Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are no strangers to each other. Who will ever forget the epic 2008 SEC Title Game between Saban’s underdog, but top-ranked Crimson Tide and Meyer’s second-ranked Gators? The score ended up 31-20. But, the sheer amount of talent on the field led by Florida’s Tim Tebow, who won the Heisman Trophy the previous year, and Bama’s Julio Jones was incredible. The game was also closer than the score indicated. The Tide held a 20-17 lead going into the 4th quarter, before Tebow played maybe the best quarter of his college career, throwing two TD passes. One of those to Aaron Hernandez, who since then has made a name for himself in all the wrong ways. The Gators went on to defeat Oklahoma to win the BCS Championship.
The following year, the roles were reversed. Both were undefeated. Florida ranked one, Bama ranked two. The Tide led by Heisman winner, Mark Ingram, took the Gators to the ole woodshed 32-13. The revenge for Bama was sweet, as they went on to defeat Texas for the BCS Championship. The Bama/Florida rivalry seemed to be on for years to come. That is, until Meyer called it quits for about 24 hours due to health reasons, immediately after the loss to Bama. Meyer, thought it over and decided to come back. It was a mistake. The Gators would finish 8-5 in 2010, including a resounding 31-6 loss at Alabama. Meyer, had lost Tebow to the NFL, but more importantly he seemed to have lost the fire and determination that he had used to build the Gators into the dynasty it had become. It showed the most in recruiting. The Gators are still recovering, today. Meyer, took the post as head coach of the Buckeyes in 2012, and here we are. Saban, has the 2-1 edge in their only 3 meetings. So, what happens tonight in the Big Easy? Does Meyer and the Buckeyes continue their resurgence back into college football’s elite, or does Saban make it 3-1 vs Meyer and keep the Tide alive for its 4th national title in 6 years? Here are my thoughts on this epic battle….
How did they get here?
While, I haven’t seen a team play the way FSU has this season. It’s hard to recall a team losing two different QB’s to injury and still having the opportunity to play for a championship. It’s a testament to just how good a coaching job Meyer has done, and to the overall talent the Buckeyes have. No one, believed Ohio State could make it this far without Braxton Miller. No one, I mean no one, thought the Bucks would ever be in this position after what turned out to be a terrible loss at home to Virginia Tech. No one thought Ohio State could get this far with freshman J.T. Barrett starting at QB. No one, had any thoughts that Barrett could go down against Michigan, and leave it to Cardale Jones to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. 59-0 no less. But, here they are. In my eye, the turning point of the Buckeyes season came in a win at Penn State. Not that the Nittany Lions were that good. It just seemed to be the point where Barrett gained the confidence needed to pull out a tough game on the road. The Buckeyes won that game 31-24 in double overtime.
The Tide’s road to the Sugar Bowl was equally surprising in terms of who would lead them at QB. The hole left by A.J. McCarron was the biggest question mark by far coming into the season. Florida State backup, Jacob Coker saw greener pastures and an all but certain opportunity to start in Tuscaloosa. So, he left the shadows of Jameis Winston and landed at Alabama. Unfortunately, for Coker, he couldn’t begin practice with his new team in the spring. He had to wait until fall drills. That was a blessing disguise. Especially, for Blake Sims. Not to say Coker couldn’t have led the Tide to the success they’ve enjoyed this season. But, it’s doubtful at best. Hardly anyone thought Sims would keep the job for 2 or 3 games. Let alone the entire season. But, Sims improvement from the 2014 Spring Game to August and fall drills was astounding. New offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, worked with Sims on his mechanics and made a huge difference. Sims, always had the athletic ability. But, now he had the mechanics. All he needed from there was the confidence. Kiffin, did an incredible job of calling plays to create a comfort zone to give Sims that confidence. The turning point of Bama’s season was no doubt at Arkansas. The Tide had just lost to Ole Miss a week prior, and trailed the Hogs in the 2nd half before Sims found receiver DeAndrew White for the game winning TD. The Tide has rolled ever since.
When the Buckeyes have the ball:
Despite the loss of Braxton Miller, the offense looked a lot more like what we expect from an Urban Meyer coached team. Even with Miller, the offense sputtered at times the last couple of seasons. That wasn’t the case in 2014. Barrett, proved to be an excellent fit for what Meyer wants to do. Cardale Jones, has some of those same assets to make the Buckeyes offense go, but he doesn’t seem quite as dynamic as Barrett. He’s not quite the runner, or the passer, and of course has even less experience. It was smooth sailing for Jones against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Title Game. Ohio State, dominated the game defensively, however and Jones benefited. The question for Jones tonight is can he make some of the big plays down field that other quarterbacks have made against Alabama? Devin Smith and Corey Smith could have opportunities to get behind the Bama D to make big plays. Can Jones get the ball to them? Bama has been stout against the run all season. But, they have struggled at times against the pass. Notably, the deep pass. The running game will be also be vital. Ezekiel Elliott and his 220 yards rushing in the Big Ten title game had to help Jones’ comfort level. But, make no mistake about it. This game is in Cardale Jones hands. Can he deliver?
When Bama has the ball?
When, Alabama has had the ball this season, it’s usually been all about Amari Cooper. Under Kiffin’s guidance, Sims and Cooper have been unstoppable. Kiffin, has done a great job of moving Cooper around in Bama’s different formations, making it hard for defenses to identify where he is, and making it easier for Sims to find him open. The running game is a big part of that, also and has been Bama’s strong point for years. However, while being good, the running game hasn’t been quite as dominant as years in the past. That might be the case tonight as well, if T.J. Yeldon is unable to make a huge contribution. Yeldon, has been unable to shake a nagging injury that’s hampered him since the LSU game. It sounds like he’ll play for sure, but just how much is a question. The Tide does have depth with Derrick Henry, and Jalston Fowler, however. The key for the Tide tonight is can they’re somewhat battered offensive line pass what looks to be their biggest test of the season. The Buckeyes strength is in their defensive line. They get after the QB well and have had success stopping the run for the most part. Sims’ ability to make plays with his feet may be huge tonight. Just as it’s been all season. Finding other targets in the pass game like White will also be important for Sims.
I think it’s very arguable that this game matches the two coaches that have done the best coaching jobs of anyone in America this season. It’s arguably Meyer’s best coaching job ever. It’s almost not arguable that this has been Saban’s best coaching job since he’s been in Tuscaloosa. If you thought one semifinal matchup in the inaugural College Football Playoff would be Cardale Jones vs Blake Sims raise your hand. Thought not. But, that’s exactly what we have. So, who wins? I think the sheer fact that the Buckeyes are playing with basically their 3rd string QB speaks volumes. Jones, didn’t have to do much in their demolition of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. He’ll have to do more tonight, and I expect Bama to make it hard on him. That doesn’t mean he won’t make some plays, and that Ohio State’s D won’t have success. Especially, up front. In the end, it’s just hard for me to imagine the Buckeyes pulling this out. Too much Sims, too much Cooper, and too much Bama D.
Alabama 30 Ohio State 16