan on Thanksgiving weekend. Ohio State is a heavy underdog in this semifinal, hardly an obstacle in undefeated Georgia’s way to returning to the national championship game.
But Stroud and his teammates believe differently. More than that, they know what they are capable of.
“Our belief is in ourselves. This isn’t the first time we’ve been counted out and it won’t be the last. I think we’re pretty good at football, too,” he said this week in the lead-up to their semifinal in Peach Bowl on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “If people think that we’re the underdog and we’re not going to win, whatever the case may be, I would just tell you to stay on that side and stick on that side. I definitely think we’re not here for no reason.”
It is a very different role for Ohio State (11-1), the rare occasion when it is an underdog. The Buckeyes have been favored in 98 of their last 104 games, according to Sports Illustrated. The six games in which they have gotten points? Six playoff games, including this one. Georgia (13-0), favored by six, is the heavy favorite not just to advance, but also to win it all and become the first repeat champion since Alabama in 2011-12. The Bulldogs will enter this showdown with a 15-game winning streak, and they have won 29 of their last 30 games, with even better balance than their championship club from last year had. They have allowed the second-fewest points in the country (12.8), scored the 11th-most (38.7) and have had one game decided by a single possession.
“They have a helluva team,” Stroud, a Heisman Trophy finalist, said. “Offense does a great job, defense, special teams, well-coached. We can match up with that as well.”
That remains to be seen.
Ohio State lost its last game, 45-23, to bitter rival Michigan and needed a USC loss in the Pac-12 title game to receive a playoff invitation as the fourth and final seed. It has played uneven football frequently this year, struggling with the likes of Northwestern and Maryland. Two of its most talented players, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson, won’t be available.
Still, the Buckeyes lost just once, and outplayed Michigan for large stretches in that defeat. They are among the nation’s leaders in scoring offense and defense, and in Stroud, they boast the country’s most efficient quarterback. They have, however, heard for weeks that they don’t stand a chance against Georgia, and that has resulted in what several players described as an “edge” in practice. A determination to prove they belong and erase the painful memory of the ugly loss to Michigan.
“We know what we need to in this game to win, and that’s the way this month has been at practice every day,” head coach Ryan Day said. “There’s been an edge. There’s been friction. There’s been conflict. There’s been a lot of that going on, and that’s a healthy thing.
“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.”
There are similarities to Ohio State’s 2014 national championship team that reached the playoff amid a controversial decision by the committee — some felt TCU was more deserving — and was a touchdown underdog to SEC powerhouse Alabama. The Buckeyes changed everyone’s mind by knocking off the Crimson Tide, and then walloped Oregon for their most recent title.
This group has the same opportunity.
“You look at the rankings and see that we’re No. 4,” Ohio State receiver Emeka Egbuka said, “then you look in the past and see what the past No. 4 Ohio State team did.”