They always say the two guys you have to worry the most about in a fight are the one with nothing to lose and the one who’s the most drunk, unable to feel normal pain and in full use of his “beer muscles.” If they happen to be combined into one guy, you’re in some trouble.
Enter Ohio State, which wasn’t supposed to be here when Braxton Miller went down for the season before it even had started, and really wasn’t supposed to be here when his replacement, J.T. Barrett, went down the final game of the regular season.
But this is supposed to be about the four best “teams” rather than “the four best household names at quarterback,” and so Ohio State is in the tournament with what some will say is the weight of the Midwest on its shoulders. I call bull. You can only control you, and what you individually do says nothing about the company you’re forced to keep whether they’re doing good or bad.
It’s without question that Ohio State is one of the best four TEAMS. How many others could lose their starting quarterback (let alone a guy in early Heisman Trophy discussions), then the guy who replaced that guy and was briefly in the Heisman discussion with a game and a half to go, and THEN throw the third guy in and disembowel a top-15 team in a conference title game?
What it means is that this isn’t smoke, mirrors, a bad Big Ten, or whatever other tripe may be fed your way. It means top to bottom, Ohio State, as a team, is deserving of playing for a title under this format. The matchup with Alabama is a dream: two of the loudest and proudest fan bases in the country, regional implications for people that enjoy that sort of thing, and two powerhouses playing for all of the marbles.
Ohio State will win if …
Basically, it comes down to two things for the Buckeyes. Can their defensive line deal with Alabama’s endless annual stream of NFL bodies plowing open holes for the running game, and can the Ohio State defense figure out a way to do everything it can to make someone other than Amari Cooper beat them. Cooper is the best wide receiver in the nation, and everyone else behind him isn’t necessarily close. That said, Alabama relies heavily on the fact that he is on their team.
Cooper has 115 catches. The next closest player has 37. The next guy after that has 19. Cooper has nearly four times as many yards as the guy behind him (DeAndrew White), and his 14 receiving touchdowns are only two fewer than everyone else on the team combined. If shutting him down was that easy, surely someone would have done it by now.
Also, the Buckeyes need to cut out the big plays. It’s rather under the radar now because we get all used to Alabama bloodletting folks slowly and on the ground, but the Crimson Tide have touchdowns through the air of 87, 80, and 58 yards.
At any rate, here’s Ohio State’s recipe for a win: generating big plays on offense; getting safety help over the top and — at minimum — having two guys committed to Cooper so Blake Sims is either forced to continually throw underneath and is unable to make big plays; and not letting the Crimson Tide offensive line just push the Buckeyes around.
Sprinkle that in with a fast-paced game plan and a healthy dose of no-huddle so Nick Saban can’t get the guys in the game that he wants at the times he wants to get them in, and you start forcing the Tide to change their game plans. No, I didn’t say it’d be easy.
Alabama will win if …
If you’re looking for good football reasons as to how Nick Saban appears to be the one guy who’s oblivious to the modern popularity of the wide-open spread offense, Eleven Warriors has a great … not good … great write up on the Saban defense.
What I like in particular about it is the comparison betwixt what they do on defense and the matchup zone in basketball, which is as much deception as it is about any fundamental scheme. This speaks mostly to what NFL teams do, which is more disguise than anything, and having guys who can do multiple things so that quarterbacks get the willies trying to figure it out.
Ohio State’s staff will be challenged by quickly and correctly diagnosing what Alabama is doing on defense, and if it doesn’t, the Buckeyes will get run out of the gym, a little like Urban Meyer’s Florida team was against Saban’s Tide in 2009.
If Alabama can get Cooper loose as it usually does and Sims has enough time in the pocket to give the Tide one of those patented big plays down field, Ohio State is in trouble. This isn’t an Alabama team that you can just assume doesn’t have the offense to blow you out, so you can hang around no matter what. They’ll get you, and get you good. Part of Lane Kiffin’s finest work has been confronting the fact that everyone knows where Alabama wants to go with the ball every week, and consistently getting it to still happen.
Like most other things in sports, life, and otherwise, sheer “want to” will go a long way in this game. I wouldn’t rule out Ohio State because Cardale Jones has started one game this year and yeah, looked great in it. However, “this is Alabama.”
The Buckeyes have in their favor the “no one thinks we can do this” factor, and that’s a powerful thing. Believing it’s you versus everyone else is galvanizing, and if you spin it just right, you can always find enough material to get that thought coursing through your locker room’s veins.
Will Ohio State win? Hell if I know. If I did, I’d bet on it and retire at a young age. Can OSU do this? Certainly. But just try and remember … whatever happens in this game, it says nothing about the rest of the Big Ten or the SEC.
Bring on the Buckeyes and Tide. Let madness ensue. May the best beer muscles win.