ATHENS — C.J. Stroud is a winner in most all respects, but the results of the past two games against Michigan have left the Ohio State star with an unsettled legacy.
Stroud knows better than anyone what a win over No. 1 Georgia — and another shot at the Wolverines — could mean for him and his program.
The No. 4-ranked Buckeyes play the Bulldogs at 8 p.m. on Dec. 31 in the CFP Peach Bowl Semifinal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Stroud, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and top 10 projected NFL draft pick, shared in a recent interview how Ohio State’s practices have taken on extra energy.
“We have to really let it loose and let it hang and go all out,” Stroud said. “That’s how we’ve been practicing, the last couple of days have been competitive, more good and good.
“We can’t go in there timid or second-guessing ourselves.”
Ohio State has twice been in this position before, playing as an underdog in a CFP semifinal matchup.
This time its Stroud, the fifth-straight Buckeyes player to win Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, leading Ohio State into battle.
The last time it happened was in 2020, and Justin Fields and the Buckeyes blasted Clemson by a 49-28 count.
Ohio State won its other game as a CFP semifinal underdog in 2014, a game Kirby Smart remembers well as he was on the losing end of a 42-35 contest as Alabama’s defensive coordinator.
These Buckeyes are different, as Stroud led the nation with a 176.24 pass efficiency rating and 37 touchdowns this season.
And yet, Stroud knows fully well the challenge Georgia’s top-ranked defense will present each time he drops back to pass.
“They are all really good players, I know Kelee (Ringo) from recruiting, he’s a good dude and a helluva football player,” Stroud said. “Maliki (Starks) and those others guys are really good in man, press man, off-man, zone coverage — they really can do it all.
“It will be a test for us and it will be fun ... college football fans have been wanting this matchup since last year.”
Indeed, many projected Georgia and Ohio State to be on a collision course before Michigan got in the way, upsetting the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor.
It happened again this season, too, and for the first time since 2000 in Ohio State’s hallowed “Horeshoe” Stadium.
Those No. 2-ranked Wolverines are playing No. 3 TCU at 4 p.m. on Dec. 31 in the CFP Fiesta Bowl Semifinal, and it’s all some Buckeyes’ fans can do not to look ahead to a possible rematch.
Stroud is two wins away from changing his legacy, to be sure, but his focus will be right before his eyes two weeks from now in Atlanta.
“I look down the field …. I try to figure out my problems before the play snaps, so I’m not worried about the rush, I know my linemen have got me,” said Stroud, who was sacked only eight times this season, fifth-lowest in the nation.
“I’m not really back there worrying they will pick them up or not, as long as I give them the right ID and make the protection call right.”
And, should the likes of Jalen Carter, Robert Beal or Mykel Williams slip through, Stroud has a polished enough pocket presence to know what to do.
“If it’s coming from the outside, I’ve got to step up,” he said, “if it’s coming from the inside, then I have to push back or step to the side.”
The talent is there, the preparation is taking place, and Stroud approaches each day with the proper motivation.
“I was born with a chip on my shoulder, I was made that way, I don’t think I’ll ever lose it,” Stroud said. “(But) when you are on the field it doesn’t matter. You have a job to do.”
And a legacy to complete.