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Sugar Bowl Preview: Alabama vs. Ohio State

The second-ever college football semifinal will pit two of college football’s all-time most successful programs against each other. If fans wanted an all-time matchup, it’s hard to ask for better than Ohio State/Alabama. (Okay, maybe if you replace either of those schools with Michigan or Notre Dame, but this is pretty darn close to the biggest possible.)

And if you want to combine all-time prestige with recent success (this is what will eliminate Michigan or Notre Dame), there is absolutely no better matchup. Ohio State may have only won one national championship in the BCS era–compared with Alabama’s three–but no one won more BCS games than the Buckeyes. Alabama might be in the middle of what many view as a dynasty, but Ohio State under Urban Meyer has won 12 games for the third straight season and is hot on the Tide’s heels.

If the Buckeyes want to regain the national respect that they lost in 2006-07, thought, the road goes through Nick Saban and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Ohio State Offense vs Alabama Defense:

This could be the matchup that most determines the game. How will Cardale Jones deal with an Alabama front that is much more talented and aggressive than Wisconsin’s was? The Tide’s secondary has had holes poked in it this year and Jones showed incredible accuracy in his one start. But will he be able to have the time and pocket presence to make those precise throws?

On the edges, Ohio State’s speed seems to be an advantage. We have seen receivers get deep over the top against Alabama, which Devin Smith can probably also do. We have also seen receivers (most notable Sammie Coates) win a lot of 50-50 balls against the Tide’s defensive backs. Smith also excels at this. Jalin Marshall also has incredible speed on the edge and may be able to find some creases in that defense.

The trenches will be a battle this game. Ohio State did an excellent job against Michigan State’s stout defensive line, but that was with a much more mobile quarterback in J.T. Barrett. With Jones’ more limited mobility, protecting the pocket can be tougher. Jones is a bit of a running threat, but he cannot scramble like Barrett could. And in the past few years, quarterbacks who can scramble have had the most success against Alabama. Jalin Marshall as the Wildcat quarterback (he can also throw the ball, having played QB in high school) might be an important X-factor here.

Alabama Offense vs Ohio State Defense:

Alabama has not met a defense this year that could really stop their rushing attack. That offensive line is big and can make holes. And while Ohio State has at least two defensive linemen who will play on Sundays (Michael Bennet and Joey Bosa), the defensive line as a whole has struggled against good power rushing attacks this year. That is, aside from the Wisconsin game. If they can dominate Alabama’s line as well as they did against Wisconsin, the Tide could be in for a long night on offense.

Then again, Blake Sims has more passing ability than either Wisconsin quarterback. The Buckeyes have to keep him contained because he is a running threat as well, though practicing all season against Barrett probably has them well-prepared for that. Sims has had accuracy problems, but his long ball has been very good this year when it’s open, so they can’t afford to let receivers get over the top.

Which brings us to the biggest matchup nightmare of this game. How does Ohio State stop Amari Cooper? It is possible; Ole Miss did it. And I can guarantee you that Urban Meyer has spent countless hours analyzing that game’s type and seeing precisely how the Ole Miss zones kept Cooper in check. Force Sims to make plays to another receiver and you’ll have a chance in this game.


Obviously, the coaches take center stage. These teams have two of the best coaches in all of college football and no matter what happens in this game won’t change that. Saban won the last time this pair met. Urban won the time before that. These coaches recruit better than pretty much anyone else in the nation and are among the best Xs and Os strategists in the game. This could very well come down to who out-thinks the other with the right halftime adjustments.

Let’s not forget that Cardale Jones has made exactly one start. That is certainly a negative for the Buckeyes. He handled the pressure well against Wisconsin, but he had the benefit of an early lead. This will be a challenge an order of magnitude bigger and we’ve never seen what Jones does if he gets behind or flustered.

Then again, having Jones be green is a negative for Alabama too. They don’t have nearly enough game tape to know what he’s capable of. He probably had a limited playbook with only seven days of prep before his last game. Now, the playbook will be much more open and he can probably attempt things that Alabama has never seen from him or the Buckeyes before.

There’s not really one or two things we can point to that this game will hinge on. Stopping Amari Cooper is a huge deal. Alabama’s defensive backs not giving up plays is also going to be huge. But the game can still be won with a few mistakes by the defense. Ohio State has to make sure not to get down early, though. Coming back with a freshman in his second start at quarterback is probably not in the cards, especially against Nick Saban and Alabama’s defense.

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