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Two proud programs meet in the 2015 Sugar Bowl. The Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1) take on the Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1) in what will be the second ever playoff game in college football history. The victor meets the winner of the Rose Bowl (Oregon or Florida State), which kicks off hours earlier.
A Strange Path
Back in August, Ohio State’s appearance in the playoff felt like a forgone conclusion. In fact, I originally picked the Buckeyes to win the Big Ten, and was going to pick them to win the national championship.
Everything changed when quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. The injury sent the Buckeyes into chaos, and their early-season performance suffered because of it. After struggling against Navy in the opener, Virginia Tech beat them in Columbus. Any national title aspiration appeared over.
Then something special began to happen. The week after losing to the Hokies, quarterback J.T. Barrett threw for six touchdowns. The offense started to gel, scoring 50-plus points in four consecutive weeks. Barrett’s success culminated in East Lansing against Michigan State. His performance was masterful. He accounted for 386 yards (86 rushing), and five total touchdowns. The Buckeyes won 49-37, cementing themselves as Big Ten favorites.
Their playoff hopes were looking up, but they almost came crashing down in the regular-season finale against Michigan. Barrett fractured his ankle that afternoon. His season was over. The Buckeyes had a week to get third-string quarterback Cardale Jones prepared to face Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. Even Vegas doubted their odds, installing the Badgers as favorites.
Needing a convincing win to qualify for the playoff, Jones and the offense delivered. The Buckeyes humiliated the Badgers 59-0. Jones completed over 70 percent of his passes, throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns. The 59-point victory impressed the selection committee enough that Ohio State surpassed Baylor and TCU in the final playoff rankings.
Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer are the two most recognizable coaches in college football. Meyer, the former coach of the Florida Gators, is 1-2 against Saban in his career.
Saban is the gold standard of college football. He has built a perennial national title contender at Alabama, and has done so without marquee quarterbacks. Saban normally builds his team from the inside out, relying on dominate defenses and offensive lines. This season is unique for Saban, though. His offensive line isn‘t dominating, and his defense has shown vulnerabilities to high-octane offenses such as Auburn. This year’s team relies more on explosive plays, with receiver Amari Cooper being the most important player on the roster. Cooper had perhaps the best season by a college receiver since Larry Fitzgerald in ‘03. He finished No. 3 in the Heisman voting, catching 114 passes for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns.
While Saban is the game’s best coach, nobody did a better coaching job this year than Meyer did. All due respect to TCU’s Gary Patterson, but Meyer should’ve been named coach of the year.
The Buckeyes didn’t lose just any quarterback when Miller went down with a season-ending injury in August. Miller was a potential Heisman contender, who had mastered Meyer‘s offense over the previous two years. Meyer steadied the ship without him, and by mid October, the Buckeyes looked every bit as good as we all anticipated they would with Miller under center.
They had every excuse to fold. Nobody would’ve blamed them, especially after Barrett’s season-ending injury against Michigan. That was supposedly going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Meyer refused to let that happen, though. He believed in his system, and the players he recruited to run it.
And the Winners Is...
Alabama has won three of the last six SEC championships, and is looking for their fourth national championship in six years. Yet, they are a very vulnerable No. 1 despite their résumé.
They loss at Ole Miss, beat Arkansas by just a point, and nearly loss to LSU. They also failed to put away Mississippi State, an uncharacteristic trait from a Saban-led squad.
I suspect Meyer studied the Iron Bowl the most, while he prepared for this game. Auburn dropped 44 points on Alabama, the most anybody has scored on them in the Saban Era. The Crimson Tide had no answer for receiver Sammie Coates, who torched them for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Expect the Buckeyes to attack them downfield just as Auburn did, as receiver Devin Smith is capable of replicating Coates’ performance.
Cooper is the player to watch, however. An outstanding game from him, and the Crimson Tide could win comfortably. The Buckeyes need to contain him, and force quarterback Blake Sims to beat them throwing to other receivers. If they do, they have enough pieces to shock the college football world.
Ohio State 38 Alabama 35