Thanks to the inaugural College Football Playoff, the winner of Thursday’s game will move on to the national title game while the loser will go home wondering what could have been. There has never been a bowl game like this in college football’s history, and Ohio State players said they can feel the difference.
“There is a lot more … hopefully there’s more to come after this,” senior Michael Bennett said. “It is not just a bowl game and that’s the end of your season. You win this game and you go to the national championship. There is a lot more riding on this game than there has been in the past. Sometimes, people don’t even want to play bowl games. They are just concerned with getting to the NFL or next season. This game is big. There is so much riding on it.”
Much more than any player on the Buckeyes’ roster has ever experienced. The senior class is fresh off winning its first-ever championship with the 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, but that doesn’t mean its members aren’t hungry for more.
While the game has a different feel than any game the Buckeyes have played in, the team has not changed the approach that has gotten it this far.
“I think it’s a different feel because you’re playing for that trophy,” defensive lineman Steve Miller said. “This reminds me of high school, that’s all that reminds me of.
“The approach is the same. We’re doing the same thing. We never changed the routine from day one – same routine and everything.”
While the routine is the same, the stage couldn’t be more different.
It has been seven seasons since Ohio State has been alive for a national championship this late in the season, and in order to actually play for the sport’s ultimate prize, the Buckeyes will have to go through an Alabama program that has won three of the last five national championships.
That matchup gives the Buckeyes a chance to prove that their program is back at the top of college football.
“The thing I’ve been saying to myself, at least, is that they’ve been at the top of college football for a little while,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “They might have not won the title last year but they were still a really good team.
“They’re one of those teams that we have to beat them if we want to be the best, and they’ve been the best for a while. You kind of take the mentality and look at it like that – it’s a really good team, it’s not going to be an easy game, but it’s something that you have to do to get where you need to be.”
In addition to offering a measuring stick for Ohio State as a program, the game against the Crimson Tide brings up conference comparisons – the slow Big Ten against the fast SEC as the storyline goes.
While the thought that the Buckeyes lack speed is unfounded, Ohio State has struggled against the SEC in bowl games, officially going 0-10 against the conference in the postseason. The Buckeyes did defeat Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl, though that win was vacated.
“I’ve heard that when it comes to talent, they’ve got SEC talent and we’ve got Big Ten talent, whatever that means,” Bennett said. “But if you look on paper we have talent and they have talent. It is an even talent battle so it doesn’t come down to who has faster guys. We have just as many 4.3 guys as they do. It doesn’t come down to strength. We have just as many 600-pound bench pressers as they do. Whoever comes to play Thursday is going to win this game.”
If the Buckeyes are the ones who come out on top in the Sugar Bowl, it will help to reestablish the program as one at the top of college football. As the old adage goes, to be the best you’ve got to beat the best.
“They’re pretty much what every college football team is trying to get to,” sophomore Joey Bosa said. “It’s going to be fun to get a shot at them.”
The Cooper Conundrum
If Ohio State can land that shot against the Tide, it will likely mean that the Buckeyes were able to contain Amari Cooper.
Alabama’s star wide receiver set an SEC record with 115 catches and was second in the nation with 1,656 yards. Cooper was a Heisman finalist, and slowing down the 6-1, 210-pound target will be a major priority for the Buckeyes.
While that responsibility will fall largely on senior cornerback Doran Grant, it will also need to be a team effort.
“He’s one of those guys that can do anything with the ball,” linebacker Curtis Grant said. “You’ve just got to be able to contain him and rally to him. You can’t leave him by himself. He’s one of those players that can make you miss at any time.”
Cooper has found the end zone 14 times this season, tied for the third most receiving scores in the country. He is adept at hauling in the long ball but has also shown he is more than capable of taking a short screen the distance.
Trying to slow him down will be Doran Grant, whom the Ohio State coaching staff has manned up with the opposition’s No. 1 receiver multiple times this season. While none of those players has been of Cooper’s caliber, the corner has performed well in that role.
“He’s a great player,” the senior corner said of Cooper. “In a playoff game like this, it’s what’s expected. You want to play the great players and great teams, so you will have matchups like this with teams going head to head with a lot of talent. A player like Cooper, he’s able to make a lot of big plays happen for his team.”
The rest of the secondary will be there to help Grant handle the explosive Cooper, which safety Tyvis Powell hopes will allow the cornerback to pressure the Tide’s top target.
“There’s not a lot of teams that press him,” Powell said of Cooper. “A lot of teams respect the fact that he’s fast and they pull off, which I understand, but I feel like when you give an athlete like that so much space, he tends to get the ball. One of his best factors is when he gets the ball in his hands he makes people miss and makes a lot of stuff happen. I feel like when you play off you give him a lot of opportunity to do stuff.
“Doran actually does a great job of pressing receivers. He’s done it all season, so I feel like we have a great chance to limit him. I won’t say shut him down because it’s obviously hard to shut a player like him down, but to limit him is going to be a great thing and I feel like Doran has a great chance to do that.”
Jones’ Second Start
While Cooper has been the lead topic when discussing the Alabama offense, Cardale Jones has been the focal point of discussions about Ohio State. Against the Crimson Tide, Jones will be making his second career start after completing 12 of his 17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against Wisconsin in the conference championship game.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback is looking to replicate that performance against Alabama.
“It’s humbling because this is a point in my career that I always wanted to be at,” Jones said. “Then again, we still have to get the job done as far as winning this game goes.”
As he did against the Badgers, Jones will have plenty of offensive weapons to lean on against the Crimson Tide, and no team is the product of just one player. Still, the Buckeyes know they need Jones to play well in order to take down the Tide. Given his performance in his debut, the team and the staff are confident he can deliver a second time.
“He’s doing great, to be honest with you,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “I think the confidence that he showed in himself, the confidence that we had in him as a staff and then for him to go out and put forth the performance that he did really just reinforced that.”
- H-back Dontre Wilson will be a game-time decision for the Buckeyes, the coaches say. Wilson broke his foot against Michigan State on Nov. 8, and while he caught a touchdown in that game after suffering the injury, he hasn’t seen the field since. After arriving in New Orleans Wilson, who insists he is ready to play, exited the plane wearing a walking boot. “Dontre is 50-50 for the game,” coach Urban Meyer said of the sophomore. “Everybody else is good to go.”
- Of course, that “everybody” does not include quarterbacks J.T. Barrett or Braxton Miller, meaning that if Jones were to sustain an injury, H-back and high school signal caller Jalin Marshall would get the nod at quarterback.
- This is Ohio State’s fifth appearance in the Sugar Bowl, including the 2011 game, and the Buckeyes have posted a 2-2 record. Meyer, meanwhile, is 1-0 in the Sugar Bowl, directing Florida to a 51-24 win over Cincinnati in 2010.
- Meyer has a 7-2 career record in bowl games and is 1-2 all-time against Alabama coach Nick Saban.