DALLAS – In the days leading up to Monday, seemingly no one associated with the Ohio State football team except for legendary two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin uttered the word destiny.
Few other than Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and his right-hand man Mickey Marotti, assistant athletic director for football sports performance, raved about a special season Marotti saw coming in May.
Going into the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship game against No. 2 Oregon, the No. 4 Buckeyes have been workmanlike and focused, yet loose as well. Even when receiver Michael Thomas talked about the dreams he shared with quarterback Cardale Jones at Fork Union Military Academy, dreams like the one they will realize when they play in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, there was no bold prediction or guarantee.
Yet there was still a feeling that everything is coming together at the right time for Ohio State (13-1).
Coming together for the offensive line, which replaced four starters from 2013 and was embarrassed by its performance in a Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech.
Coming together for the sophomore class, led by running back Ezekiel Elliott, All-America defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Vonn Bell.
Coming together for an offense that could see speedy H-back Dontre Wilson return from injury against the Ducks (13-1).
Coming together for third-string quarterback Jones, who took over after J.T. Barrett fractured his ankle Nov. 29 and has gained new maturity since the Nov. 6 birth of his daughter, Chloe.
No. 1 concern: The Heisman winner
Of course, Meyer has worries. The Buckeyes are playing an unprecedented 15th game and had seven extra practices. He might wonder after they upset No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl how his players will hold up to the pressure in the stunning setting of the Dallas Cowboys' oversized home.
"I think this game itself is going to be huge, and I think once the game starts everybody's juice is going to be flowing," senior receiver Devin Smith said. "The intensity is going to be through the roof and I can't wait."
But that's not what concerns Meyer most.
"Our No. 1 concern is their quarterback," he said Sunday. "I think he's one of the finest that's ever played the game."
Meyer was referring to Oregon Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. A three-year starter, Mariota boasts a 172.4 career efficiency rating that trails only NCAA record-holder Sam Bradford of Oklahoma (175.6 in 2007-09). This season, Mariota has been responsible for 24 points per game with 40 passing touchdowns, 15 rushing and one receiving.
Mariota is attempting to become the seventh Heisman winner since 1996 to win the national championship in the same season he won college football's top award. Florida State's Jameis Winston did it last season, but he was denied an opportunity to repeat as national champion when the Ducks stomped the Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl.
Another victory in what is very likely Mariota's last college game would top off a career that can go down as one of the best in college football history.
The Buckeyes hope to contain the fast-moving Mariota with a defensive line, led by Bosa, that is among the best in the nation.
"They've got an awesome front seven," Mariota said. "Big, physical guys that really control the line of scrimmage."
Third-string? First rate
But the Ohio State offense is rolling as well, even with Jones playing in place of Barrett the past two games: a 59-0 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game followed by the 42-point outburst in the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State is averaging 45.0 points per game, fourth in the nation.
Junior center Jacoby Boren said the 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech helped get the Buckeyes to North Texas.
"It was definitely not one of the brighter moments in our meeting room," Boren said of the offensive line. "But all the things we messed up and things we didn't do well, we learned from very quickly. It's something we took very personally.
"Knowing where we are now, playing for the national championship, I wouldn't change that game. Our team grew tremendously from that game, whether it be J.T., the line, every position definitely made some big mistakes there. We were definitely caught off guard. It's made us stronger and it's the reason we're where we are today."
Ohio State has won 12 in a row since that loss. The Ducks have won nine in a row, all by double-digit margins, since losing at home 31-24 to Arizona.
"We've been playing, both our program and Ohio State have played with that kind of early loss, and your back was against the wall to get to this point," Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said. "Every play of every game, the entire rest of the season, it was to use those words: Do or die."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.