Ohio State-Alabama Again?

Ohio State vs. Alabama was perhaps one of the best postseason games ever in 2014. Could the teams rematch in 2015 in the College Football Playoff? Early projections say yes.

A year ago, it finally happened. Ohio State vs. Alabama in a bowl game, Urban Meyer vs. Nick Saban – in many ways, the Midwest vs. the South in the postseason.

The Buckeyes are the best the Big Ten has had to offer for the past decade. With three national titles in four years from 2009-12, Saban pushed Alabama to the forefront of the sport.

And the Buckeyes won the game, a 42-35 final in which the Buckeyes outgained the Tide by a 537-407 margin. It was the kind of game that rewrote narratives – it was the biggest win for a big bowl season for the Big Ten, it ended Ohio State’s (official) winless streak against SEC teams in bowls, and it put Meyer back at the top of the conversation for the best coaches in the game.

Simply put, it was one of the iconic and impactful games in postseason history.

“There were times throughout the season where we were kind of like, it would be cool to get a matchup against an SEC team in the middle of the year as a benchmark to compare ourselves,” linebacker Joshua Perry said in the Superdome locker room. “Obviously they are good teams, but they are playing each other, so there’s really no benchmark. There’s really no way to gauge how good anybody is. It’s the same thing when your whole schedule after game four is Big Ten teams. People can’t really see how good a Big Ten team is playing other Big Ten teams to compare it to other conferences.

“These games make statements. We weren’t given a ton of respect. We weren’t given a big show, and this is the Big Ten across the board. We were underdogs in every bowl matchup, is that right? We weren’t supposed to win any, right? But Big Ten teams were able to win some games. It just proves the perception isn’t exactly what everybody thinks it is. You have to play the game.”

Or as Vonn Bell, a native of Tennessee, put it: “It’s very big. It shows that this conference … we’re a powerhouse too, now. We have a team that can compete with anybody.”

And as it appears right now, putting money on an Ohio State-Alabama rematch in the upcoming 2015 playoff might be the way to go, too, if advanced stats end up being right.

Of course, there are 100 things that can happen between now and January, not to mention 12 regular-season games and a conference championship for each squad, but both Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders have analytics right now that predict the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide to be the best two teams in the nation going into 2015.

Right now, Fremeau – who has created the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), which calculates how efficient a team’s offense, defense or special teams is based on expectations of the average team in each possession – lists Ohio State atop his 2015 projections with Alabama right behind.

That makes sense considering just how well Ohio State fared last year in FEI. The Buckeyes had the seventh most efficient offense and defense in the nation last year while placing 22nd in special teams efficiency. Last year, Alabama was sixth on offense and fifth on defense to place third overall, behind just top-placing Oregon and Ohio State.

Then there’s S&P+, used by Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. His formula, which takes into account efficiency, explosiveness, field position and finishing drives, can be read more about here. Right now, S&P+ has Alabama and Ohio State well ahead of the rest of the pack, with Alabama just slightly edging Ohio State.

Of course, both teams did pretty well in that regard a year ago as well. The Buckeyes led the nation in overall S&P+ in adjusted scoring margin per game, with the Buckeyes performing 30.2 points per game better than its opponents. Ohio State had the nation’s best offense when taking into account all factors as well as the 11th-best defense. Alabama, meanwhile, was second in overall S&P+ thanks to its fifth-ranked offense and third-ranked defense.

So if those numbers turn out to have any validity to them, it could be Buckeyes and Tide all over again at the end of the season. And maybe even losing two Heisman candidate quarterbacks will keep one of those teams from the College Football Playoff.

In other words, it might be a battle for supremacy between the Big Ten and SEC on the biggest stage again. This time, though, the narrative might not be as much about conference vs. conference as it is two titanic programs and coaches battling for the top of the college football mountain.

Just For Fun: Since I started this with a Big Ten vs. SEC intro, it’s worth looking at where the advanced stats list the top Big Ten and SEC teams going into the season, especially after the Big Ten performed well against its southern rival during the 2014 bowl season.

Fremeau has six SEC teams in the top 20, with Georgia (fifth), LSU (11th), Ole Miss (12th), Missouri (17th) and Auburn (19th) following Alabama. While the SEC has only two top-10 in the mix right now, the depth of the conference again should be pretty good.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten has just two teams in the top 25 after Ohio State, with Michigan State – which has finished ranked in the top five each of the past two seasons – rated 11th and Wisconsin checking in 22nd under new coach Paul Chryst.

Things are a little different in Connelly’s S&P+, but it doesn’t look as good for the Big Ten. That ranking has Georgia third, Auburn fifth, Ole Miss sixth and LSU eighth, while Michigan State is placed ninth as the second-best Big Ten team.

Time will tell how accurate those marks are, but one thing seems clear – get used to a glut of SEC teams still being in the top 25, even after a down bowl season for the conference that has recently tooted its own horn as college football’s best.

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