There are so many storylines to discuss, and so team BuckeyeSports.com is gonna do it. It's time for our roundtable featuring staff writers Jeff Svoboda, Ryan Ginn, Blake Williams and Marcus Hartman. We discuss Cardale Jones, the OSU run game, Alabama and more in this breakdown of what we expect to see coming up in the College Football Playoff semifinal vs. Alabama set for New Year's Day.
1. I don't think any of us saw Cardale Jones' Wisconsin showing coming. Can he do it again against the Tide?
Ryan: Yeah, he can. But I doubt he will. I do think Jones can play well enough for Ohio State to beat Alabama – winning title games by 59 points is a pretty easy way to state your case – but that doesn’t mean he’ll replicate the performance he submitted against Wisconsin. Some of those jump balls that ended in touchdowns might not turn out that way again if Landon Collins is involved.
Marcus: He certainly can. Will he? That's hard to say. It stands to reason that given what Ohio State was able to do in terms of coming up with a game plan that worked for him in six days last time, Urban Meyer and Tom Herman will be able to do something like that again with a month to prepare for Alabama. Then it will be up to Jones to execute.
Blake: No. Nothing against Cardale, but I don’t see him having the same type of day against Alabama, at least statistically. He had to throw only 17 times to destroy the Badgers, but the Tide will force him to throw more, meaning there will be more chances to make mistakes. To be clear, I think that Jones can play well enough for Ohio State to win the game, but he won’t replicate his stellar debut.
Jeff: Having not really seen much of Jones before the Wisconsin game, I wasn't sure he'd have a good performance in that one, and boy was I wrong. Sometimes the first game is the easiest, though, as there's no book out on you and there's a reason "beginner's luck" is a term. Add in the fact that Alabama is better than Wisconsin on defense – perhaps much better – and there are some reasons to have pause. But Jones also showed smarts, poise and plenty of skill vs. Wisconsin, so I'm not counting him out.
2. Ohio State has had some excellent showings vs. very good run defenses. Does that give you confidence going into facing an Alabama team rated among the best in the nation at run D?
Ryan: If anyone can solve Alabama’s run defense, it’s Ed Warinner, right? That doesn’t mean I have confidence in Ohio State to dominate Alabama on the ground, however. I think there’s more of a chance that Ohio State rushes for about 100 yards than 300 yards.
Marcus: It will be interesting to see how Alabama closes distance early against the run. If their back seven is getting to Elliott faster than some of those Big Ten defenses we have seen, then Ohio State could be in trouble.
Blake: It gives me some confidence that the unit will perform well, but the Alabama run defense is a different animal because of its massive size, something nearly every offensive player remarked on. Still, the way Ezekiel Elliott has run the ball and the line has blocked against the best run defenses the Buckeyes have faced is encouraging.
Jeff: Ohio State has also had some poor showings against good run defenses too, in particular the Virginia Tech and Penn State games this year. This to me is one of the crucial matchups of the game, as we know Ohio State is almost impossible to stop once it gets the run game going. The Buckeyes have run on some really good defenses – think Michigan State each of the past two years and Wisconsin this year - but Alabama's numbers are almost laughably good. If Ohio State struggles early, as Marcus said, that can be an alarm bell.
3. Which wide receiver could be an X factor in this one?
Ryan: Devin Smith has the home-run ability, but Michael Thomas is the guy to watch out there on Thursday. If he has a big game I think that’ll be the case for several other receivers as well. There’s also the fact that when he’s playing his best he’s disruptive enough to undo some talented defenses.
Marcus: Since Nick Saban hates playground ball, this could be Jalin Marshall. I think what you see is what you get on the outside, but can Marshall make someone miss and turn a small gain into a big one at some point? That would be very helpful.
Blake: Mike Thomas. The redshirt sophomore has struggled with consistency this season, but when he’s on he might be the best all-around wide receiver the Buckeyes have. He can match the Tide’s secondary physically and has the speed to be dangerous down the field. With Alabama keying on Devin Smith look for Thomas to have a big day.
Jeff: I'm gonna stick with Devin Smith, who seems to have a preternatural connection with Jones that they say goes all the way back to their showing in the Big 33 game in 2011. I was at that game, and Smith put on a fantastic performance, but I'm also kind of skeptical that connection can last quite that long after such a small sample size. But I digress, as Smith was the key player in the rout of Wisconsin and has the talent to change the Sugar Bowl on any given snap.
4. Does Ohio State have the defensive line to cause Alabama problems?
Ryan: Absolutely, especially if Rashad Frazier can play as well against Alabama as he did against Wisconsin. Because he moves around, Joey Bosa will line up against both right tackle Austin Shepard and left tackle Cam Robinson at some point during the game. Even though he was a five-star prospect who started as a true freshman, I’m a little skeptical of Robinson’s ability to consistently handle Bosa. If Bosa and company can get to Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, that will go a long way.
Marcus: The starters should be in good shape, but if both teams want to play at a high tempo, there will probably end up being a lot of plays in this game. Are the backups ready to step in and play at an even better level than they did against Wisconsin? Perhaps another month of work will raise the likelihood of that.
Blake: Absolutely. The question to me is can they cause problems in the fourth quarter. Joey Bosa and Mike Bennett are good enough to cause problems against any team in the country, but if they are dead tired in the fourth quarter, they won’t be able to do much. The depth of the line was finally there against Wisconsin and while I don’t think those players will replicate that performance, I think they will be able to spell the stars enough for the line to have an impact.
Jeff: I was pretty surprised to see how much rotation Ohio State used vs. Wisconsin, and that group had plenty of success as well. I don't know if the Buckeyes will be as astoundingly motivated as they were vs. the Badgers, but I do obviously expect them to play well. This isn't the best Alabama offensive line ever, and a number of teams have shut down the Tide running game. OSU can do it as well.
5. What would you do to stop Amari Cooper?
Ryan:My initial answer was going to be to embrace the Seahawks’ strategy of constant interference, knowing full well that referees won’t throw a flag on every single play. Pac-12 refs are involved, though, so all officiating assumptions are out the window. I’d have Doran Grant follow him no matter what side of the field he’s on and give Grant safety help on passing downs. Really, the defensive line’s ability to harass Sims might be the biggest key here. Cooper can’t catch balls that aren’t throw to him.
Marcus: I think they need to provide some safety help. Keep him in front of you and make Alabama march down the field, not make big chunk plays. But Alabama certainly has a pick-your-poison offense, so there is no easy answer.
Blake: Break his legs? Steal his jersey? Offer him money to make him ineligible? Assuming all these options are off the table, I have absolutely no idea. I guess I would have Doran Grant man-up with him and give safety help over the top, but honestly nothing is going to work. Cooper is a beast.
Jeff: This is a pretty tough question because I don't think Ohio State's scheme really lends itself to making subtle changes that allows it to give help on a receiver like Cooper since the safeties are already used pretty strongly as force players in both run defense and pass defense. But I'm no football savant, either, so I could just be full of crap. Anyway, I think Doran Grant can play well enough to make it tough on Cooper (he had a secretly excellent year) and there's no real shutting him down. Darron Lee could also be huge in the screen game, which Alabama uses to get Cooper going.
6. Have we moved past the SEC speed narrative or could that come into play?
Ryan: I think we’re done with that as far as saying Ohio State doesn’t have it. Honestly, I think part of the stigma came from Jim Tressel’s conservative game plan. When people see Urban Meyer teams, speed is always one of the first things they mention. Ohio State has plenty of weapons, and if the Buckeyes lose it won’t be because Alabama is faster than them. This isn’t a situation like the Florida matchup in the 2006 season.
Marcus: If anything, Ohio State might be the faster team in this one. Alabama is built for power, especially on offense. Of course both teams have a lot of guys who can run, and the Tide has guys who run well for their size. If Devin Smith and Jalin Marshall can't create separation and run away from Bama DBs, then it's going to be a long night, but I think you'll see them get some opportunities.
Blake: I hope we have. SEC teams recruited a lot of the players on Ohio State’s team, so they have the speed that conference is looking for. Alabama’s players kept mentioning the Buckeyes' team speed while Ohio State focused on the Tide’s size. I think it’s a nonfactor and hop we can put this one to bed.
Jeff: I think we've moved past it. In fact, it's pretty funny to note that everything Alabama says about Ohio State revolves around how fast the Buckeyes are, while the Buckeyes seem to be focusing on how big the Tide is, especially defensively. That turns the lazy common narrative on its head, but there's no secret this is a pretty fast Ohio State team. I think the SEC as a whole is faster than the Big Ten (Ole Miss is faster than Wisconsin, for example) but that won't matter here.
7. Is this game a referendum on the Big Ten vs. the SEC, Ohio State vs. the SEC, or none of the above?
Ryan:None of the above. It’s a game between the No. 1 team in the country and the No. 4 team in the country. It’s dumb to criticize this team because of two losses that happened nearly 10 years ago. If Alabama beats Ohio State and then wins the national championship, you can’t really kill Ohio State for losing a game that 123 other teams also would have lost. In that same vein but with the other possible result, I don’t think a win by Ohio State means anything other than 2014 Ohio State was better than 2014 Alabama.
Marcus: It could turn out to be one if for no other reason than Ohio State is so far ahead of the rest of the Big Ten. Few people seem to dispute that everyone else has some catching up to do, but the Buckeyes need to be competitive in this one to prevent folks from coming to the conclusion they were just beating up on weak teams all season. That could hurt them in perception next year because it's hard to see any Big Ten teams catching the Buckeyes. How they win will therefore be under a microscope again.
Blake: It is, but it shouldn’t be. Ohio State is one of the final four teams, so the Buckeyes are really, really good. Urban Meyer has two national titles, so he’s really, really good. But, the problems against the SEC in recent years are so fresh in peoples’ minds that a win (or maybe a close loss) is going to make people forget.
Jeff: It shouldn't be, but since perception is reality, there is some conference pride at play. Marcus actually nailed that it would behoove OSU to play well so as to not feed into the stereotype the Buckeyes just run roughshod over the crappy Big Ten, especially in a playoff setting when conference strength is going to matter going forward. And let's be honest, Ohio State's record all-time vs the SEC in bowls isn't something to be proud of either. A win makes all of that talk go away.
8. No matter what, this has been a fun season to cover. Right now, where do you think this team fits among some of the best Ohio State teams since 2001?
Ryan:Right now, I’d put this version of the Buckeyes behind 2002, 2005 and 2006. They might be at or near the top from a pure entertainment standpoint, though. Either way, a win against Alabama would only further increase this group’s reputation.
Marcus: That's a good question. I'm not sure if I'm ready to answer it, especially since the defense has been inconsistent. If we see another great performance by them, this is going to rank right up there overall. Until then, I'd have to go with 2002, 2005 and 2006 all being clearly better. There could be a case for 2010 as well.
Blake: Right now, I would put them behind the 2002 national championship team and the 2006 runner-up team and pretty much even with the 2005 squad. The 2002 team was more talented than people give them credit for and, you know, won a national title. The 2006 team played a lot of memorable games against a seemingly tough schedule and was led by a Heisman winner. I would equate them with that 2005 team, one that lost early and got better and more exciting as the year went on. Honorable mention to the 2010 squad.
Jeff: I've been thinking about this question for a while of late because it intrigues me, and it's really hard to answer because the season obviously is not over. Because of that, you'd have to say teams like 2002 and 2006 are "better," but if Ohio State wins the national title, you'd have to put them in the conversation with that 14-0 team. I think it's fair to say this team has some of the best skill of any team I've seen at OSU, and it's youth and inconsistencies are mitigated by a never-say-die attidue. The '02 and '06 teams (and even the '10 team) were probably better finished products, but this one is special, in my opinion.