#1 Alabama v. #4 Ohio State
Mercedes-Benz Superdome — New Orleans, LA
January 1, 2015 — 8:30 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
Once the action comes to a close in Pasadena, all eyeballs will turn toward New Orleans to see which team will be the other finalist in the College Football Playoff. Along with the Sun Bowl and the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl is the second-oldest bowl game in the country. After serving as one of the four BCS venues, the Superdome earned the chance to host one of the first semifinals of the CFP era.
The bowl is the showcase of the series of postseason games between the Big Ten and the SEC, and it will be interesting to see if the latter league can break a four-game losing streak in this bowl game. Two of the sport’s blueblood programs are battling it out in hopes of claiming yet another national championship, led by two of the most respected coaches in the sport and a slew of talent on both sides of the ball. If you miss this showdown in the Big Easy, you will be turning your back on one of the biggest events in college football history.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
The juggernaut that is the Crimson Tide once again shook off an early defeat to book a spot in the national championship bracket. Alabama went 12-1 against the nation’s fourth hardest schedule, claiming the third SEC title of Nick Saban’s time in Tuscaloosa. Only a loss at Ole Miss on the first weekend of October prevented the Tide from entering the postseason undefeated, and they held on in several other close contests to reach the Sugar Bowl on an eight-game winning streak.
Unlike seasons past, when the Tide leaned on the backfield for offensive production, the Alabama offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin has become far more explosive in the passing game. A preseason quarterback battle ended with Blake Sims beating out transfer Jacob Coker for the starting job, and Sims never let go of the position. He finished the year with 3250 yards and 26 touchdowns, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes for over nine yards an attempt. He also rushed for 321 yards and six scores, showing dual-threat versatility while focusing on his pocket passing.
The passing attack was among the 25 best in the nation, averaging 281 yards per game, and a big part of the aerial offense was wide receiver Amari Cooper. The Heisman finalist finished the year with 115 receptions for 1656 yards and 14 touchdowns — which amounts to 45 percent of the team’s total passing yardage. DeAndrew White, the team’s second option at receiver, caught 37 passes for 431 yards and four touchdowns. No other receiver caught even 20 passes, indicative of the team’s dependence on their star wideout. In the process, the team also averaged less than 210 yards on the ground per game, putting the Tide just 34th nationally in rushing.
The traditional Alabama calling card, defense, was once again a strong point for the Tide in 2014. Kirby Smart’s defense finished fourth nationally in points allowed, holding teams to fewer than 17 points per game. They were also just outside the top 10 in yards allowed, finishing 11th in the country while conceding 312 yards per game. The Tide allowed just 15 touchdowns to opponents on 40 red zone opportunities, making them one of the stingiest teams inside its own 20 in the country. And Alabama held opponents under 25 points in every game except the 55-44 Iron Bowl victory over Auburn.
Since coming to Columbus in 2012, Urban Meyer has led the Buckeyes to 12 wins in each of his first three seasons. Only a two-touchdown loss to Virginia Tech in the home opener at the Horseshoe prevented Ohio State from finishing a third straight regular season undefeated. 10 of their 12 victories were by double digits, and the Buckeyes’ 10-game winning streak has been bookended by high-scoring shutouts of Kent State (not surprising) and Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game (which was surprising). Of the four playoff teams, Ohio State played the weakest schedule, rated just 50th most difficult by Sagarin.
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman had his hands full this season, masterfully juggling a rotating cast of quarterbacks. Entering the season, Braxton Miller was supposed to guide the Ohio State offense toward a shot at the playoff. Instead, his Heisman campaign was stunted when he was knocked out in the preseason with a shoulder injury, and the Buckeyes’ hopes and dreams for 2014 were hefted on the shoulders of redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. After the Virginia Tech debacle, where Barrett completed just nine of 29 passes for a touchdown and three picks, he settled in and built his own Heisman-quality season before suffering a fractured ankle in the Michigan game. In stepped the next man up, redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones, who eviscerated the Wisconsin offense with a 12-of-17 performance for 257 yards and three touchdowns in the Big Ten championship. He will lead the Buckeyes into the Sugar Bowl in just his second college start.
The sudden changes at quarterback led to an Ohio State passing offense that ranked just outside the top 50 nationally with 246 yards per game. Senior Devin Smith and sophomore Michael Thomas give Jones two dangerous downfield threats against a Bama secondary that has given up some big plays. Ezekiel Elliott provides balance with his consistency in the backfield. Elliott averaged 6.5 yards per carry for over 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, and the Buckeyes averaged over 260 yards per game on the ground — good for 11th nationally in rushing offense. Barrett was also a big part of the running game, finishing second on the team in rushing yards and touchdowns, and Jones will have to showcase his dual-threat tendencies to keep the Tide defense honest.
A solid Buckeyes defense was the other key ingredient to reaching the final four. Ohio State allowed only three touchdowns on average to opposing offenses, and were 14th nationally in yards given up, permitting just 328 yards per 60 minutes. They were generous in the red zone, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 26 of their 37 trips inside the Buckeye 20. But they were a high-risk, high-reward unit — Ohio State finished 10th in the country in turnovers generated, 11th in sacks, and seventh in tackles for loss. They were also tied for sixth in the nation in defensive touchdowns, scoring on four fumble returns and one pick-six.
What is Likely to Happen
A lot has been made of the matchup between Nick Saban and Urban Meyer in this showdown at the Sugar Bowl. Saban has won two of the three previous games between his Alabama teams and Meyer’s former Florida squad, but this is a new era for their coaching rivalry. That said, the end result is likely going to be similar to previous results, if it looks a little bit different in terms of the score.
Every one of their other coaching duels have proven to be duds. Florida beat Alabama in the 2008 SEC Championship by 11, the Alabama won their subsequent two battles by 19 and 24 points. This one is going to be a lot closer, with Cardale Jones testing the Tide secondary and the option game testing the front seven. But Bama will prevail not on the strength of its defense but rather its new-found offensive prowess. Sims and Cooper will link up for another big day through the air, Lane Kiffin will prematurely celebrate at least one touchdown, and Nick Saban will head to his fifth national championship game after surviving a shootout in the Superdome.
Alabama 38, Ohio State 34