NEW ORLEANS -- As if the historic game, iconic programs and do-or-die stakes weren’t enough, the Sugar Bowl offers this season’s marquee coaching matchup. Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer could well be remembered as the defining college coaches of this generation, and it’s delicious serendipity that they’ll match grimaces on the sidelines of the first College Football Playoff.
Saban’s top-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1) enter the game as 10-point favorites. They boast a dazzling array of skill players like wide receiver Amari Cooper and tailbacks T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, who complement a typically suffocating Saban defense. Meyer’s No. 4 Ohio State (12-1) team delivered a haymaker to reach the playoff by unexpectedly routing Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes have superior offensive and defensive lines, but a looming question mark under center, with Cardale Jones making his second career start.
Will Meyer be able to sneak by his nemesis with a third-string quarterback? Will Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin -- another Meyer nemesis -- be able to continue their up-tempo march? There are major questions for a game where the hype, stakes and stars have aligned perfectly to create an epic matchup.
Points of interest
1. Joey Bosa: When Meyer came to Ohio State late in 2011, his plan was to bring an SEC-style team to the Big Ten. It worked resplendently, and nowhere is that more evident than on the Buckeyes’ defensive line. Bosa, a true sophomore, is arguably the country’s best defensive lineman and could end up as the caliber of player who draws No. 1 NFL draft pick buzz next year. Bosa is a unanimous first-team All-America, finishing the season with 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Right tackle Austin Shepherd’s ability to contain him will be the most important matchup of the game for Alabama. The offensive line is the Crimson Tide’s relative weakness, which means Bosa and star tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington will need to put constant pressure on quarterback Blake Sims.
2. Amari Cooper: He is the most dynamic skill-position player in college football this year, hands down. Cooper projects as a top-five NFL draft pick, as the true junior dominated the SEC this fall. He caught 115 balls for 1,656 yards; the SEC's second-leading receiver, South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper, had 1,136 receiving yards. Cooper can hurt Ohio State in a variety of ways, as Alabama splits him wide, lines him up in the slot and occasionally gives him touches on runs.
Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant could end up spying Cooper, much like he did successfully against Michigan State’s Tony Lippett in the Buckeyes’ 49-37 win over the Spartans on Nov. 8. Ohio State is haunted by memories of its porous secondary from last season’s Orange Bowl, as Clemson’s Sammy Watkins eviscerated it for 16 catches, 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Tigers’ 40-35 win. Cooper has that type of talent, so he will provide a fascinating litmus test for how much the Buckeyes' secondary has improved in a year.
3. T.J. Yeldon: The biggest injury situation to monitor this week will be Yeldon’s, as Alabama’s star spent the later part of this season slowed by injuries to his ankle and hamstring. Saban has given off positive vibes about Yeldon’s progress, as his rest since the SEC Championship Game against Missouri on Dec. 6 should help him exponentially for the Sugar Bowl. “He’s practiced the last two days and we’ll continue to work him,” Saban said upon Alabama’s arrival. “Hopefully he’ll continue to progress with the significant time off and make a contribution in the game.”
Yeldon led the Tide with 932 rushing yards on 184 carries, but Alabama has been judicious in his use as the season has worn on. For instance, he carried the ball just 14 times in the SEC title game. But with the Sugar Bowl projecting as a game where field position and special teams will prove vital, look for Yeldon to carry a heavy load, especially if the Tide find success against Ohio State’s stout front four.
Can Cardale Jones channel the same magic he flashed against Wisconsin? Jones made his first career start in Ohio State’s Big Ten title game blowout, and thrived. His lack of game-changing mistakes was just as impressive as his final numbers: 12-of-17 passing for 257 yards with three touchdowns.
Can Jones have the same success against the Crimson Tide? He likely won’t be able to throw over the top as often, as Alabama brings a different caliber of defensive back than Wisconsin. Bama also brings the country’s No. 4 scoring defense (16.6 points per game), and Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman said he has never seen a defensive line with the size of Alabama’s. Saban will try to flummox Jones and prevent him from getting into a groove.
Alabama punter JK Scott: Scott ranks second nationally with an average of 47.0 yards per punt, bookending his season with a 62-yard punt against West Virginia in the opener and a 70-yarder in the regular-season finale against Auburn. He pinned two punts inside the five-yard line against Mississippi State on Nov. 15 and could make a huge difference against Ohio State on New Year's Day. Get used to his name -- he’s only a freshman.
161.9: Perhaps the most impressive number from Alabama’s sparkling season is Sims’ pass efficiency rating. His 161.9 mark ranks No. 7 in the FBS, ahead of stars like Dak Prescott, Brett Hundley and Connor Cook. Sims staying efficient and turnover free will be the key for Alabama. It’s really that simple.
Expect a low-scoring affair in which field position and special teams become huge factors. Jones played essentially without error in Ohio State’s 59-0 victory over Wisconsin, which brought the country’s second-ranked total defense into the game. It’s hard to envision him performing the same way here, especially with Bama’s front seven likely stopping the run and getting more pressure in the backfield.
Look for Alabama to win, as Ohio State is still a year away from competing with the high-end SEC heavyweights. Kiffin will find creative ways to get Cooper the ball, and Sims should do just enough to pull away. Sims has evolved from a caretaker into a playmaker who can pick up necessary first downs and exploit Ohio State’s suspect secondary. A healthy Yeldon will be tough to stop, too, even for the Buckeyes’ stout defensive line.
Alabama 21, Ohio State 10