1. In a surprise to probably only Auburn fans, Alabama completes another regular season at or near the top in basically all categories that matter. With the No. 3 offense and No. 2 defense in F/+, it's hard to see a weakness at face value. Is there any kind of real Achilles' heel on this incarnation of the Tide?
I'm not going to dissemble, this team has a lot of warts, and they are largely the same ones that existed last season. From 2008-2012 there was not a single better unit in football than Alabama's offensive line. However, with heavy attrition to graduation and the pros (as well as the loss of two OLCs over that period,) the Crimson Tide has lacked a true dominating interior line. This team simply cannot line up sixty-five plays and bludgeon people downhill as Alabama teams of the recent past. In particular, right guard has been musical chairs, with a variety of groupings never really performing satisfactorily.
The second glaring weakness is obviously the secondary. Over the past two seasons, Nick Saban and Co. have made a concerted effort to get faster, deeper in the front seven to negate the now-wide open HUNH spread offenses that have taken over the SEC West. However, Saban and Smart's scheme is far too complicated for many in the secondary to just plug-and-play. As with the offensive line, the loss of many key contributors (and All-Americans) over the past few seasons has taken its toll. It should also be mentioned that, if there were any knock on Saban's performance at Alabama, it would be in evaluating talent at cornerback.
The secondary should be an absolute position of depth; however, CB Eddie Jackson's injuries have made him suspect in tight coverage, Bradley Sylve (a converted WR) has struggled, and the rest of the CB bench are freshmen and sophomore kids who just aren't there yet. Cyrus Jones, at the other corner spot, started off struggling versus all-world guys like WVU's Kevin White, but has been excellent the second half of the season. Manning the back are All-American safety Landon Collins (not a guy you want to catch a pass near) and Nick Perry, who has been a solid contributor.
2. We've been getting tweets at Land-Grant for about the past two or three weeks criticizing Ohio State's talent and level and level of competition alike. While the latter is a mostly fair criticism (some the Buckeyes' fault, some not), the former is pretty silly. Given that Alabama and Ohio State check in as the No. 1 and No. 2 recruiting teams in the country over the past two cycles, are there any players on the Buckeyes' roster more hardcore Tide fans wish were suiting up for them New Year's Day?
I'm not sure why people are buzzing your timeline with nonsense: Urban Meyer is a recruiting beast, and there are very few in the game quite as good. A simple look at the OSU bench should be enough to convince anyone.
The vast majority of Ohio State's superstars (and-superstars-in-waiting) are guys that are 1. very young, 2. were brought in by Urban Meyer, and 3. were coveted by other teams. It is safe to say guys like Jalin Marshall, Joey Bosa, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, etc. would be welcome on any roster in America, and would perform at a championship level. In fact, aside from the fierce Vonn Bell recruiting war, Alabama also showed serious interest in Eli Apple. All of those guys, playmakers to a tee, were Urban signees (but, yeah, the Tide whiffed on Vonn Bell, and I devoutly hope it does not come back to haunt Alabama.)
3. From a distance, it seems like Alabama fans have been killing Blake Sims for every tiny mistake all season. Is this just the nature of the beast or is there any actually merited distrust there in terms of his ability to win games?
There is an ugly, little-spoken dynamic with some teams and their quarterbacks - even in 2014. I won't spell it out, and I won't cast aspersions on an entire fanbase. Suffice it to say though, that there have been some incredibly ugly moments this year regarding Blake Sims that emerged from the lowest common denominator.
These moments have not been helped by outlets such as CBS and the SEC Network's B-Team, which have used some very tired tropes regarding a quarterback's athleticism. Is Sims a dual threat? Sure: He has packages ... maybe one or two a game, as did White Bread Poster Child AJ McCarron (who scrambled far, far more than Sims ever has.) Sorry, but that needed to be said. It's still a very sore spot with me and most fans who are willing to respect a guy for his abilities. Sims earned his spot on the field, was All-SEC for a reason, and has digested far too many execrable opinions from those who haven't the faintest notion of his leadership, diligence, and playmaking.
Now, is there mistrust with Sims? Initially, yes there was, and it was merited. Sims is the most likeable guy in the locker room, and has been for many years (as Saban will attest.) But the knack was always his ability to put the ball downfield in a vertical passing game, as well as some decision-making issues. The latter has popped up a few times in games this season, mainly on the road or in a neutral environment: West Virginia, Arkansas, Ole Miss come to mind, as does the mind-blowingly awful first half versus Auburn at home.
But, as he's gotten more comfortable, as OC Lane Kiffin has increased the pace, and as Sims has game experience, he has become a far more effective player. As for the former, with respect to Sims' arm strength, it's not going to wow anyone at the combine. Yet, in the past three games, he has put balls 45-50 yards on a rope. Is it game conditioning? Coaching? Gaining confidence? Your guess is as good as mine, but Sims has shown lately that can do more than enough to get the ball downfield.
As for Sims' leadership ability, there can be no doubt. Without Blake Sims, Alabama does not beat Arkansas, Auburn, or Missouri. This has been a fun Alabama team to watch play (those do exist, as we have recently discovered), and Sims is its unquestioned captain.
4. Most of our staff is going with Alabama going away, and I'm sure that percentage is even heavier on you guys' end. What would have to go down for Ohio State to do what they did against Miami in 2003 and beat the heavily favored opponent?
The blueprint for beating 2014 Alabama is simple, in theory at least. On defense, the mantra must be back to basics: gap discipline and assignment football. Alabama's short passing game this season has excelled in creating mismatches in the short play-action game, as well as making defenders miss on slip screens and bubble screens to the outside guys.
Closely related, the Buckeyes must absolutely make Alabama a one-dimensional team, and that means largely taking away the interior running game, where the Tide offense hasn't been quite as imposing as in recent years. This will free the OSU defenders to pin their ears back, and force Blake Sims into mistakes.
On offense, the Buckeyes need to play a balanced game to minimize an exceptionally deep, athletic defensive line. This means establishing enough of a running game (or run alternative, such as shovels, quick slants, zero-step drops etc) to make the safeties cheat and put the iffy Alabama corners in situations with no safety help. Bootstrapping to that point, Ohio State will have plenty of opportunities to make hay with deep routes; the Buckeyes must convert.
Finally, Alabama's special teams - aside from phenomenal punter J.K. Scott, have been abysmal this season. Fumbles, mental mistakes, long returns allowed, missed conversions, whiffed FGAs: name it, and this unit has committed gaffe after gaffe. Ohio State will likely be given at least one or two chances based on Alabama miscues. As with the offense, the Buckeyes must turn those opportunities into points.
5. On the flip side, what does Alabama have to do to win as expected? Is playing their game and hoping the Ohio State team that showed up up against Wisconsin isn't the one in uniform enough?
At the risk of sounding blasé, Alabama's key to winning the game is the same as it has been all season: protect the ball, strike fast, play fundamentally sound third down defense, pressure the quarterback into mistakes, shut down the option, and then, with a lead, strangle the life and hope out of the Buckeyes with time-consuming drives and a power running game. Without coming off too Gump-y, Bear Bryant was right, "The same things win that always won. And we just have a different bunch of excuses if we lose."
6. Let's go deeper. Given the star power on the Tide, there's a lot of names casual Buckeyes will recognize. Who could be a difference maker OSU fans don't know about now but will come late Thursday?
The first guy that really should be singled out is true freshman punter J.K. Scott. Scott was a Ray Guy finalist, and though he did not walk away with the hardware, most expect him to do so before he moves on and is a fifteen-year NFL starter. All season, Scott has been a weapon. He has a live leg, very good accuracy, and can drop a ball into a very tight space. Most recently, in the SEC Championship, he consistently put Missouri into terrible field position, thus limiting Gary Pinkel's play calling and conversely putting the Alabama defense into a much better position to get the Tigers behind the chains. If it's a field position war, Scott gives Alabama the edge.
Second, keep an eye on senior FB Jalston Fowler. Fowler was recruited as a big, Eddie Lacy-type running back, and for his first two seasons, frankly, struggled to be a feature back. He played H-back, running back, a few tight end sets, and finally last season moved full-time to a FB role. The move was a struggle initially, as Fowler had several crucial missed assignments in both passing and run situations; two of which led directly to fumbles by Alabama deep backs.
This season, however, with the hiring of Kiffin (who avowedly loves a fullback), Fowler has been reborn in fire. He is a physical runner, his blocking has become superb, he has decent speed in the open field, and with his soft hands, has become an integral part of the Alabama passing game. Because of his productivity this season, and with an assist from Lane Kiffin, Fowler has gone from a being a utility guy, to being the first fullback off the board in the April '15 draft. Like Blake Sims, you couldn't ask for a more selfless, genuinely nice kid to represent your alma mater.
7. Finally, give us your prediction. Who wins and how?
Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are no strangers to the biggest of stages or one another (and I miss those Alabama-Florida games so very, very much.) If there is a secret weapon this year, it would be Alabama's offensive makeover, which Meyer has not faced yet, and which, to be honest, just isn't anything that most of the Big Ten has shown at an elite level. There aren't tendencies in down and distances as with past Tide teams, which is why Alabama takes the kickoff if given the chance. The Tide wants to set the pace, and to put its stars on the field (and in the endzone) early.
I think Alabama jumps out to an early two-score lead, on the strength of scripted plays -- say 10-14 -- before Ohio State regroups. The two teams trade shots and scores for the middle portion of the game, before Alabama's upperclassman depth takes over in the fourth and wears down a suspect OSU interior DL. Ohio State gets its shots in, but most come in the third quarter, and a Buckeye rally dies down the stretch. The Crimson Tide take this national semifinal game 38-23, and then become America's last remaining hope, as you see a final versus Florida State.