Wednesday, December 31, 2014

BUCKEYES, ALABAMA FACE OFF IN WHAT FEELS LIKE A CHAMPIONSHIP

NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has noted numerous times that the Buckeyes have just one rival, Michigan.

While that statement holds true, the team Meyer's been building over the past three years hasn't been engineered to take down the hated Wolverines.

The Meyer-led Buckeyes have been built to take down Alabama. 

Thursday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes (12-1) will do battle with the No. 1 Crimson Tide (12-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinal — with a berth in the National Championship game waiting for the victor.

However, Meyer doesn't see this showdown with the Tide as simply a 'playoff game.'

"It's a championship game," Meyer said of Thursday night's Sugar Bowl. "You hear the word and I use it a lot, that it's a playoff game.

"There is just a different feel."

The Buckeyes are coming off their best performance since Meyer took over as head coach, slaughtering the Wisconsin Badgers, 59-0, in the Big Ten Championship game earlier in the month.

And they were powered by an unexpected leader in third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones.

Jones — who was replacing injured Heisman Trophy contender J.T. Barrett (who was replacing injured Heisman Trophy contender Braxton Miller) — came out as if he were a four-year veteran, carving up the Badgers for 257 yards and three touchdowns.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound sophomore will need to play just as well against the Tide, if the Buckeyes have any hopes of moving on to the real championship game.

Buckeyes offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, said the team has confidence in Jones.

"He's on the cover of two magazines," Herman said of Jones. "I liked it when he was the underdog. … He's doing great. He's still Cardale, but it's great that his confidence was put to the test (against Wisconsin) and he answered the test."

Of course, Jones will have plenty of help against the powerful Tide.

Sophomore tailback Ezekiel Elliott has emerged as one of the top runners in the nation this season, rushing for more than 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns during the Buckeyes' title run.

Going into the Big Ten Championship, many felt that Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon was the best running back going into game, but when it was over, Elliott emerged as the brightest star, toting the rock for 220 yards and two scores en route to the blowout win.

The Buckeyes' defense was also on point, holding Gordon to a season-low 2.9 yards per carry, while posting their second shutout of the season. 

That unit must post another monumental effort to keep pace with an Alabama squad that can beat teams both on the ground and through the air.

"I don’t know if we've seen an offense like this; the size of their offensive line … the running backs they roll in … and Amari Cooper is special," OSU Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said of Alabama. "The reality is you're going to have to play really great team defense."

Bottom Line

Breaking down the rosters, it is apparent that the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide's strengths are in the trenches. Each team has talent all over the field, so it may come down to which team can take advantage of the big plays. 

The home runs.

Like Wisconsin's Gordon going into the Big Ten Championship, many will say the same of Alabama star wide receiver Amari Cooper going into Thursday's tilt.

And deservedly so. 

But I can certainly envision Ohio State's Devin Smith playing the role of Elliott to Cooper's Gordon.

I believe Smith is the unheralded difference in this highly anticipated showdown.

Lee's Prediction: OSU 38-31