Big Ten Bowl Preview: All-State Sugar Bowl

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TEAMS:  Ohio State Buckeyes (12-0, 8-1 Big Ten) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1 SEC)

TIME: January 1st, 8:30 PM

LOCATION:  Mercedes-Benz Superdome – New Orleans, Louisiana

TV:  ESPN

Katie bar the door!  Put the kids to bed and take the phone off the hook.  Whoa Nelly!  Put whatever catchphrase you want on this one because I’m not sure it’ll do it justice in the All-State Sugar Bowl.  Tonight’s second national semi-final pits the #4 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Conference against the #1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide from the SEC.

Not only is it a battle of two of the nation’s hottest teams, but also two of the best college coaching minds in the country.  Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban have combined for 322 wins and five national titles.  While the coaching match up is scintillating, the play on the field might be even better!

Alabama enters the game winners of their last eight contests including a dismantling of SEC East champion Missouri Tigers in the SEC Championship game.  Alabama’s only loss came on the road in Starkville, MS at the hands on Mississippi State.

Ohio State, also on a significant role, enters the Sugar Bowl having won their last 11 contests since a demoralizing home loss to Virginia Tech.  The Buckeyes won the Big Ten’s Conference title by shutting out Big Ten West champion the Wisconsin Badgers.

For Ohio State on offense the plan is simple, control the line of scrimmage to be able to run the ball and take pressure off of third-string quarterback Cardale Jones.  The Buckeyes are the 11th rated rushing offense nationally averaging over 260 yards per game on the ground.  Many of those rushing yards came from sophomore tailback Ezekiel Elliott.  In 13 games, Elliott for over 1400 yards and 12 scores.  Of course, Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes offense are noted for their strong read-option play calling which relies upon not only a workhorse of a tailback which Elliott is, but also a tough-nosed quarterback which Ohio State lost in their final regular season game at Michigan.

JT Barrett, the Buckeyes true freshman quarterback was one of the nation’s top rushing quarterbacks before he left the game against Michigan with a leg injury.  At the start of the year, Barrett was tasked with leading an Ohio State squad that was picked by many to not only win the Big Ten title, but also contend for a national title.  The expectations for the Buckeyes were that high because senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Braxton Miller was supposed to lead the offense.  Miller went down with a shoulder injury during fall practice and the Buckeyes turned to the freshman signal caller to lead them to the promised land and he did not disappoint.  Barrett become more and more comfortable in the Urban Meyer offense as the season progressed.  So much so that Barrett was in the discussion for the Heisman Trophy until his injury hit.

In stepped red shirt sophomore Cardale Jones who led the Buckeyes to a Big Ten Championship over Wisconsin.  In the title game Jones threw for 257 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Now Jones is being counted on to continue the Buckeyes march towards a national title.

Besides Ezekiel Elliott and other coming out of the backfield, the Buckeyes have some weapons out on the edge, too.  Senior Devin Smith leads the way with 30 receptions for 799 yards and 11 touchdowns.  To go alongside Smith is red shirt sophomore Michael Thomas.  The Los Angeles native reeled in 43 passes for 680 yards and eight scores.  And, when the receivers are covered, both Barrett and Jones’ safety blanket was senior tight end Jeff Heuerman.  The Naples, FL native hauled in 17 passes for 207 yards and two scores.

While the Buckeyes were the Big Ten’s most prolific scoring offense averaging over 45 points per game, it is their defense which may help them get to the national title championship game.  Ohio State gave up the fourth fewest points in the Big Ten (21.2), the fifth fewest rushing yards per game (139.9), and the fourth fewest passing yards per game (188.2).

When talking about the Ohio State defense all conversation start with first team All-Big Ten and the Big Ten’s Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year, Joey Bosa.  The monster defensive, while being just a sophomore, led the Big Ten in sacks with 13.5 and averaged more than a sack per game!  His ability to disrupt the passer certainly will have the Crimson Tide offensive linemen on their toes.

Joshua Perry paced the linebackers by recording 113 tackles.  Freshman Darron Lee was also a major contributor recording 13.5 tackles for loss, good for 7th in the Big Ten.

In the defensive secondary sophomore safety Vonn Bell led the defensive backs with 78 tackles.  Senior Doran Grant, the heart and soul of the defensive secondary, had a team-high five interceptions which placed him second in the conference in that category.

Turning now to Alabama, what else can be said about the job head coach Nick Saban has done year in and year out?  This year may have been Saban’s best job as coach.  While the Crimson Tide are always surrounded with talent, the job Saban did to meld personalities and egos was second to none.

Senior Blake Sims has been offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s go-to guy ever since he tried to recruit him to Tennessee and later to Southern Cal.  Sims, the senior signal caller, has thrived under his wide-open offensive style.  On the year, Sims was third in the SEC in passing yards (3250), passing yards per game (250), and he was tied for second in the conference with 26 passing touchdowns while throwing only seven interceptions.  While Sims was phenomenal and went largely under the radar, he was surrounded by some of the best talent in the country.

In the backfield was junior TJ Yeldon.  In what is seemingly a never-ending run of great tailbacks at Alabama, Yeldon may be the best one yet.  He rushed for 932 yards and scored 10 touchdowns.  While the yards rushed for is not the highest, in a dynamic offense that can both run and throw the ball, his ability to grind out tough yards and kill the clock with his legs, it may go down as one of the best seasons in quite some time.

Out on the edge, Blake Sims gets to throw to the nation’s top wide receiver, Amari Cooper.  Cooper led the nation in receptions (115).  He was second in receiving yards (1656) and receiving yards per game (127.4), and he was tied for fourth nationally with 14 touchdowns.  Look for Ohio State’s Doran Grant to be matched up against Cooper.

On defense Alabama once again ranks among the nation’s elite.  The Crimson Tide enter tonight’s contest ranking 10th nationally in total defense.

Up front the Crimson Tide do not employ a traditional 4-3 alignment, but rather they play a 3-4 system.  On the defensive line they are led by sophomore defensive end Jonathan Allen and his four sacks.  In a 3-4 system, more emphasis is placed on the linebackers and their speed to fly around the field to make tackles.  Senior line backer Xzavier Dickson led the Tide with eight sacks and tackles for loss with 10.5.

In the secondary the team’s leading tackler was junior Landon Collins.  Collins also had a team-high three interceptions.

Another staple of the Crimson Tide’s defense is their ability to limit their opponent’s points.  Alabama comes into the Sugar Bowl ranking 3rd nationally in points per game allowed (16.6).  While you won’t find many of Alabama’s players at the top of individual statistics, they have a strong penchant of playing together as a team.  It’ll be that “team” approach that will serve them well as they take on one of the country’s top scoring offenses in Ohio State.

In the end I think Alabama’s game plan is to limit the big running plays of Ohio State and force Cardale Jones to try to beat them trough the air.  Look for Ohio State to play this game close to vest, much the way they did against Penn State and give Jones safe passes to get him into the game.  The last thing I think Ohio State wants to do is to put the game on Jones’ back.

For Alabama, Blake Sims has come along way in the Lane Kiffin offense.  He has grown and matured throughout the year.  I think tonight they give him the keys to the offense.  Look for Alabama to mix in lots of bruising runs with TJ Yeldon to soften up the Ohio State front seven and then go up top to Amari Cooper for the home run.  I’m not sure there are too many defensive backs in the country that can keep up with Cooper.

No matter who wins the game tonight, I think the college football playoffs are the best way to determine the true national champion.  What better way to kick off the first FBS playoff then by having Oregon and Florida State and Ohio State and Alabama play in the semi-final games.

With that being said, I think Alabama has too much on both sides of the ball.  They are going to force the game into Cardale Jones’ hands, and for this week anyways, I think Alabama has the answers for him.  Nick Saban gets the better of his protégé in Urban Meyer.

Prediction: Alabama 31  Ohio State 23