NEW ORLEANS -- For the winning team in Thursday’s College Football Playoff semifinal, Alabama-Ohio State will be only the biggest game of the season until the final seconds tick off the clock. Then it’s time to think about how to win a national title.
Here are five items to watch as No. 1 Alabama (12-1) and No. 4 Ohio State (12-1) square off on New Year’s Day (8:30 p.m., ESPN), with a spot in the Jan. 12 CFP national championship game at stake.
Saban-Meyer, the return: Two of the giants in modern-day college coaching will reunite on New Year’s night following a four-year hiatus in their head-to-head rivalry. The popular narrative in Alabama is that Nick Saban chased Urban Meyer out of the SEC once the Crimson Tide surpassed Meyer’s Florida program as the SEC’s top dog in 2009. Meyer left the business for a season after 2010 -- a year when Saban won their most recent meeting 31-6. Meyer took over at Ohio State in 2012 and has restored the Buckeyes as one of the nation’s powerhouse programs. Thursday’s outcome won’t change that, but he can strike a blow for the Big Ten -- and snap a two-game losing streak against Saban -- with a win in New Orleans.
Cardale Jones and the deep ball: Jones couldn’t have made a happier debut, leading Ohio State to a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game by going 12-for-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns. But can Ohio State’s former third-string quarterback repeat that impressive feat on New Year’s Day? He might have to if the Buckeyes are to pull the upset. If Alabama’s defense has a weakness, it’s that it has occasionally been susceptible to the deep ball. Jones connected with Devin Smith on touchdown passes of 39, 44 and 42 yards against Wisconsin. More of that would greatly improve the Buckeyes’ chances of advancing to the national championship game.
War in the trenches: One key to Alabama’s success in the Saban era has been its dominance along the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide likes to bludgeon its opponent into submission, and it has done that this season -- particularly along the defensive line. Ohio State defensive coordinator Tom Herman marveled at the size and depth of Alabama’s defensive front, which nearly runs 10 players deep. Ohio State’s offensive line struggled in its early loss to Virginia Tech, but the reconstructed group has made massive progress since then. If Ezekiel Elliott is able to run successfully against Alabama, that will take some of the pressure off of Jones and the passing attack.
SEC speed? Some Ohio State players seem to have chips on their shoulders over the perception that the SEC has the market cornered on speed. The Buckeyes have some speedburners on their roster as well, and even those from Alabama acknowledge that their quickness -- particularly from someone like big-play receiver Smith -- would fit in well down south.
“I definitely see more speed in this Ohio State team,” Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said. “Every single one of their skill positions can fly and I feel that’s something that’s really helped them out throughout the year.”
The Cooper effect: Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell admitted Monday that shutting down Alabama receiver Amari Cooper “is not something you truly could do.” Cooper was a Heisman Trophy finalist with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns, after all. The key for the Buckeyes, Fickell said, is to prevent Lane Kiffin’s offense from killing them with big plays. That’s what Alabama did in rallying past Auburn in the Iron Bowl -- and it’s what Clemson did in posting 40 points and 576 yards (including 227 receiving yards by Sammy Watkins) in the Tigers’ bowl win over the Buckeyes last season.