For the Ohio State Buckeyes, this season has been riddled with distractions, injuries, a tragedy and yet they continue to show amazing heart and resiliency. The Sugar Bowl for them is a reward. It’s a reward they earned by learning from mistakes, winning in tough environments and building the unity that is indicative of a championship team.
When they take the field on Thursday, they will face not only the top team in the nation, they are facing the primer program in college football. Love them or hate them, Alabama has earned its spot at the head of the table. What is interesting is their journey to this point is very similar to what the Buckeyes faced. The Crimson Tide had to replace a bevy of talent as they began the season; they had an unproven quarterback in Blake Sims and they had to go through the toughest division in college football. Their success, similar to the Buckeyes, is a testament to the culture, the leadership and the heart of their team.
Both of these teams exemplify what it means to have the best in recruiting, player development and coaching; this is what makes Thursday’s night Sugar Bowl game so intriguing. Both teams have defied significant odds and will now square off on the nation’s highest stage.
The Buckeyes have proper preparation for this stage. They beat an extremely talented team in Michigan State; they gutted out a tough performance against one of the nation’s toughest defenses in Happy Valley and they overcame frigid weather and turnovers to beat a good Minnesota team. The Buckeyes know how to win in tough environments.
Similar to Ohio State, the Crimson Tide has shown they have grit as well. When their backs were against the wall they delivered on the toughest stages. Against Auburn, who has one of the nation’s more explosive offenses, Alabama’s defense clamped down in the red zone and shut down the Tigers’ faulted offensive attack, resulting in five field goals. That was the difference in the game and it showed the mental toughness Alabama has.
Therefore, with both teams displaying similar characteristics, what’s it going to take for the Buckeyes to beat Alabama?
Dominating line play
For starters, it’s going to take exceptional line play on both sides of the ball. The offensive line must execute in pass protection to allow Cardale Jones time to sling his rockets into the waiting hands of Devin Smith. On defense, Joey Bosa and company have to dominate the line of scrimmage to shut down Alabama’s punishing running game. They must also force pressure on Sims and not allow him the time to throw deep balls to Amari Cooper, who will be the best wide receiver the Buckeyes face this season.
Lock Cooper down
Speaking of Cooper, shutting him down will be of primary importance for Ohio State. So far this season, the Buckeyes have done an impressive job shutting down opponents’ best receivers. Against Michigan State, Tony Lippett had only five receptions; against Maryland, Ohio State contained Stefon Diggs to just seven receptions. They have proven they can limit the effectiveness of a team’s best receiver and they’ll have to replicate that success on Thursday.
Win turnover battle
The Buckeyes must protect the ball and have their opportunistic defense force a few. If they can win this battle, they will win the game. If they don’t, Alabama will run them over.
The Buckeyes’ explosiveness may give them the edge against a Crimson Tide defense that has yielded many big plays. Further, Ohio State does a better job forcing turnovers; they have a more effective punter and they come into this game with a chip on their shoulder, as they are significant underdogs. Under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes are 4-0 in games they are underdogs; they’ll defy the odds again and beat Alabama.