What would have happened, he was asked, if the Buckeyes had faced off against Alabama in the first few weeks of the season instead of on Jan. 1? Given that the Buckeyes lost to Virginia Tech in the second game of the 2014 campaign, the outcome of the theoretical matchup seemed fairly inevitable.
“If we were to play Alabama within the first couple weeks of the season, we would have gotten embarrassed – especially on the offensive line,” Decker said. “But we’re not at that point now. We’re not the same team by any means. We’ve made great strides at all kinds of positions but especially the offensive line, and I think that’s been a key position.”
That improvement was apparent in a 59-0 takedown of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, and it drew attention from around the country. The College Football Playoff committee thought enough of Ohio State to jump it over TCU and keep Baylor from rising past the Buckeyes.
While OSU’s place in the playoff was debated in the days after the selection announcement, its merit as one of the four best teams in the country got no argument from the Alabama team that is preparing to face the Buckeyes.
“I don’t think there’s any teams that get to here that aren’t really good teams,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after arriving in New Orleans on Saturday. “They’re all really well coached, which is pretty typical of an Urban Meyer team. They have really good players and play well together. In every phase of the game they’ve been very productive this year.
“They’re an outstanding team in every phase of the game. They do a great job on special teams. They have good players and good team speed. They’re very well coached. Offensively, they’re very productive. It’s amazing they’ve used three guys at the quarterback position and all have been productive, which to me speaks well to their staff and how they use their players.”
The road to playoff contender featured a variety of different challenges. A season opener against Navy taught the Buckeyes assignment football in defending the triple option, while the Virginia Tech loss exposed a number of vulnerabilities (particularly on the offensive line) that were later corrected.
The test against pass-happy Cincinnati helped firm up some shortcomings in the secondary. In games against Michigan State and Penn State, the Buckeyes learned how to win in hostile environments. In each case after the early loss, Ohio State learned more things it needed to fix while still playing well enough to move up the rankings.
“They have seen a lot of different looks from teams in their league,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “Pretty much what you could see, they've seen. They do a great job communicating. You can tell they're well coached up front. They pick up things and communicate well. They've kind of gelled and played better. They got a hat on a hat. And do a good job blocking people up front. Improved throughout the year tremendously.”
Smart’s defenders have also taken notice of the challenge that Ohio State presents offensively.
“They have every type of wide receiver,” defensive back Cyrus Jones said. “They have big guys that they put on the perimeter to block well and can run screens. They also have the guys that can stretch the field vertically with their speed. You have to be ready for anything they do, because they have guys all over the field that can do anything.”
That wasn’t true at the beginning of the season, but the game against the Crimson Tide is being played against January, not September. That means a different Ohio State team and quite possibly a different answer regarding the outcome of the impending game.