The second semifinal of the Playoff will take place in New Orleans with Alabama and Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. What jumps off the page immediately is the coaching match-up between Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Saban has a 2-1 edge head-to-head vs Meyer dating back to Meyer’s days at Florida. This is as good as it gets as far as two coaches facing each other in college football. Other storylines include: Cardale Jones’ 2nd collegiate start at QB for Ohio State, Alabama trying to conquer the Sugar Bowl hurdle (the Crimson Tide have lost the last two Sugar Bowls they have played), and Ohio State making the Playoff Committee look smart in picking the Buckeyes with a win. Let’s look at the keys for both teams.
1. Defending the spread attack. It has been well-chronicled that Alabama has had their problems with the “spread” in recent seasons, in particular spread teams that are two-dimensional. For example, Auburn gained over 600 yards of offense in the Iron Bowl this year. Ohio State’s offense is underrated I believe because they can run and throw. They average 260 yards per game on the ground and 246 in the air. This balance might be tough for Alabama to contain, especially in the passing game where the secondary has been a weakness for Alabama’s defense this year. The good thing is they are facing a quarterback who is making his second collegiate start, and is not experienced.
2. Lane Kiffin’s offensive mind. We can talk all we want about Kiffin as a coach, but as an offensive coordinator, not many can be matched. He is very creative and puts his players in great positions to be effective. He did a wonderful job developing QB Blake Sims. I am intrigued to see possible tweaks in the offense he comes up with because Ohio State will have had close to a month to prepare for Alabama. It will be important that Kiffin does not get away from what has worked, but I think he will throw the ball more in order to keep the Buckeyes off-kilter defensively.
3. Get Ohio State into third-and-long situations. Cardale Jones had a field day against Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship Game. The one thing they struggled with was third down conversions, only converting 2 out of 8 opportunities, and going 0-fer on third and more than six yards. Alabama has to force Cardale Jones to be put into situations where he MUST throw the football on third down. Don’t allow the Buckeyes and Jones get into a groove offensively where they are second and third and short yardage.
1. Identify Amari Cooper on every offensive play Alabama runs! The junior wide receiver has had a phenomenal year with 115 receptions. The next leading receiver has only 37 receptions, so Cooper is extremely important. Kiffin will put Cooper in different spots on the field (wildcat QB, in the backfield as a running back) to make you adjust, so the Buckeyes need to aware of where he is. They might not stop him, but if the Buckeyes can contain him, Ohio State should be in good shape.
2. How does Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Hermann handle Cardale Jones? Jones is still a QB making his second start, so there could be a sense that the play-calling could be more conservative. Still, Jones has been in this offense for 3+ seasons so he understands the nuances of the offense and Meyer and Hermann might not hold anything back. Watch out for the first couple of drives, I think that will tell us a lot of how Ohio State will attack Alabama.
3. Try to be physical and run the ball. Alabama’s run defense has been fantastic this year, allowing under 89 yards per game. Ohio State I feel has the weapons in the backfield to be effective in Jalin Marshall, Ezekiel Elliott, and Curtis Samuel among others. Jones is a capable runner as well. They need the balance in the run game because I don’t know if Jones will have as easy of a time throwing the ball like he did against Wisconsin.
Prediction: Alabama, I believe is the better team. I have a feeling though that the Buckeyes have enough talent to at least make this a game. Alabama has seen good spread offenses, but Ohio State has not really seen offenses as talented as Alabama. I believe that will be the difference, Alabama’s offense will make enough plays to beat Ohio State in a game that will be better expected I think. Crimson Tide 24-14.