The Buckeyes shocked the world and grabbed the four seed in the first ever College Football Playoff, and are slated to face off against the top seeded Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. We have plenty of time to dig much deeper into Alabama's playbook, how they match up with Ohio State and more, but for now, we can offer a very rough scouting report. Just who are the Buckeyes getting with Alabama?
How did they get here?
The Tide rolled to a 12-1 record and the number one ranking, thanks to their SEC championship and overpowering talent advantage. Alabama beat West Virginia in Atlanta to start the season 33-23, completely eviscerated Texas A&M 59-0, knocked off LSU on the road in overtime, and closed the season with big wins over Mississippi State, and over Auburn in a highly entertaining shootout. Alabama's only blemish of the season came on the road against a fully healthy Ole Miss team, 23-17, although they did show several spouts of vulnerability during the year, like every top 10 team, such as beating Arkansas by just a point, and needing overtime to beat LSU.
What are they like on offense?
There were some jokes about Alabama's offense before the season after they hired the internet's favorite coach, Lane Kiffin, to be their offensive coordinator. After some fitful starts earlier in the season, the Crimson Tide offense seems to be playing exceptionally well right now.
A huge reason for that is the play of WR Amari Cooper, the best wideout in college football. Cooper was positively untouchable against Auburn, and hell, for a lot of the season. He's caught 115 balls for an eye popping 1656 yards and 14 touchdowns, and has caught at least 12 passes in each of his last two games. He's a matchup nightmare in the open field and going deep, and expect Alabama to use him to test the rebuilt Ohio State secondary early and often.
In charge of delivering that ball will be Blake Sims, a senior who has thrown for 3250 yards and 26 TDs against 7 picks. Unlike other Alabama QBs in recent memory, Sims has some mobility, and while he won't be confused with Braxton Miller or J.T. Barrett, he can pick up big yardage if he leaves the pocket. He's got a very strong arm, but has also shown he can make some bad decisions with the football as well. He's certainly good enough to carry Alabama to a win, but if Ohio State wants to spring the upset, they'll need to force him to cough up the football. It can be done.
Finally, Ohio State will need the same defensive effort they showed in shutting down Wisconsin's rushing game, since Alabama has a stable of excellent running backs and a good offensive line. T.J Yeldon and Derrick Henry combine for a particularly nasty running back corp, and either can drop 150 yards in a game at any time. Both are big, strong, can chew up the clock, and frustrate even the best defensive line.
How about on defense?
It wouldn't be a Nick Saban coached Alabama team if they didn't have a great defense, chock full of potential NFL talent. Alabama is fourth in the country in scoring defense, giving up a paltry average of 16.6 points per game. The advanced stats love them too, as Alabama is No. 2 in the country in defensive S&P+.
They're not elite in forcing turnovers (80th in the country), but they're outstanding in getting teams off schedule. Alabama has given up more than 25 points in a game only once this season, against Auburn, who scored 44 (but gave up 55).
Alabama is the very best in the country in rushing S&P+, and even for an improved offensive line like Ohio State's, getting a good push and opening holes for Ezekiel Elliot and other backs will be difficult. This squad averages nearly seven tackles per loss per game, and they're going to be gunning for Ohio State's backfield. If there is one silver lining, Alabama's secondary might be their weak spot (to the extent that they even have a weak spot), and Ohio State is sporting a QB who is uniquely qualified to attack Alabama vertically.
What about special teams?
Alabama's got a hell of a punter, but field goal kicking might be one of their other rare weaknesses. The Crimson Tide should be able to move the ball a little bit, but if Ohio State can buckle down in the red zone and force field goal attempts, they have a decent chance of seeing a field goal attempt miss. Or maybe two.
Does Ohio State stand a chance?
They're underdogs, no doubt about it, but Ohio State has been road underdogs twice this season, and dominated both of those teams. Granted, Alabama is a step up in weight class from Michigan State and Wisconsin, to use the understatement of the year. If Ohio State wins the turnover battle, gets a few big plays on the vertical passing game, and keeps Cooper from dropping 200 yards on them, anything can happen.
Alabama isn't the NFL team the internet makes them out to be sometimes, but this will be the best team Ohio State has played this season, by a large margin, and they'll need to turn in another effort like they did against Wisconsin to give themselves a shot at advancing through the playoff.