NEW ORLEANS — The building project might actually have begun while the coach was spending a year away from the game. Urban Meyer had resigned at Florida for health reasons. He was biding his time as a TV talking head. Anfd he was intrigued by what was unfolding in the Pacific Northwest.
“Everyone talks about their shovel passes, or whatever, said Meyer, and he was referring to Oregon. “It’s not that. There’s a culture out there that has been started.”.
And something similar has been started at Ohio State.
Last week all the talk was about whether the Buckeyes were built in the image of an SEC team. In reality, as much as they resemble Meyer’s Florida teams — size, speed, and strength, though probably not as much depth yet — they look like nothing so much as Oregon. And it’s by design.
Which is why come Jan. 12, when the Ducks and Buckeyes meet in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game, the similarities could be uncanny. Thursday night, after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Meyer mused that he would “probably be able to call Oregon’s plays, because we study them and they study us.”.
College football is a web of interconnected relationships, so it’s not unusual that coaches have shared information and compared notes — except Oregon, famously secretive, makes less of a practice of it than others. With Meyer, an exception was made. It started with Chip Kelly’s transformation of the Ducks’ offense into the high-speed “blur,” and the mutual appreciation of two guys who ran the spread attack.
Meyer had been running the offense at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, long before Kelly arrived in Eugene. But he says he’s long watched Oregon, a program that rose to status as a national power with an offense-first philosophy, from a distance.
Then, while Meyer was working as an analyst for ESPN during the 2011 season, he took an in-depth look at what the Ducks were doing — even analyzing film with Kelly for a TV vignette — and came away impressed with how Kelly was pushing the envelope, offensively and otherwise. In December 2012, after his first season at Ohio State, he traveled to Arizona during Oregon’s preparation for the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes, ineligible for a bowl, had finished 12-0. But Meyer wanted to tweak things, and he knew where he wanted to look.
“I think they’re cutting edge,” Meyer said of the Ducks. “They play fast and hard. … I watched them practice, spent time with them and brought a lot of things back.”.
Meyer’s relationship is more with Kelly than with the current Oregon staff, though he said Mark Helfrich “has done an amazing job,” adding that he respects Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost. But Meyer’s relationship with Kelly remains.
Last offseason, he visited the Philadelphia Eagles, and then announced last summer that the Buckeyes would be doing many of the same things. It’s the spread offense, and tempo, and the analytics that Kelly used at Oregon and has only expanded upon in Philadelphia.
“But it goes deeper than that,” said Meyer, who also has been impressed with Kelly’s philosophical approach — “Win the Day,” for example, has become less a motto than an ingrained part of the Oregon culture.
“I just like their approach,” Meyer said. “When I went out there, I brought back with me that there’s an unbelievable culture. This is the way they do their business. Everyone is aligned. I brought that back to our place.”.
Schematically, they’re very similar, too, starting with a commitment to hard-nosed, power running from the spread offense. One difference is tempo. The Ducks want to go as fast as possible almost all of the time. The Buckeyes vary their speeds based on the situation.
“They go at a speed — they’re like Auburn in terms of, they want to go fast all the time,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We want to have the ability to kind of do it with our tempo, to use it when we need it and when we think it would be advantageous.”.
The Playoff presents new challenges — after several weeks to prepare for a bowl game, the winners must turn around and prepare for another game with a window that’s more like a regular-season schedule. But in this case, the familiarity between the opponents might lessen the degree of difficulty.
Or is it more disadvantageous? As Meyer said, he’ll probably be able to call Oregon’s plays. But the Ducks could probably do the same.
Either way, if the championship game pits teams that look strikingly alike, it’s not an illusion.