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Hope For the Best: Ohio State Buckeyes Edition

It's here, finally...the College Football Playoff. Alabama faces a difficult test in the semi...make no mistake, this isn't the '06 Buckeyes they're facing.

Nick Saban hopes to show Urban Meyer, now with the Ohio State Buckeyes, the CFP exit door.
Nick Saban hopes to show Urban Meyer, now with the Ohio State Buckeyes, the CFP exit door.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

"What happened yesterday is history. What happens tomorrow is a mystery. What we do today makes a difference...the precious present moment." - Coach Nick Saban

In a game so draped in tradition and the ghosts of legend past, it is hard for one to forget that what happened yesterday is history. For certainly, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes are the royals of college football, blue bloods who sit atop a mountain of accomplishment, pageantry and tradition.

None of that, however, will matter as the two teams push into the mystery of tomorrow, their first explorations into the new endeavor of the College Football Playoff. Sure, there will be prognosticators who claim to peer through crystal balls at futures to come, but if any among us know the outcome of this match-up of regals, please, by all means, speak your piece now.

For these two teams, the precious present moment will come when the ball is first held aloft in the heavy Louisiana air of the Superdome, the hallowed ground of past conquests for both teams. While Alabama felt the sting of defeat in its last trip to New Orleans, it won a recent BCS National Championship over LSU on the very field upon which it will meet the enemy from the north. And Ohio State sampled from the rare palette of victory over an SEC foe in its last trip to the Sugar Bowl, a controversy-tinged victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks.

But none of these prior events will cast a shadow on what will come on the first day of the coming new year. For both teams, the Sugar Bowl represents the shadowy mystery of what is to come that is executed in that perfect, precious present moment.

Neither team is flawless, despite much chest thumping as the season wore long. Ohio State experienced its stumble early on against a lowly Virginia Tech team...but the Buckeyes were able to overcome. Alabama saw its season nearly slip away after a loss to the stingy bunch from Oxford...but the Tide was able to rise nonetheless. The argument could be made that few teams have seen the level of adversity experienced by both teams this year, even if that adversity has been of the on-field variety.

While these two teams seemingly have very little in common, contenders harkening from opposite poles, there are more similarities than one can imagine at first glance. Aside from the aforementioned traditions of football excellence, both teams are coached by legends and National Championship winning coaches. Both teams have great defenses and explosive offenses coached by some of the best assistant coaches in the business. Both teams have substantial weaknesses that could prove their undoing. Finally, both teams have been resilient and relentless in pursuit of their shared goal: the first ever College Football Playoff Championship.

When Alabama and Ohio State take the field Thursday evening, both will be embarking on a brave new world of college football, one where each team's traditional clout will carry little weight. The flesh of history will be cleft away from each team, leaving only the bare bones of that which makes the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes elite.

When Alabama faces off with Ohio State Thursday evening, they will, in a way, be looking in the mirror. Five-star athletes, all-star coaching staffs, huge rabid fan bases...the two teams couldn't be more alike. And if the saying that one is his own worst enemy is true, the Tide will be in for the fight of its life against a hungry Ohio State team fighting not just for the cold bronze cast of glory, but for the crystalline carve of redemption.

This Ohio State team can, indeed, beat Alabama, despite everything you've heard from pundits and fans. Talk radio is the fodder of the dedicated believer, but those beliefs char like singed cotton when held to the flame of gridiron combat. Be forewarned: very bad things can occur in this new year, and a trip to the championship game is not a fait accompli.

Much will be determined in this opening stanza of the CFP. Let's take a closer look...

Alabama offense versus the Ohio State defense

This dynamic will undoubtedly be the line of demarcation upon which the Sugar Bowl will be decided, as each team has elite caliber units that have proven the ability to dominate games on their own. Alabama's offense proved in the Iron Bowl contest with Auburn that it can score with the best in college football, using all means of attack to get the job done. The Alabama offense has morphed from a bludgeoning, run-first wave of brute force to a nuanced, slight-of-hand sorcerer under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and few could find fault in the results. Alabama has had one of its most prolific offensive years of all time, passing the ball like a West Coast offense without losing its identity as mauling hammer in the run game (though admittedly, to a lesser extent than in previous years.)

However, the defensive unit that Ohio State brings to the table is not Auburn's rag-tag bunch. Coach Urban Meyer (with the help of co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell) has assembled a defense comprised of SEC caliber players (in fact, many current members of the Buckeye D such as Joey Bosa and Vonn Bell were top targets of the Tide before signing with OSU.) The unit includes a defensive line that by all accounts, could be the best first-string line in all of college football. Rumor has percolated that when evaluating Big 10 offensive line talent, NFL GMs have used those players' performance against the OSU defensive line as a measuring stick, so deep is the Buckeye unit in talent, experience and performance. If that isn't enough to cause worry amongst followers of the Tide, then followers just haven't been paying attention.

Bosa (50 tackles, 34 solo, 20 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles), Michael Bennett (22 tackles, 12.5 tfls, six sacks, three forced fumbles) and Adolphus Washington (43 tackles, 9 tfls, 3.5 sacks) are likely early round draft picks. Yes, there are three likely first-round picks on the Ohio State line...let that sink in. The big three is a big reason that Ohio State is ranked seventh nationally in tfls, and 11th in team sacks. Other than possibly Mizzou (which, by the way, has two likely first round picks on its D line), Alabama hasn't faced a defensive line as talented and potentially dominant as the one the Buckeyes will bring to the table.

There's no question that the Ohio State line will be disruptive. Not only do they stuff the run well (35th ranked rushing defense), but the passing defense is ranked in the top 15 in the country, partially due to the incredible leverage the line gets in the pass rush. The Ohio State defensive line does all things at a high level, as in addition to stuffing the run and creating night terrors for opposing quarterbacks, they are consistent turnover generators (Bosa has four forced fumbles, Bennett three, Washington one).

The Buckeye defensive line will be difficult to corral at best, and at worst...well, remember the "Honk if you sacked Brodie" bumper stickers?

Despite the strength of the OSU D line, Alabama could, in fact, be the team that draws back the scarlet curtain on the unit. After all, Alabama's offensive line has been nothing short of fantastic when it has come to pass blocking, keeping quarterback Blake Sims in a clean jersey for most of the season while allowing an average of one sack per game (first in the SEC.) Alabama has not only protected the quarterback, but has done a good job of keeping opposing defenses out of its back field overall, ranking 10th nationally in tackles for loss allowed. Add into the equation the fact that despite a stellar first line, the Ohio State defensive line has little experienced depth in its second and third strings, and one can imagine the Tide could be one of the first teams to have success in stemming the attack of the aggressive, elite Buckeye defensive front.

Match-ups to watch will include Bama's true freshman left tackle Cam Robinson against Bosa and pass rushing "walkabout" linebacker Darron Lee. Both are physical and lightning quick, but both also give up at least a half-a-buck of weight to Bama's behemoth freshman. On the other side, right tackle Austin Shepherd, Bama's most veteran offensive lineman, will get his share of work against the Buckeyes' pass-rushing duo, and will be called upon to help out with Bennett and the rest of OSU's NFL-caliber talent. Also, can center Ryan Kelly (an Ohio native and one time Buckeye target) play above his head against the fierce OSU interior? Kelly's smallish size for the center position is generally trumped by his improved technique and athleticism...but that may not be enough against the likes of Washington, who has great size AND great technique. Bama will need a strong performance from Kelly to anchor the offensive line and hold point, as Alabama's tackles will win enough of their share of the battles on the edge to give the Tide offense a chance. It will be a tall task indeed, and one the Tide will be fortunate to emerge from in victorious fashion.

If Alabama can plug the dike and hold the Buckeye pass rush at bay, as it did against Mizzou, then Alabama's electric offense could be nearly unstoppable. Though the Buckeyes have outstanding playmakers in the secondary in safety Vonn Bell and corner Doran Grant, phenom receiver Amari Cooper has proven time and time again, against the best talent the SEC has to offer, that he simply can't be corralled. When he's doubled, Kiffin keeps the pressure on by spreading the ball to Bama's other weapons in DeAndrew White, Ar'Darius Stewart, Christion Jones, Chris Black and O.J. Howard. Frustrated defenses eventually relent, and Cooper explodes.

If, however, Sims has a slow start and trouble focusing passes (ala Auburn 2014), Grant and Bell are two players who can make the Tide pay. Both men have five interceptions on the season, and both are athletic enough to make plays that players in lesser secondary units can only make on NCAA 2014. They are an instinctual aggressive unit the likes of which Bama has only faced once this season in Ole Miss' Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson. And we all know how that turned out...

The key will be whether or not Alabama can give Sims enough time to run through his progressions, whether the Buckeyes can disguise their coverages sufficiently to give the quarterback enough pause to tip the advantage to the defensive line, and whether Bama can keep the OSU defense honest with moderate success in the running game. Despite his proclamation of 100% health, T.J. Yeldon has been dinged up and has not practiced much leading up to the game, and his presence will be needed if this latter need is to be fulfilled. Running mate Derrick Henry will get his carries, and can inflict heavy damage on the Buckeyes during the course of the game. But Bama has been, and will be, better if both backs are operating at a high level.

If Henry is the work horse for the Tide due to an ailing Yeldon, expect Bama to use the type of approach it used later in the season. Henry is at his best when he's allowed to build momentum before contact. At times through 2014, he looked plodding as he plowed between the tackles for little to no gain. A running back with his physical attributes and running style needs to get a head of steam going before blasting opponents, and late in the season, the Tide staff seemed to recognize that and adapt. Against Auburn and Mizzou, Henry used more lateral movement coming out of the back field, taking steps to right or left before picking a seam and hitting it at full speed. The results were dramatically better, and this should be a tactic that continues against an Ohio State unit that has SEC speed at every position of the defense. Again, there's no guarantee that this will work against an Ohio State defense that has the speedy likes of Bosa and Lee on the outside edges, as both men have outstanding lateral pursuit and the size to at least slow "El Tractorcito" down while the cavalry arrives.

Make no mistake, though there are areas for exploitation, the Buckeye defense will represent the best complete unit the Tide has faced this season, both statistically and in terms of the "eye test." The Buckeyes are ranked 14th in total defense, 15th in passing defense and 35th in rushing defense. What's more, unlike previous Buckeye units that floundered against SEC teams, Meyer has basically transformed OSU (in particular, the defense) into an SEC team by recruiting Southern-bred elite talent and giving them top-notch coaching under coordinators like Frank Broyles Award winner Tom Herman and Fickell.

This isn't your grand-dad's Buckeye team, folks. This Ohio state team is one that can line up toe-to-toe with Alabama and give them pure hell. Be afraid...be very afraid.

Alabama defense versus Ohio State offense

It is this battle in which Alabama has the decided advantage, despite the firepower the Buckeyes bring to the table. That said, any Urban Meyer-Tom Herman offense with skill position talent like that sported by OSU offers a steep challenge, even to an elite defense like the one the Tide will wield in the Sugar Bowl.

With a top-10 rushing offense and a quarterback who began the season three-deep on the depth chart, one would anticipate the Buckeye MO will be to attempt to run the ball against Alabama. Make no mistake, the Buckeye rushing attack in 2014 has been formidable, as OSU relies not only on exemplary running back Ezekiel Elliot (217 carries for 1402 yards, 12 TDs, 107.8 ypg average), but throughout the season also called upon dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett (171 rushes, 938 yards, 11 TDs, 78.2 ypg) to contribute to the ground assault. The loss of Barrett to injury is significant for the Buckeyes, as replacement Cardale Jones has shown he can run a little (34 attempts for 215 yards), but he is not nearly as explosive on the ground as Barrett or Braxton Miller. This somewhat hedges one of the most potent dimensions of the Buckeye offense, and that will help an Alabama team that has at times struggled with mobile quarterbacks who can also pass adeptly.

To make matters worse for the Buckeye running game, they'll be going up against the top-ranked run defense in all of college football in Alabama. The Crimson Tide has achieved that lofty standard while playing against rush-heavy teams such as Arkansas, LSU and Auburn, which makes the feat that much more impressive. What makes the Alabama run defense so potent is not just the big bodies in the middle, or the depth of the rotation on the defensive line. The Alabama linebackers have incredible sideline-to-sideline speed while remaining physical in their style of play. Even the defensive backs in Alabama's offense, particularly safeties Landon Collins and Nick Perry, play the run at a very high level. With excellence across the defense and speed to boot, it will be difficult for even a talented rusher like Elliot to have much success, whether the Buckeyes run inside or out.

Therefore, the Buckeyes may elect to rely on the untested arm of Jones to make hay against an Alabama secondary that has struggled throughout the season. It is a theme that has nauseated Tide fans from game one when West Virginia was able to ring up yards against the Tide off the arm of Clint Trickett, and the yarn was woven throughout the season, through the Iron Bowl (Nick Marshal hung nearly 500 yards passing on Bama) and into the SEC Championship Game, where the defense struggled to prevent deep passes on obvious 3rd-and-long passing downs.

Speaking of third downs, it is important to note (in the context of the Tide's struggles in third down passing situations) that Ohio State is fourth in the nation in 3rd down conversion percentage. The Buckeye offense could cause problems for the Alabama defense if OSU can extend drives and keep the defense on the field, wearing down Bama's behemoth defenders and chewing up the clock.

Jones won't have to climb the mountain alone in the passing game, as he's surrounded by a host of capable receivers. Unlike Alabama, which doesn't conceal its desire to get the ball in the hands of Amari Cooper as often as possible, Jones has numerous targets who can get the job done against Alabama's secondary. Michael Thomas (43 catches for 680 yards, eight TDs, 15.8 yards per catch) and Jalin Marshall (28 catches for 392 yards, six TDs, 14 yards per catch) are solid if not spectacular, but Devin Smith (30 catches for 79 yards, 11 touchdowns, 26.2 yards per catch) is the true homerun threat every time the Buckeyes elect to pass. He will be one to watch, as Alabama's corners have struggled to corral talented receivers such as Smith (Sammie Coates, Duke Williams, Jimmy Hunt, Laquon Treadwell), even when a safety rolls over the top to assist.

Can Jones make it happen for the Buckeyes through the air? That remains to be seen.  The lack of film on Jones (he only made one start) is a definite advantage for Meyer and OSU, as part of Bama's preparation relies heavily on film study and recognition of tendencies and ticks. The Tide defense won't have that luxury versus Jones. Alabama will have to figure out the big quarterback on the fly, something with which the Tide coaching staff has struggled in the past (Texas A&M 2012, for example.)

Jones' task will become infinitely more difficult if his offensive line plays more like the unit that faced Virginia Tech than the end-of-season unit that faced Wisconsin. Against Virginia Tech, the Buckeye offensive line looked lost and helpless, but has grown tremendously since that early season misstep. The Buckeyes ended the season ranked 22 nationally in tackles for loss, which speaks volumes to the improvement the line has made since the opening stanza of the 2014 season.

The problem, however, is that the Buckeyes to date have not faced the type of defensive line that Alabama brings to the table. Herman himself this week was quoted as saying he'd not seen the combination of size, speed and depth that Alabama can muster along the defensive line, which speaks volumes about the way the unit's potential to disrupt the Buckeye offensive attack. This year's D line is probably the best pass rushing unit the Tide has had during Saban's tenure, and against Ohio State's offensive line, the Tide defense will have a clear advantage due to its depth. Alabama can afford to rotate linemen early and often, which will be useful in the fourth quarter of trench warfare with the Bucks.

Intangibles

While much is made of the rematch of current coaching greats Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, the real battle will take place between coordinators. The Buckeyes and Tide have two of the best coaching staffs in the country, as evidenced by the fact that both offensive coordinators were Broyles Award finalist (Herman won the award), and both defensive coordinators have either been head coaches or have been head coach candidates (Luke Fickell was the interim Buckeye coach after Jim Tressel's departure.) Fireworks will ensue.

In a battle of teams as evenly matched in terms of skill level, many times it is the small things that break a game one way or another. Honestly, this is a draw, as either team could benefit from a few lucky bounces. Can Alabama's kick return game remain steady? Or will the Tide revert to its early season kicking blunders. The Tide has shown a propensity for turning over the ball in 2014, and against a team as skilled as Ohio State, such could be the recipe for disaster (Ohio State is ranked 19th in turnover margin, and several players have four-plus turnovers each.) An inopportune fumble here, a misplaced pass that results in an interception there, and the Tide could find itself down by an insurmountable margin easily.

The kicking game is a concern for both the Tide and Buckeyes. The struggles of Alabama's kicking game are well-documented, and though many chalked the lack of success up to an injury Adam Griffin suffered mid-season, he has seemingly struggled throughout the year. Ohio State's kicking hasn't been much more solid, as only 11 of 18 attempts have been successful. Regarding the punting duties, the scale tips in Bama's favor on the leg of All-American freshman punter J.K. Scott, who has been dynamic this year and a true weapon in the Bama field-position battle of attrition.

Make no mistake about it, this is not the Ohio State Buckeyes team of Failures Past. This unit is built to SEC specs, and with a proven champion like Meyer at the helm, the Tide will likely receive its stiffest challenge of the year. If one were to match the Buckeyes man for man against any SEC team (outside of possibly two teams), they'd likely come out victorious. They can match talent level with Alabama, and the Meyer-Herman combination has been explosive enough to generate one of the nation's most prolific offenses in the last three years. This game will be a walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, a trespass through Yoda's cave, where the Tide will meet a vision of its own creation, the sum of all its fears...a team that carries many of the same strengths and weaknesses.

Will Alabama continue its era of domination by routing the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl en route to the championship game? Or will the Buckeyes herald the start of a new era of college football, when any team, from any conference, can climb to the mountaintop and seize victory? Thursday's game means so much more than a box score, as it could be the pivot point upon which the world of college football turns moving forward.

Much will be determined, much will be learned...hope for the best.