TCU, Baylor, and Ohio State had resumes that were difficult to separate. In the end, the fact that they were so close made it appear to some observers that the selection committee might've grabbed the ratings monster Ohio State Buckeyes over private Christian schools in Texas because of its bigger fanbase.
However, there was also the eye test over the final stretch of the season. Evidence suggested that the Buckeyes were actually a legitimate power that was rounding into form with a new defensive coordinator and an offense that was coming together thanks to an improving passing game.
After third-string QB Cardale Jones went 12-of-17 for 257 passing yards on a highly ranked Wisconsin D while the Buckeye defense shut down Melvin Gordon, it became undeniable that this team is one of the most athletic groups in the nation.
Now they draw the imposing Alabama. Is Urban Meyer's Ohio State roster ready to resume his epic battle with Nick Saban?
1. Run on Alabama
Alabama has something close to its classic formula, with a dominant defensive line and solid offensive line, augmented by Heisman finalist WR Amari Cooper, increased use of tempo, and QB Blake Sims' athleticism, a trait previous Saban QBs didn't possess. Even with Lane Kiffin's overhauled offense, the Tide's defense is still its identity, but barely (No. 2 nationally in Football Outsiders' Def. F/+, with the offense ranking No. 3 in Off. F/+).
The Sugar Bowl will pit each team's greatest strengths directly against the other when Ohio State (No. 4 in the country in yards per carry against winning teams, with 6.43) looks to run the ball on the Tide (No. 2 defensively in the same stat, with 2.85). If that battle goes decisively in either direction, that will likely determine the outcome. If it's a draw, then other factors will be brought to bear.
The most obvious facet of this game is that Alabama is an exceptionally difficult team to run on, while Meyer's offense is designed around the spread running game.
Injured former Buckeye starting QBs Braxton Miller or J.T. Barrett might have presented a unique challenge to the Alabama defensive front. But the 6'5, 250-pound Cardale Jones is a bigger player and not much quicker than some dual-threat QBs that Alabama has already dispatched, such as Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.
Mississippi State was unable to get its run game going against the Tide, with a 3.5-yard average and Prescott carrying the ball 22 times for only 82 yards. Bo Wallace did even less, posting 32 yards on 11 carries as Ole Miss averaged 2.4. Even Auburn's Nick Marshall, one of the better running QBs in the country, had to rely on the passing game to do his damage, with only 49 rushing yards on 13 carries.
It's no use pointing out Ohio State's success throwing the ball in 2014, as if Jones could drop back and take Saban's pass defense apart independent of a dominant rushing attack. The Buckeye passing game is built into the offense as a constraint to the run. They do their damage with packaged screens, pop throws, and play-action bombs against one-on-one matchups enabled by opponents loading the box to stop run schemes.
To throw the ball on Alabama, tOSU will have to force the Tide out of their two-deep nickel defense and get the one-on-ones outside, where Jones can do real damage with the deep ball.
This might be feasible, as this Bama nickel package isn't as strong as in years past. Due to injuries, the Tide have been been playing Geno Smith as the big nickel, rather than the much heftier Jarrick Williams, while putting veteran Nick Perry in as a deep safety. The dropoff in athleticism from first-round safeties such as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to Perry is not inconsiderable. Perry can be picked on if isolated.
Ohio State's running game is largely about moving around tight end Jeff Heuerman around and optioning off dangerous linemen to create angles for OL. Alabama is all about forcing the ball to the middle with their secondary, into their two-gapping linemen and thick linebackers.
Of all the teams in the Playoff, Ohio State might be the one most capable of running on an honest Tide front. For all the stunts, fronts, and calls Saban has for disrupting a running game, Meyer has just as many variations of zone and power to match. While the Tide DL excels at taking on blockers and protecting linebackers, the Buckeye OL has grown into an excellent unit and Heuerman one of the best blockers in the country.
With Barrett and Miller out, it falls to 1,402-yard sophomore Ezekiel Elliot to provide the primary punch, particularly on the Buckeyes' best play of 2014, zone slice:
Jones will need to be threaten the Tide with rollouts and quick passes to the perimeter. The line and Heuerman must focus on springing the faster Elliot into the secondary.
If the Buckeyes can't find angles that will allow their OL to beat Alabama's fronts, then Jones might not have the opportunity to throw jump balls to Devin Smith against man coverage, as he did in the Big Ten Championship. The Buckeyes could struggle to score.
2. Stop Amari Cooper
Alabama's run game can be controlled, and has been by Ole Miss, Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State, some of which use similar defenses as the Buckeyes. But controlling both the run game and Cooper is a little more challenging. The Heisman finalist has posted 200-plus receiving yards three times this season.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, if a team can stop Alabama's running game without totally exposing the end zone to the passing game, that team will seriously reduce the play action methods that Kiffin uses to get the ball to Cooper. Sims is not an elite operator of the dropback passing game, so Bama's means for getting the ball to Cooper decrease without the run game.
Therefore the key player for Ohio State in this game, besides the seven-man front facing the Bama run game, might be strong safety Vonn Bell, a player Saban wanted. The athletic DB had five interceptions and six pass breakups on the year, finishing second on the team in tackles.
On this play, the Buckeyes show their standard two-read defense. They bring their best weapon, sam linebacker Darron Lee, on a blitz on the outside, replacing him underneath in coverage with Bell. Defensive coordinator Chris Ash is confident about using Lee to force the edge against the run or as a fifth pass rusher. This athletic tandem makes the wide side of the field a difficult place for opponents to attack.
Against the Tide, Bell will have to balance helping Doran Grant cover Cooper on deep routes, covering him in the flats or in the slot in coverage, and wrapping him up when Sims tosses an underneath route or a screen pass. If Bell can help batten down the hatch on Cooper, it would be the crucial edge that could allow the Buckeyes to come away with a shocking victory.
The Playoff is going to come down to a few crucial points: whether anyone can corral Marcus Mariota, if Jameis Winston can be stopped in a second half, and whether anyone can stand up to Alabama's big hogs in the trenches and make a football game come down to other factors.
In keeping with the Buckeyes' tradition, their overall quality will make them a tough nut for the Tide to crack. And they just might have enough big hogs of their own to pull it off.