Alabama is college football's alpha dog and Nick Saban is its alpha coach. There is a reason, after all, why Urban Meyer has made references to the Crimson Tide when finding ways to motivate his Ohio State teams in the past.
"I've used Alabama. Anytime (you're at) the top of the mountain, I've used them. I've respectfully used them because they played very well," he said Thursday. "Every year they're in a championship hunt and I've used them. So there is a lot of respect for the University of Alabama and their athletes."
In eight days, the Buckeyes and the Crimson Tide will do battle in the Sugar Bowl, one of two College Football Playoff semifinals that will determine who plays for the National Championship in Dallas.
Winners of three of the last five national championships, top-ranked Alabama is a 9.5 favorite over fourth-ranked Ohio State. And, indeed, the Buckeyes will have their hands full with a program that's at the top of the sport's food chain. Even so, upon further review, these squads might've had similar paths to New Orleans in 2014.
1. First-year quarterbacks
This is a pretty easy one since Ohio State had perhaps the quarterback carousel of the year after losing Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett to season-ending injuries (and, you know, still went 12-1 and won the Big Ten Championship behind third-stringer Cardale Jones).
But Alabama went through an adjustment period with first-year starting quarterback Blake Sims, who had most of his career in Tuscaloosa as sort of a misfit. The Buckeyes’ situation behind center is undoubtedly the crazier ordeal, but the guts of it are the same.
When you lose your quarterback, you lose more than just the guy who throws the ball and calls the plays. You lose a bit of your previous identity — think Sims compared to traditional, pocket quarterbacks like A.J. McCarron and Greg McElroy. Those guys were the faces of Alabama and worked within a system that had guided Nick Saban and Co. to three national titles.
Yeah, Ohio State losing two Heisman Trophy contenders in the span of about three months is different than Alabama’s natural turnover at the position, but there’s something to be said about how Barrett and Sims blossomed into lethal quarterbacks and how the Buckeyes and Tide wouldn't be where they are without them.
2. Gaining steam down the stretch
Besides the inevitable hoopla surrounding a College Football Playoff semifinal that features Urban Meyer facing his old nemesis in Nick Saban, Sugar Bowl tickets are going faster than pizza in a press box because Ohio State and Alabama are chugging along full-steam-ahead for a clash in New Orleans.
After early-season growing pains in, the Crimson Tide are rolling on offense and the defense is looking Alabamaish (is that a word? If not, it should be) after dominating Missouri in the SEC Championship Game.
The Buckeyes, ever since that ugly loss to Virginia Tech that I’ll probably bring up at least four more times before the bowl game for the sake of context and perspective, have gotten better all season. Go ahead and consider the way Wisconsin in the league’s title game as a memo to the rest of the nation. Ohio State’s worthy of this grand stage and make no mistake about it.
3. New coordinators/schematic overhauls
After a pass defense that Urban Meyer referred to as “abysmal” doomed Ohio State’s championship hopes in 2013, he poached Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash to help plug up the porous unit and implement a more aggressive system. While the Buckeyes have been a long ways from perfect this season, the overhaul in schematics and, perhaps just importantly, culture helped Ohio State's defense return to some of its old ways. Against Wisconsin, of course, the group had its finest hour in shutting down running back and Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon and holding the Badgers to a paltry 258 yards.
In Tuscaloosa, Saban hired Lane Kiffin, which initially looked like it might be a disaster considering the Tide's general lack of offensive production in the first half of the season and because of Kiffin's reputation as a villainous and cancerous figure. But as Blake Sims settled into his newfound role as the team's starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist and wide receiver Amari Cooper started simply abusing cornerbacks, Alabama's offense emerged into perhaps Saban's most-dynamic outfit in years.
4. Close calls that turned into rallying points
For Ohio State, the closest call of the year came against a Penn State with barely enough scholarship players to fill a proper depth chart. The Buckeyes were supposed to roll the Nittany Lions and built a 17-point lead in the first half. Yet inside a deafening Beaver Stadium and under the lights, they needed two overtimes to escape Happy Valley and its White Out. The win, which was a reminder of an Ohio State team that still had defects (fixable ones, though), ultimately became a sort of crossroads that the team rallied around.
"That was a great character win. That was a great character win. You’re not supposed to win in that situation,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs once said. "You get caught from behind in an environment like that and then go behind in overtime going into their student section. You are not supposed to win that game."
Alabama’s close call came against an Arkansas team that had yet to win an SEC game under Bret Bielema. The Tide survived the Razorbacks, 14-13, after amassing just 227 yards, notching 10 first downs and committing two critical fumbles. At his weekly press conference the following Monday, Nick Saban lashed out over criticism regarding the ugly win.
"Everybody's got such a high expectation for what our team should be, I was just happy to see our players be happy about playing a game and winning. It really sort of — if you want to know the truth about it — pisses me off when I talk to people that have this expectation like they're disappointed that we only won the game, 14-13, and in the way we played. Really, that's frustrating. You want to talk about something that's frustrating? That's frustrating to me." In a way, that became a rallying cry for Alabama, which started to roll in the coming weeks.
5. Statement wins
When Ohio State and Alabama needed to make statements on big-time stages, they delivered. In what was billed as the de facto Big Ten Game of the Year against defending conference champion Michigan State, the Buckeyes smashed the Spartans, 49-37, in East Lansing and unseated Mark Dantonio and Co. as the league's top dog once again. A month later, Ohio State simply toyed with Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Likewise, Alabama dominated then top-ranked Mississippi State and obliterated Missouri in the SEC title game. The point is both teams have a proven ability to play their best ball when it matters most. And when they collide in New Orleans, expect nothing less.