Alabama, ranked first in the nation, and Ohio State, ranked fourth, will play at 7:30 p.m. CST Thursday in the Louisiana Superdome. Both teams are 12-1. The winner of the game advances to the national championship game in Dallas on Jan. 12.
Here are questions from Bama and answers from OSU regarding the Buckeyes:
Q: We know that Braxton Miller, a Heisman Trophy caliber quarterback, was unable to play this year because of a pre-season injury. J.T. Barrett came in and was very, very good until he was injured in the next-to-last game of the regular season and lost for the remainder of the season. Cardale Jones started the Big Ten Championship Game and was obviously excellent in that 59-0 win over Wisconsin. How close was Jones to being the back-up before Barrett got the job?
A: The coaches said that Barrett got the job simply because the offense moved slightly better than it did with Jones at the helm during the early days of fall camp, but it sounds as though Jones was close based on coaches' comments at the time and of late. Jones won the quarterback battle with Barrett during spring practice, when Miller was out, and so it's not like the Buckeyes are now throwing someone out there who the staff didn't think could get the job done. Barrett had a great year, which really limited the opportunities for Jones to get reps, but Cardale has a ton of skills -- he's huge, he can run and he has by far the best arm on the team. On the field, the main concern is simply the lack of experience he has on the field.
Q: Alabama players have said preparing for Cardale Jones is “a mystery” because of his brief experience. Is it somehow an advantage for Ohio State to be playing a third team quarterback with little experience?
A: I guess it could be, but you'd probably rather have a seasoned veteran in there. It's not like the offense changes a ton with Jones in there, and the Big Ten Championship Game was a good showcase of his skills in that he throws it deep very well. He didn't run as much in the game vs. Wisconsin as he had in the past (he really didn't throw many passes at all in his first few mop-up performances the previous season and a half) but he can do that when asked, and he has a long stride but not quite the agility of Barrett and Miller. Otherwise, kind of what you've seen so far is what you get.
Q: Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer and Alabama players said watching tape of Ohio State reminded them of Mississippi State – which is a spread offense with a quarterback who can run and pass. Is that what Ohio State is offensively?
A: For sure. I haven't seen Mississippi State a ton this year (not as much as Alabama fans, surely) but I would bet the offenses are pretty comparable. It's definitely a spread (the base offense is three wideouts with a tight end and a back, though they will use two tight-end sets at times) and all three quarterbacks the team has used are mobile in different ways (Miller is the most elusive, Barrett is an efficieny runner and Jones has the most pure speed). The base run offense includes inside and outside zone runs, some read option, some jet sweeps and some counters, especially with the QB running the ball. Ohio State has used more screens this year than the past few, and this year's offense is more about getting the ball in the hands of the receivers and letting them make plays whereas in 2012 it was "Braxton left, Braxton right" and last year it was more about the power run game with Miller and Carlos Hyde.
Q: Two of the most surprising scores in college football this year were Virginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21 and Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0. How did Ohio State improve so much over those three months between games?
A: Simply put, Ohio State has a really young team this year. The team had five players on Scout's Freshman All-America team, and a sixth, wideout/return man Jalin Marshall, could have made it as well. Half of the starters are underclassmen and a bevy of reserves are young, as well, so it just took a while for this team to realize how good it can be. It's still inconsistent at times and prone to youthful mistakes, but the Ohio State team has shown a surprising ability to bounce back from mistakes and handle adversity. There's also a ton of talent on hand after some excellent recruiting classes the past few years put together by Meyer and his staff. The young talent just got better and more comfortable as the year went on, helped by excellent senior leadership and one of the best coaching staffs in the nation.
Q: Listening to Alabama players and coaches, it seems they are more concerned about the Ohio State offense than the Buckeyes defense. Do you have a sense of whether Ohio State players and coaches are more concerned about Alabama’s offense or defense, or are they not concerned about Bama?
A: That's a good question, and we haven't had a chance to be around the team a whole lot yet. But I think that while the team has been quietly confident so far, there's reason for concern on both sides of the ball. Ohio State is at heart a run-based offense (Meyer has called his squad an offensive line-driven team) and the Tide obviously has a staunch run defense. I'm sure Alabama's plan will be to try to limit Ezekiel Elliott and OSU's run game, then make Jones beat them, something they Alabama has the talent to execute. How to stop Amari Cooper will also be something that could keep the Buckeyes up at night; Doran Grant fared well vs. Tony Lippett of Michigan State but Cooper is at a different level. Ohio State has to win one of these two key battles or it will be tough to win.