THE FIRST FOUR

December 15, 2014

SUGAR BOWL

Nick Saban's defenses prefer to apply pressure that results in an interception or a fumble rather than a sack, and the inexperienced Jones—a sophomore making his second start—could be susceptible to turnovers. Ohio State needs to open holes for Elliott, which would force Alabama to pack the box, ease the pressure on Jones and leave Smith one-on-one with corners who have been burned at times this season. The Buckeyes' D will try to slow down Cooper, but there's only one way to stop him: have Bosa and Bennett put Sims on his back. That's a lot to ask, though, because bruising Bama backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry can wear down opposing fronts.

1 ALABAMA

The nation's most dominant team can win low-scoring struggles and shootouts. Bama's D can be stretched by a dynamic attack that demands one-on-one coverage, but its offense can retaliate quickly with deep passes from Blake Sims to Amari Cooper.

4 OHIO STATE

In pounding Wisconsin 59--0 for the Big Ten title, the Buckeyes proved just how good they are. Tackle Michael Bennett and end Joey Bosa make up half of one of the nation's most feared defensive lines. As long as third-string quarterback Cardale Jones can get the ball to wide receiver Devin Smith and tailback Ezekiel Elliott, the offense should move.

ROSE BOWL

If the Ducks can pressure Winston and force an interception or two, they should pile on enough points to keep Florida State from coming back, as it has in nine of 13 wins. Oregon will use 6-foot, 229-pound freshman tailback Royce Freeman inside to open up the read-option for Mariota to the outside. But the QB could have more trouble than usual in the passing game: Seminoles defensive backs P.J. Williams, Ronald Darby and Jalen Ramsey can cover one-on-one and are fast enough to close the gaps that occur when defenses are trying to decipher whether Mariota is running or throwing. Still, a shootout tilts the odds in Oregon's favor.

OREGON 2

When ends DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead blow up plays and force three-and-outs, opposing defenses get no time to rest. That makes Oregon's torrid offensive pace, triggered by Heisman front-runner Marcus Mariota, even more devastating.

FLORIDA STATE 3

The Seminoles won their final four games by an average of 3.5 points. But if teams cheat up to stop tailback Dalvin Cook, quarterback Jameis Winston can hit receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary at will. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and tackle Eddie Goldman are stout, but the line thins out beyond them.

TITLE GAME

ALABAMA

Crimson Tide coaches will invoke the memory of Johnny Manziel, who is the closest comparison to Mariota that their players have faced. Saban hates what he calls yard ball—plays kept alive by a quarterback nimble enough to escape pressure. But Bama's defensive veterans are accustomed to athletic quarterbacks and breakneck offenses at this point. Oregon's D will get a break after facing the quick release and accuracy of Winston when he's hot, but they'll find Sims much more willing to run to keep drives alive. That mobility, combined with the sheer impossibility of covering Cooper while still accounting for Yeldon and Henry, will allow the Tide to light up the scoreboard. Their 55--44 win over Auburn last month will prove to have been great practice for the most important game of the season.

Extra Mustard

36

Books Tweet Remarks

38

Pro-Files

Roger Penske

40

Faces in the Crowd

46

Dan Patrick

Chris Rock

48

The Case for

Four Teams

50

GO FIGURE

27

Touchdown receptions for Kansas State's Tyler Lockett, breaking the school mark set by his father, Kevin, from 1993 to '96. Last Saturday's record-setting score came a week after Lockett passed his dad for most receptions in school history and a month after he broke Kevin's record for receiving yards.

.435

FINAL WINNING PERCENTAGE, IN 23 SEASONS, FOR ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM, WHICH SHUT DOWN ITS FOOTBALL PROGRAM LAST WEEK AMID FINANCIAL CONCERNS. THE BLAZERS FINISHED 118-153-2.

0

Games in which Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has failed to throw a touchdown pass in his career. Mariota's streak of 39 straight is the second longest in FBS history.

1

Shutout in Power 5 conference championship game history: Ohio State pitched the first one, crushing Wisconsin 59--0 in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes are 25--1 against conference opponents under Urban Meyer, with their only loss coming in last year's Big Ten final against Michigan State.

6

FBS TEAMS THAT WERE BOWL-ELIGIBLE BUT NOT CHOSEN FOR A BOWL GAME: ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM, MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE, OHIO, OLD DOMINION, TEMPLE AND TEXAS STATE. THE 76 TEAMS PLAYING IN A BOWL THIS YEAR IS A RECORD.

PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES (SIMS) PHOTOJEFF HAYNES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JONES) PHOTOBRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MARIOTA) PHOTOJASON PARKHURST FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WINSTON) PHOTOMATTHEW PEARCE/ICON SPORTSWIRE (LOCKETT) PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (REF) PHOTOJAMIE SABAU/GETTY IMAGES (MASCOT)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)