The second semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff sees the fourth-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes take on the top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. This marks the fourth-ever meeting between the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide, with Alabama having won all three of the previous matchups, the last of which was back in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.
To convince the College Football Playoff selection committee that they deserved to be one of the four teams included in the playoff, Ohio State won their 35th Big Ten title with a 59-0 shutout over Wisconsin in Indianapolis on December 6th. The 59-0 win was the second largest shutout ever against a team that was ranked in the AP Top-15. The win also helped Ohio State extend their winning streak to 11 games, which is now the second longest active streak in the nation. This marks the sixth winning streak of at least 11 games for Urban Meyer.
Not only did the Buckeyes lose Braxton Miller before the regular season began, but J.T. Barrett was injured for the rest of the season against Michigan, leaving many with questions of just how effective the Buckeyes would be in the Big Ten Championship Game with redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones making his first career start. Jones picked right up where Barrett had left off this season, throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns, earning Big Ten Championship Game MVP honors against Wisconsin.
Much like the Buckeyes, Alabama is coming off a big win of their own in their conference championship game, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. The Crimson Tide easily handled Missouri 42-13 in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game, marking their second win in the game in the last three years. The only blemish on Alabama's record this year came back in early October when the Crimson Tide fell to Mississippi 23-17 in Oxford. Since then Nick Saban's team has had a couple close calls, but have been playing their best football of the season when it counts the most.
Ohio State may be on their third quarterback of the season, and while Alabama hasn't had to go through that much adversity with their signal callers, it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing either. Sims made a name for himself with 445 yards passing and four touchdowns against Florida, but the senior has had some growing pains in the loss to Mississippi and wins against Arkansas and LSU. Still, Sims has thrown for 3,250 yards and 26 touchdowns, while only tossing seven interceptions on the season.
|Team||Record||CFP||F/+ Rk||Line||Off F/+ Rk||Def F/+ Rk||ST F/+ Rk|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Offense||1||1||1||1||6||6||109|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Defense||19||33||37||10||10||27||13|
Ohio State's biggest advantages
There's nothing new under the sun. The playoffs might be new to college football, but the situation Urban Meyer brings his team into is something he has dealt with before. Back in 2007 while Urban Meyer was at Florida, the Gators found a way into the BCS National Championship Game, where they were more than a touchdown underdog to Ohio State. Meyer put together the perfect game plan to slow down Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and a Buckeye team that looked unstoppable during the regular season. Now Meyer leads his own Buckeye team, which earned the last playoff spot, into New Orleans to take on the top-seed.
7 Ohio State-Alabama questions with Roll Bama Roll
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.
With all the extra preparation time there is between the end of the season and bowl games, Meyer has often used that to his advantage, compiling a 7-2 record in bowl. Meyer does some of his best work in the bigger bowl games; he posted a 4-1 record in BCS bowls, with the only loss coming in last year's Orange Bowl when the Buckeyes took on Clemson. In neutral site games, Meyer teams have accumulated a 15-5 record over his coaching career.
Meyer does have some familiarity with Alabama head coach Nick Saban from Meyer's time at Florida. In the first three matchups between the coaches, Saban has taken two of the three meetings. The first game between the coaches saw Meyer's Gators win 31-20 in the SEC Championship Game, with Saban's Crimson Tide taking a 32-13 decision in the rematch in Atlanta the next year, and a 31-6 stomping the following regular season. Even with those results, there's no doubt amongst Buckeye faithful that Meyer has created a blueprint and will do his best to give his team every opportunity to take down Saban and Alabama.
Elite offense. There is no doubt Alabama has one of the best defenses in the country, and will be the best defense Ohio State has faced all season long, but in countering, the Buckeye offense has a balance unlike anything the Crimson Tide has seen all season. Ohio State ranks 10th in the NCAA with 260.8 yards per game rushing, and is second in the NCAA with a 172.36 passer efficiency. The 45.2 points Ohio State puts up per game ranks fifth in the country. The Buckeyes have only failed to score at least 30 points in one game this season, and has put 50 or more points in six games so far.
The most impressive offensive performance this season for the Buckeyes came in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin. Just a week after losing J.T. Barrett to a season-ending ankle injury against Michigan, Cardale Jones looked like he was in full control of the offense against the Badgers. Wisconsin came into the game allowing opponents only 260 yards per game, which led the NCAA, and the Buckeyes gashed the Badgers for 558 yards of total offense.
Jones may be inexperienced behind center, but some of the things he showed against Wisconsin have many Buckeye fans thinking that an upset of the Crimson Tide isn't outside the realm of possibilities. Not only does Jones possess considerable size at 6'5" and 250 pounds which makes him a load to take down for opponents, but he showed with a number of throws against Wisconsin just how strong an arm he has. Alabama will be a considerable step-up in terms of speed and talent than what Jones saw against Wisconsin, but he does have the luxury of spending a few extra weeks with Urban Meyer and Tom Herman to prepare himself to try and solve the puzzle that is Kirby Smart's Alabama defense.
Relentless pressure. The few games in which Alabama has struggled this season, they've done so because of the defensive pressure their opponents have put on them. The Crimson Tide have been able to keep Sims clean this season, only allowing opponents to record 13 sacks on the season, but that doesn't mean opponents haven't been able to find their way into the backfield. In the loss to Mississippi, the Rebels were able to rack up six tackles for loss, and in the narrow win in Fayetteville against Arkansas, the Razorbacks had seven tackles for loss.
Alabama will be facing their toughest test of the season in terms of a defensive line when they have to try and contain Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, and the rest of the Ohio State front-4. Bosa was named Big Ten defensive player of the year, and was a finalist for the Lombardi, Hendricks, and Bednarik awards, as he posted 20 tackles-for-loss and 13.5 sacks on the season. When able to fight through blocks, Bosa can have a major impact on the game, as shown by the four forced fumbles he caused during the season.
Bennett might have started off his senior season slow, but he is certainly making up for that slow start as of late. The defensive tackle was named a third-team AP All-American, and finished with six sacks, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, and three forced fumbles. With the pressure the duo creates on opposing quarterbacks, it often creates bad throws, which the Buckeyes have cashed in on. Ohio State is one of the best teams in the country at creating turnovers, as their 21 interceptions on the season ranks fourth in the country.
Alabama's biggest advantages
The best player in college football. There's no question who the best player out on the field on Thursday night will be for Alabama, and it is somebody that they'll look to go to early and often. Amari Cooper was one of three candidates invited to New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and while Ohio State was able to stop Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten Championship Game, they'll have to be on top of their game if they want to slow Cooper down in New Orleans.
This season Cooper hauled in 115 passes for 1,656 yards, and 14 touchdowns. In only two games did Cooper catch less than eight passes, and one of those games was against Western Carolina, where the Crimson Tide didn't need Cooper to do a whole lot. In three games Cooper had over 200 yards receiving, and all three of those games came in conference play. In seven games this season Cooper had at least 100 yards receiving. At 6'1" Cooper isn't a giant target, like a Randy Moss, but it seems like he catches everything that is thrown in his vicinity.
Ohio State's secondary has been much better this year than they were last year, but that doesn't mean they still haven't had issues. Chris Moore of Cincinnati had three touchdowns catches and amassed over 200 yards against the Buckeyes earlier in the season, so it shows there are still holes on the back line. Ohio State was 17th in the country against the pass this year, allowing opponents to throw for 188.2 yards per game. While the stats show massive improvement compared to last year, the Buckeyes haven't faced a wide receiver that can change the game quite like Cooper has, so this will be the true test to see if the improvements are real or just fool's gold.
The next level. Seeing Cardale Jones pick apart Wisconsin in early December had Buckeye fans wondering "what if" in terms of if the Buckeyes got chosen to be a part of the College Football Playoff, could the redshirt sophomore who was making his first start for Ohio State lead the Buckeyes to the title. Statistically, Wisconsin's defense was one of the best in the country coming into the Big Ten Championship Game, but Alabama's defense is a whole different animal to try and move the football on. While it isn't impossible to move the football and score on Alabama, the athleticism the Crimson Tide defense possesses is on a whole different level from what Jones saw against the Badgers.
Alabama might not have a Joey Bosa-type player on the defensive line, but the Buckeye offensive line can't afford to sleep on Xzavier Dickson, who registered eight sacks during the season for Alabama. Where Alabama is at their best is amongst their linebackers, which includes Springfield native Trey DePriest, who is in his senior season in Tuscaloosa. The Buckeyes were one of the finalists to gain a commitment from DePriest coming out of high school, but the linebacker decided to head down south, and this year he has recorded 81 tackles for Alabama. Along with DePriest, Alabama also boasts Reggie Ragland at linebacker, who is second on the team with 86 tackles this season.
The most prominent name for Alabama's defense, and the player Jones will have to be looking out for the most, is safety Landon Collins. The junior leads Alabama with 87 tackles this season and has intercepted three passes. The New Orleans native has a nose for the football and if the Buckeyes have any hopes of winning in Collins' hometown, they'll have to be sure to account for Collins at all times, or else Ohio State might be hoping Collins committed to LSU instead, much like his mother did.
The monkey on the back. Things in Columbus might be a lot different now that Urban Meyer is in charge, but there is still the stigma of Ohio State's repeated failures against the SEC in bowl games over the years. Since 2000, Ohio State is just 1-5 when facing SEC teams in bowl games, with that one-win coming in the 2011 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, which was later vacated. This year's senior class lost to Florida in the 2012 Gator Bowl during the transition year with Luke Fickell at the helm, and while there is a lot of youth on this year's team, there is still that wonder if things go south early for the Buckeyes they might feel defeated just because of who they are playing.
Meanwhile for Alabama, while this may be a different format in terms of crowning a national champion, when Nick Saban's teams have it all on the line more often than not they come out on top. Saban won the BCS National Championship Game in three of the last five years, and none of those victories were really that close. When Alabama didn't have much to play for in other BCS games, like against Utah and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, they haven't looked great, but when it really matters he has his players ready to go.
There's no doubt that Urban Meyer knows how to win when it counts, and he has shown that when the Buckeyes traveled to Michigan State earlier this year, and in the Big Ten Championship Game, but could this atmosphere be asking just a little too much a little too soon? With all the adversity the Buckeyes have dealt with throughout the season it wouldn't be a surprise to see them pull the upset, but with the recent history of Alabama's domination on the national stage, it'll take the finest effort from Ohio State.
F/+ Projection: Alabama 33, Ohio State 30
Win Probability: Alabama 60%
Vegas might not agree, but the F/+ projection has the Sugar Bowl being a tight game with Alabama squeaking out a win to move on to face the winner of Florida State and Oregon. Currently the line on the game has Alabama as a nine-point favorite over the Buckeyes, so it should be interesting to see whether the humans are better at picking how this game should play out, or if the computers are closer with the final result.
This matchup is really the unstoppable force against the immovable object. Ohio State wants to run the ball, but Alabama only allows opponents 88.4 yards per game on the ground. While Ohio State has the talent to throw the ball if the running attack isn't working, Alabama is capable of stopping the pass as well. On the other side, while statistically not as good as Alabama, Ohio State has just as much talent on the defensive side of the ball to make things difficult for what Alabama and Lane Kiffin's offense will want try to do.
In the end it is going to come down to the head coaches, and luckily for college football fans, two of the best coaches in the country will be matching wits on Thursday night in New Orleans. Both Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have excelled in bowl games, and with a week or more to prepare for their opponents, are very difficult to beat. They both know each other very well from coaching against each other in the SEC. No matter the result, those that tune into the game should be ready for a tremendous game, and if it plays out like the F/+ Projections have it, this could be one of the best games we've seen so far this college football season.