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Football is a game of matchups, so the Sugar Bowl is no different.
What will it take to win the College Football Playoff semifinal? We’ll hopefully find out the keys as we go.
In our first one, Ohio State’s top-10 rush offense takes on Bama’s top-10 rush defense.
Ohio State rush offense
10th in college football (260.8 yards per game)
5.78 yards per carry (10th in FBS)
119 runs of 10-plus yards (fourth in FBS)
Star: Ezekiel Elliott, fresh off a 220-yard showing vs. Wisconsin that included a tone-setting 81-yard run that gave OSU a 14-0 lead early on. Elliott ran for 1,402 yards this year, topping 100 yards seven times in the last 10 games.
Best Performances: 380 yards, 5.9 yards per carry vs. Cincinnati; 324 yards, 8.1 yards per carry vs. Rutgers; 268 yards, 6.5 yards per carry vs. Michigan State; 289 yards, 7.6 yards per carry vs. Minnesota; 301 yards, 7.9 yards per carry vs. Wisconsin
Worst Performances: 108 yards, 2.7 yards per carry vs. Virginia Tech; 219 yards, 3.8 yards per carry vs. Penn State
In Big Games: The last three games listed under best performances were OSU’s three performances this year vs. ranked teams, and Ohio State’s run game passed in each with flying colors. The biggest performance came against Wisconsin, when the Buckeyes entered against a team that not only had the eighth-best rush defense in the nation but the second-best rush offense. Wisconsin’s forte was punishing teams in the run game on both sides of the ball but Ohio State completely dominated that stat, quadrupling the Badgers’ ground output.
Quotable: “Definitely more fluid, more game experience and more chemistry and things clicking more with the O-line and everything hitting right with timing and everything. It definitely will be a challenge because they have a lot of big interior defensive (players with) their line and linebackers, they are big guys. It is going to be our will against their will.”
The Skinny: The two games in which Ohio State struggled to run the ball were the worst team games of the season as well. Facing Virginia Tech’s “Bear” front with three defensive linemen plugging the middle to prevent the Buckeye OL from getting to the second level, Ohio State never got the run game on track on the way to the season’s only loss. Penn State was the only other team to keep OSU below 4 yards per carry and nearly posted the upset while buoyed by a raucous home crowd in Happy Valley. In other words, OSU has to rush to win, especially with a quarterback making his second career start. Since Urban Meyer was hired, Ohio State has had success against some of the best rushing defenses in the nation, though.
Alabama rush defense
2nd in college football (88.7 yards per game)
2.81 yards per carry (3rd in FBS)
3 rush TD against (best in FBS)
34 runs of 10-plus yards (best in FBS)
Star: How do you prevent long runs against? Great safety play, and Alabama has that. Landon Collins was up for major national awards this year after finishing with 91 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. He added three interceptions and a forced fumble for good measure, and Collins might be the most impressive specimen on an Alabama defense filled with them.
Best Performances: 28 yards, 1.2 yards per carry vs. West Virginia; 31 yards allowed, 1.3 yards per carry vs. Texas A&M; 89 yards, 2.3 yards per carry vs. Arkansas; 41 yards, 1.8 yards per carry vs. Missouri in SEC title game
Worst Performances: 181 yards allowed, 4.2 yards per carry vs. Tennessee; 183 yards allowed, 3.3 yards per carry vs. LSU; 174 yards allowed, 3.7 yards per carry vs. Auburn
In Big Games: The Tide faced six teams ranked at the time of the game, and those six combined for 222 rushes for 643 yards, an average of 2.9 yards per carry. That’ll do.
Quotable: “That's one of the things our offense is built on is being able to run the football, so that's going to be a challenge,” OSU co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. “They have recruited really good personnel. They're well coached. They're very sound in how they approach you and they know how to defense people. We've got a challenge. We've got to do a good job of trying to be one step ahead of (Nick Saban), trying to out-execute him, trying to do a better job with our players than their players and our coaches than their coaches. That's a challenge because they're really good.”
The Skinny: The Tide shut just about everyone down, with Tennessee the only team to even sniff 4 yards per carry. Auburn, Mississippi State (138, 3.5) and Arkansas have three of the four best rush offenses in the SEC and neither got much traction going. Alabama’s stats in this realm are consistently exceptional across the board, including the TD and long play numbers, so this is a legit run defense – more so than even Wisconsin’s, which had good numbers going in but was exposed in the end. This will be the toughest challenge in OSU’s bread-and-butter realm since Meyer took over.